Will the Ukrainian revolution help or harm the Syrian rebellion? The two uprisings currently appear to be on very different trajectories. It is three years since Syrian citizens began protests against President Bashar Assad, precipitating the cycle of violence that would lead to civil war, yet he maintains a brutally tenacious hold on power. By contrast, Assad’s Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, was forced from the capital, Kiev, last week after just three months of demonstrations culminating in a sudden spike in violence. Assad may view Yanukovych’s humiliation as proof of the need for utter ruthlessness against his opponents. But the two men’s fates remain intertwined.
The reason for this is simple: The dictatorial pair share a patron in Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has shielded Assad from international pressure and provoked the Ukrainian crisis by persuading Yanukovych to ditch a trade agreement with the European Union. Little more than a week ago, Putin appeared to be winning on both the Syrian and Ukrainian fronts. While Yanukovych fobbed off Western efforts to resolve the chaos in Kiev, Assad’s envoys used peace talks convened by the United Nations in Geneva to display their contempt for the opposition, effectively ruling out any serious negotiations.
None of this stopped Western athletes from heading to Russia for the Winter Olympics in Sochi. But by this weekend, Putin’s strategy for the Ukraine was in tatters as Yanukovych fled Kiev. Moscow now has nothing but bad options in Ukraine, ranging from compromising with the anti-Yanukovych forces to intervening militarily to secure parts of the country with large Russian-speaking populations, such as the Crimea. Putin does not face such acute choices on Syria. But the Ukrainian debacle will also influence Russia’s ability and willingness to invest further political energy in propping up Assad, with unpredictable results for Syria.