by Mark N. Katz
The conflict in Syria was very much the focus of international diplomacy and attention from the time of its outbreak at the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011 until the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in early 2014. Since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014 and then later supported separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, however, the conflict in Ukraine has overshadowed the one in Syria. Due to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) both in Syria and Iraq, though, the conflict in Syria remains extremely serious—and, indeed, will likely prove the more difficult problem to resolve.
Both conflicts have certain similarities. One is that Russia is playing an important role in both conflicts. Although it supports the government’s efforts to combat the rebels in Syria, Moscow is supporting the rebels fighting against the government in Ukraine.
Both conflicts have wider spillover potential. Indeed, the conflict in Syria has already spilled over into Iraq, and threatens to (further) engulf Lebanon, Jordan, and perhaps other Middle Eastern states. The conflict in Ukraine has so far been confined to the territory of that country. But Moscow’s intervention to “protect” Russian speakers there could presage similar Russian efforts elsewhere—including in the Baltic states, which are members of both NATO and the EU.
Each conflict has primacy in its particular region. Europeans are more concerned about the conflict in Ukraine out of fear that it could spill over into other parts of Europe. Middle Easterners, by contrast, are more worried about the conflict in Syria out of fear that it could spill over into other parts of the Middle East.
The Obama administration has limited its involvement in both conflicts. In Ukraine, the U.S. has ceded leadership of the Western diplomatic effort to Germany and France to reach a negotiated end to the conflict with Russia and with the Russian-backed rebels. In Syria, U.S. forces have been involved in bombing IS targets both there and in Iraq. The U.S., though, seems to have lost interest in the diplomatic effort to bring about a negotiated settlement between the Assad regime and its increasingly weak “moderate” opponents. Washington is giving some assistance to these groups in Syria, but is not giving any lethal assistance to Kiev.
There is one especially important difference between the two conflicts: while the primary international dimension of the one in Ukraine is Russia versus the West, this is not the case in Syria where the primary international dimension is Iran versus the Sunni Arabs. What this suggests is that if Russia and the West could actually agree to end the fighting in Ukraine, they could each cajole their Ukrainian allies to go along with them. In Syria, however, any agreement between Russia and the West on ending the conflict could have very little impact either on the main regional adversaries involved there (Iran on the one hand and the Gulf Arab states on the other) or on the main local adversaries (the Assad regime on the one hand and IS and the al-Nusra Front on the other)—especially given the apparent marginalization of the moderate Syrian opposition.
This also suggests that the more absorbed in the Ukrainian conflict that Russia and the West become, the less willing and able they will be to cooperate in bringing about a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict—which will, in turn, give greater latitude for local and regional actors there. And these actors on the ground do not seem inclined to resolve it peacefully.
This is not to say that the conflict in Syria could have been successfully brought to an end if the conflict in Ukraine had not erupted. Fighting had been going on in Syria for three years before the Ukrainian conflict began. But although Russia and the West have very different views on whether Bashar al-Assad should remain president of Syria, their common opposition to the rise of IS gave them an important common interest regarding Syria—one which they have not been able to work on effectively due to their growing differences over Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine could come to an end if Vladimir Putin decided that it was in his interests to end it (the West would certainly not push for it to continue). By contrast, there is no one person whose decision could end the conflict in Syria. As bad as the conflict in Ukraine is, then, the one in Syria appears to be the more intractable as well as more likely to spread. Indeed, although the conflict in Ukraine has not spread to the Middle East, the conflict in Syria has already spread into Europe both in the form of the recruitment of young Europeans to join the ranks of IS in Syria and of IS-inspired assassinations in France, Belgium, and Denmark.