The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has captured the attention of the world, including the Middle East, where many see parallels between the struggle for democracy in Kiev and their own countries. But the unrest in Ukraine has a particularly special meaning for Syria, where peaceful protests against Bashar al-Assad eventually turned violent in the absence of Western support. Ukrainian protesters in Kiev last month, for their part, flew the Syrian revolutionary flag alongside the Ukrainian flag. The big question, though, is whether the West will see the connections that the protesters see – and draw some vital lessons.
From the U.S.-Russia reset, to Syria, to Iran, there has been ample opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to perceive weakness from the West. And in the absence of decisive Western leadership, the post-Soviet space and the Middle East have seen a resurgent Russia, under Putin's leadership, work to create what amounts to a Soviet Union 2.0, propping up authoritarian regimes, creating areas of influence, and stifling freedom and democracy.
Such moves have prompted some analysts to note what they see as a revival of the Cold War struggle between Russia and the U.S., whether it be the ongoing crisis in Ukraine or the Middle East/North Africa region.
"If you want to know what will happen in Syria you must know what will happen in the Ukraine," the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) quoted 'Abbas Daher, a columnist for a Lebanese news site, as saying. "The common denominator between these two issues is the struggle between Russia and the West."
Indeed, as MEMRI suggests, many in Egypt feel a sense of solidarity with Ukrainian protesters, noting the similarities with their own struggle to overthrow an authoritarian ruler.
Interestingly, media in the Middle East aligned with pro-authoritarian forces, for example in Syria and Iran, have published articles backing Putin's claim that the West is actually responsible for protests in Ukraine, a mindset that in itself suggests a revival of the kind of pro vs. anti-West media camps seen during the Cold War.
The Russian press, meanwhile, has also made references to the Arab Spring – but very much from the Kremlin's perspective. Late last month, for example, RIA Novosti reported that Russian Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov had compared the events in Ukraine with the Arab Spring. In both cases, he asserted, while such protests began with dissatisfaction with the ruling elite and poor economic conditions, they can end with "extremists" taking over. This point of view has been driven home by other Russian language publications, which have been keen to compare the "chaos" and "extremism" in Ukraine with the Arab Spring.
This is no coincidence. The Arab Spring no doubt alarmed Putin, who must surely have feared that his citizens would draw their own lessons and look to overthrow him. What has happened in Ukraine therefore hits very close to home, and so it isn't surprising that Putin has redoubled his efforts to influence events there and tried to impose his will on Crimea. Claiming that the West orchestrated the protests in Ukraine and that anti-government protests inevitably end with "extremists" goes hand in hand with such efforts.
Now, despite some reassuring words from the United States, many in Ukraine feel they are isolated and alone in the shadow of an overbearing Russia. According to Nataliya Jensen, an independent Ukrainian analyst I spoke with this week who recently returned from Kiev, many in the country yearn for a more decisive show of support from the West for Ukrainian democracy. With these sentiments in mind, Western leaders and their allies – from Georgia to Morocco – need to demonstrate that what is happening in Ukraine mattes to them, and that embracing a pro-Western agenda will ensure Western support when it is needed most.
Sadly, many in Syria saw no sign of such Western support and in desperation have long since turned to the arms of extremist groups. It is essential that the West doesn't give Ukrainians a reason to feel similarly hopeless.