March 2, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5666

Arab Media: Syria And Ukraine – Arenas Of Struggle Between Russia And U.S., West

March 2, 2014
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 5666

Syria has long been one of the main arenas of the reemerging cold war between the U.S. and Russia. In November 2013, it was joined by another arena – namely the Ukraine – as protests against President Victor Yanukovych began and later escalated into a full-fledged revolution against his Russia-backed regime.

Due to Ukraine’s strategic location between Eastern and Western Europe, which is also mirrored in an internal division between its eastern regions, known to be pro-Russian, and its western regions, which tend to be pro-Western, this country has always been an arena of struggle between these two cultures. The Ukrainian revolution, which reached its climax in the last few days, caused the struggle between Russia and the West, led by the U.S., to peak as well.

The February 21, 2014 reports in the global media about the “victory of the revolution,” which was manifested in Yanukovych’s consent to relinquish many of his powers and in reports that he had fled the country, sparked numerous reactions in the Arab world, which recently marked three years after the start of the Arab Spring revolutions that brought about the ouster of several dictatorial regimes. Especially noteworthy were the Syrian opposition’s expressions of solidarity with the Ukrainian revolution. For example, on February 22, 2014, following reports that Yanukovych had left the Ukraine, Syria’s National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (henceforth, the National Coalition) issued a statement in which it congratulated the Ukrainian people “on its own behalf and on behalf of all the Syrian people and all other peoples aspiring to liberty” for the success of its revolution. The statement said further that “this latest victory of the Ukrainian people [brings] new hope to the Syrian rebels and constitutes another central pillar for [all] those fighting for freedom, democracy and justice... The will of the free peoples will triumph over all tyrants and shake the thrones of dictators everywhere. The flags of freedom will fly high in the skies of Syria as they flew in the skies of the Ukraine.”[1]

The Ukrainian rebels also noted the similarity between their revolution and the one in Syria, and as a gesture of solidarity even flew the flag of the Syrian revolution in Kiev alongside the Ukrainian flag.[2]

Flag of Syrian revolution flies alongside Ukrainian flag in Kiev (Al-Hayat, London, February 21, 2014)

Expressions of solidarity and sympathy for the Ukrainian revolution were also heard in Egypt, which is still dealing with the aftermath of the revolutions which brought about the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and later of Muhammad Mursi. Many articles in the Egyptian press spoke of the resemblance between the revolutions of the Egyptian and Ukrainian peoples, while emphasizing the validity of the people’s will. Some reports even claimed that Ukrainian rebels had dubbed a square in Kiev “Rabi’a,” after the Cairo square in which pro-Mursi demonstrations were held.[3]

The Ukrainian revolution was widely covered in the Arab press at large. Many articles noted that Syria and Ukraine were both arenas for a struggle between Russia and the U.S. and are both being used as pawns in a chess game between the two superpowers. The press of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both known as staunch supporters of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, published many articles that harshly criticized Russia, claiming that it always takes the side of dictators against peoples aspiring to freedom. This press also criticized the West, saying that in the case of the Ukraine it is taking a firm stance vis-à-vis Russia, whereas in the case of Syria it is not doing enough.

Conversely, the press identified with the pro-Syrian camp, such as the government press in Syria and Iran and papers supportive of the Lebanese Hizbullah, claimed that the West, headed by the U.S., caused the Ukrainian revolution against Yanukovych in order to punish Russia for defeating the West in various global arenas, especially in the Syrian arena. These articles even claimed that the Ukrainian rebels receive their orders from the West and are armed and funded by it – especially by the U.S., and also by Saudi Arabia.

This report reviews the reactions in the Arab press to the Ukrainian revolution.

Ukraine And Syria – Pawns In U.S.–Russia Chess Game

As said, many in the Arab media drew a link between the crises in Syria and Ukraine and between the roles played by Russia and the U.S. in each of these crises. According to the writers, the ongoing struggle between Russia and the U.S. in the Syrian arena[4] has now been joined by a struggle in a new arena – the Ukraine. Both these countries are no more than pawns in the chess game between Obama and Putin, and constitute arenas of a cold war between the two superpowers. Thus, for example, ‘Abbas Daher, a columnist for the Lebanese website, wrote: "[The future] of the Syrian crisis is unrelated to the Syrian dialogue in Geneva or to events on the ground... The equation has become clearer: If you want to know what will happen in Syria you must know what will happen in the Ukraine. The common denominator between these two issues is the struggle between Russia and the West."[5]

An article in the London-based e-daily Al-Rai Al-Yawm, which is owned by 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, stated in a similar vein: "[Syria and the Ukraine] follow the same script. The political elements that intervene [in the crises there], politically and militarily, are the same elements: Russia on the one hand and the U.S. and Europe on the other...[6]

Some Arab columnists addressed statements made by Obama and Putin on the Ukraine situation. For example, Samir Al-Hijjawi, a columnist for the Qatari daily Al-Sharq, responded to Obama's statement that "we do not see the Ukraine and Syria [as pawns] on the chess board of the cold war" and claimed that "the mere mention of Syria in the context of the Ukrainian crisis means that both of these countries have indeed become pawns on [this] chess board."[7]

Saudi columnist Sa'ud Al-Balawi addressed the struggle between the two superpowers in an article in the official Saudi daily Al-Watan: "...If we go back to the history of the Ukraine, we will find that it is historically tied to Russia and the Eastern European countries, being a founding member of the Soviet Union. Geographically, the Ukraine... is a territory separating Eastern and Western Europe... This means that the Ukraine was and is a chessboard between Russia and America, and therefore each of these two traditional rivals acts to draw the Ukrainian republic to it... Putin's Russia is attempting to restore the glory of Czarist Russia on the one hand, and the power of the Soviet Union on the other, especially now that it has more or less healed from the wounds caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union... The U.S., [on the other hand], wants to curb Russia's ambition to be another superpower on the global level... Europe, [on its part], is trying to draw the Ukraine into the E.U...."[8]

Ukraine and Syria – an arena of struggle between Obama and Putin (Al-Quds, Jerusalem, February 21, 2014)

Some articles in the Arab press attempted to explain Putin's position regarding the recent crisis in the Ukraine, claiming that he clearly sees a close connection between the events in Syria and those in the Ukraine and that he regards this as a Western conspiracy against him. For example, an article in the London e-daily Al-Rai Al-Yawm stated: "President Putin, Russia's strongman, understands that the U.S. and its allies in the West are sparking the Ukrainian crisis in response to [his polices] in Syria and Georgia. Just as he hardened [his positions] in Syria and supported president Bashar Al-Assad, he will be even harsher with the Ukraine, which he sees as a major part of the Russian circle of influence. As far as he is concerned, the 'orange' opposition is implementing an American 'conspiracy' meant to remove the Ukraine [from that circle of influence]."[9]

Similarly, Ghassan Charbel, the editor of the London daily Al-Hayat, wrote: "The decision-makers in Moscow do not think the events in Kiev are a series of innocent responses to the policies of their ally, President Victor Yanukovych... They believe it is a Western conspiracy that was carefully planned in order to be a slap in the face for Russia, which has forcefully returned to the international arena... President [Putin], who comes from the KGB, cannot help but smell a conspiracy... and he cannot see the events in the Ukraine as [the result of] a pure [popular] desire to topple the 'dictator,' as the [Ukrainian] opposition calls him... He has always seen the Ukraine as an arena that the West tries to infiltrate as part of its desire to surround Russia..." Charbel closed his article by claiming that the common denominator of the Syrian and Ukrainian crises was "the difficulty in solving them without Vladimir Putin's consent..."[10]

Samir Al-Hijjawi, a columnist for the Qatari daily Al-Sharq, called on the Arabs to be aware that a solution to the Ukrainian crisis could depend on reaching understandings with Iran on Syria. "Will Russia and the U.S. strike a deal regarding the Ukraine and Syria, so that the West distances itself from the gates of Russia, and Russia [in return] leaves Syria to the U.S. and the West? Anything is possible. [However,] the Syrian situation is very complex, and Russia is not the only or the most powerful player there. Iran has proven that it holds the best cards in the [Syrian] game and it has over 40,000 activists [there] from Hizbullah-Halesh [a derogatory name for Hizbullah], the Iraqi militias, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Therefore, the deal could encompass the Ukraine, Syria and Iran, and include a redrawing of the areas of influence, [as part of which] Iran would be given part of the Russian-American pie in Syria and the region. The Arabs should pay close attention to this, since the Ukraine could become a blatantly Arab issue."[11]

The Anti-Syrian Axis: Why Doesn't The West Subdue Russia In The Syrian Arena As Well?

Criticism Of Russia For Supporting Global Dictatorships

In addressing the crisis in Kiev, many articles in the Gulf press – especially in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are known for their support of the Syrian revolution – harshly criticized Russia, saying that it always stands beside tyrannical regimes that oppress their peoples, attacks popular revolutions and even causes them to become armed.

An editorial in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which is owned by Qatar, accused Russia of helping oppress the Ukrainian and Syrian peoples: "The current Ukrainian uprising is a completion of the first [orange] revolution [in 2004-2005], which fought a counter-revolution by strong regime members with Russian political-economic backing. The details and tactics [of the current Ukrainian uprising] are similar to those of Arab revolutions, while the tactics and methods of the Ukrainian regime are similar to those of many Arab regimes [that aspire] to bury these revolutions alive [in various ways], including by offering jobs to the opposition and shooting and killing protestors. [Moreover,] the global godfather [sponsoring] the struggle against these revolutions is the same in both cases: Russia.[12]

Putin about to lose both Yanukovych and Assad (Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, February 24, 2014)

Elias Harfouche, a columnist for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, claimed that the Russian leadership always takes the side of oppression and injustice against the popular desire for freedom: "In his Ukraine policy, Putin did not deviate from the biased policy he employs in the Syrian crisis: a policy that means supporting the oppressor and opposing rights; supporting corruption and opposing reform; and supporting the oppression of a ruler and opposing the people that is demanding freedom and its right to choose its leaders. Just as the Moscow leaders did not hesitate to call the Ukrainian oppositionists 'people with black masks and Kalashnikovs' and 'a group of Nazi rabble,' they called the Syrian oppositionists by similar names..."[13]

The Saudi-owned website also criticized Russia and Putin's support for the Ukrainian and Syrian regimes: "It seems that the students of the Russian Czar Vladimir Putin – from Bashar Al-Assad in Syria to Victor Yanukovych in the Ukraine – are faced with many problems. The problems and solutions are similar, but the time is different." According to the article, in both cases, Russian logic dominates and pushes the revolutions towards militarization.[14]

Criticism Of West's Helplessness In Dealing With Russia

The Arab media, especially in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, has long been criticizing the West led by the U.S. for its Syria policy. Most of the criticism focuses on accusing Obama of hesitancy and cowardice regarding Syria and the Middle East in general, of abandoning the Syrian opposition, and of submitting to Russia's will.[15] With the new developments in the Ukraine, this criticism was reiterated in many articles, some of which claimed that the Ukrainian people are now also experiencing the West's feebleness and incompetence.

An editorial of the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi criticized the U.S. and Europe of being remiss in supporting the Syrian and Ukrainian peoples, which are struggling against tyrannical regimes supported by Russia: "Standing against the violent aspirations of the Russian leadership under Vladimir Putin and his regime to restore Russia's status, which has deteriorated since the collapse of the Soviet Union, even at the price of standing against peoples aspiring for freedom and democracy... we find the shameful European position that is guided by economic pragmatism and desires [the uninterrupted] supply of Russian gas to warm the luxurious homes [of Europe]. [Europe] is not prepared to pay the price of defending the will of the Ukrainians or Syrians to be rid of the yoke of a tyrannical [regime] supported by Russia...

“[As for the U.S.,] despite the clear statements of the Obama administration, which were made to Ukrainians by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that 'the U.S. and E.U. stands beside the Ukrainian people' and that a future must not be 'imposed' on Ukrainians, and [despite] Kerry's meetings with the Ukrainian opposition in Germany and the sanctions leveled against some Ukrainian officials, we remember the Syrian people's experience with Obama's foreign policy, which was characterized by a retreat [from his positions] and by incompetence... The Syrians may be able to take solace from the fact that the Ukrainian people shares with them the inability of Europe and the U.S. to deal with their problem..."[16]

International Community Caused Ouster Of Yanukovych But Does Not Act Against Assad

On the other hand, some claimed that Europe and the international community did mobilize to help the Ukrainian people and managed to "defeat" Russia in this arena, and criticized them for not taking similar action against Russia in Syria as well. The editorial for the official Saudi daily Al-Sharq stated: "...The Russians were unable to contain the Ukrainian crisis, and their actions in an attempt to rescue their [Ukrainian] allies seem futile. This, because the E.U., which is very interested in the Ukraine, applied pressure to force political reforms, reduce the president's authority, and release oppositionist prisoners. In the face of this European pressure, Moscow's Ukrainian allies failed to impose their authority...

"Talk of the Russian defeat in the Ukraine, even though it is premature, motivates [us] to examine the Russian positions regarding the Syrian [crisis], where [the Russians] display a greater measure of diplomatic stubbornness and strive to impose their will upon the world... [Unlike Yanukovych], Assad was not subjected to pressure by the international community that caused his ouster. The difference in the Ukraine was the seriousness of the international community."[17]

The European Role In Standing Against The Russians In The Ukraine Was More Effective Than The American Role In Syria

Another perspective was offered by the former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tariq Alhomayed, who claimed in his article that one of the reasons for Russia's failure in the Ukraine after only three months – unlike its steadfast support for Assad for over three years – is the fact that, in the Ukraine, Russia faced Europe, which took a firm position, whereas in Syria it faced the U.S., which was hesitant: "[One] factor that explains Russia’s failure so far to save its Ukrainian allies, as it saved Assad, is that, [in the case of the Ukraine], the Europeans were the ones fulfilling the chief role in the attempts to reach an agreement in the Ukrainian capital... The European role in standing against the Russians in the Ukraine was more effective that the American role in Syria. This isn't just because the Europeans feel the danger of a new crisis in their geographic space, but also because they are more aware and more serious than the current American administration in dealing with crises. This was clearly shown in Syria [as well], where the Europeans displayed positions more progressive than those of the Americans..."[18]

How Will Ukrainian Crisis Affect Russia's Policy In Syria?

Some articles in the Saudi and Qatari media tying the Syrian and Ukrainian crises attempted to estimate what impact the events in Kiev would have on Syria and on Russia's position vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis.

An editorial in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi warned that a defeat in the Ukraine would cause Russia to harden its stance on the Syrian crisis, including on the military level: "News agencies report that dozens of senior Russian officers and advisors arrived in Syria in recent weeks and have joined the Syrian army in fighting the opposition. It was also reported that Moscow has heavily reinforced the logistical and intelligence aid, as well as the weapons aid, and has given the Syrian army 'the intelligence capabilities of a superpower' in tracking down and attacking Syrian opposition fighters. All this, under direct orders from Putin... The presence of [Russian Foreign Minister] Lavrov in Iraq during the battles in Kiev, and the swift increase in the arming of the Iraqi and Syrian armies under the pretext of 'fighting terrorism'... expose the importance Russia attributes to Syria in its global strategy, and indicate that, due to the harming of its influence in the Ukraine, it will increase its aggression in the Arab region..."[19]

Al-Jazeera host Faisal Al-Qassem, who is known for his criticism of the Assad regime, also estimated that this would be Russia's response. He tweeted: "Russia will naturally run amok in Syria after its defeat in the Ukraine, since two blows to the head are lethal, and it will not allow itself to receive more than one blow."

(, February 23, 2014)

On the other hand, Saudi columnist Sa'ud Al-Balawi estimated that Russia would eventually understand that it must make concession in at least one of the arenas – either Syria or Ukraine – and that it is likely to choose to make them in Syria: "It seems that Russia is now in a difficult position regarding the Ukrainian situation. The Ukrainian chessboard is becoming American, which could cause Russia to lose some of its achievements in Syria. So it will have no choice but to soften its extreme positions, whether on the Syrian issue or the Ukrainian one. If the Russians examine this carefully, they will find that their geographic presence in the Middle East via Syria will never match their influence and presence in the Ukraine [and therefore it is preferable for them to make concessions in Syria]…"[20]

Ukrainian Fire Burns Russia As It Seeks To Fan Syrian Flames (Al-Dustour, Jordan, February 26, 2014)

Syria-Iran Axis: Events In Ukraine – U.S. Revenge On Russia

The Pro-Syrian axis, including Iran, the Syrian regime, and Hizbullah, referred to the events in the Ukraine as a plot by the West, which seeks to take vengeance on Russia and the resistance axis. Press associated with this axis claimed that the Ukrainian opposition was made up of terrorists, and that it was incited and led by the U.S. and Europe. The Syrian regime press accused the U.S. of sparking the events in the Ukraine as revenge on Russia for thwarting an American military attack on Syria.

Iranian Chief of Staff Hassan Firouzabadi said on February 24, 2014, that following the Ukrainian revolution, this country has gone from a state of independence to one of subordination to America and Europe, and that the lesson that America and the West has taught the Ukrainian people was "a historic lesson for all independent nations... that they must not be fooled by the arrogance [i.e., the U.S. and the West] and its agents."[21]

Jomhouri-ye Eslami: West Aspires To Take Vengeance On Russia

An editorial of the Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami, which is close to the religious seminaries in Qom and to Hashemi Rafsanjani, claimed that the Ukrainian revolution was Western revenge against Russia for the crushing and humiliating defeats it has suffered at Russia's hands in recent years, including in Syria. "...In the eyes of the West, who in recent years has been thoroughly defeated and humiliated in the conflict with Russia in the international arena, total interference in the Ukraine was vital after the failure of the orange revolution [2004-2005]... damaged its prestige. The West's failure in Syria, which mainly stemmed from Russia's decisive support for the Syrian government, was another crushing blow suffered by the West at the hands of Russia. Therefore, the West planned to avenge itself for these defeats in the Ukraine... The developments in the Ukraine have once again shown the people of the world that the West insists... on continuing a policy that contravenes international law and on choosing the rulers of [other] countries by interfering in [their affairs]...

"The scope of Western involvement in the recent crisis in the Ukraine in the past three months was manifest in widespread political and economic support for the opposition and in the brazen presence [in the Ukraine] of Western politicians, including U.S. Senator John McCain and E.U. Foreign Affairs Representative Catherine Ashton. The reality is that the streams relying [on the West] are less concerned with the interests of the people and more concerned with how to satisfy their foreign patrons... The events in the Ukraine teach other countries an important lesson – that they must solve their issues internally... and not become pawns in the power struggle between strong and imperialist governments."[22]

U.S. fans flames in Ukraine (, February 24, 2014)

Syrian Daily: U.S. Taking Vengeance On Russia For Thwarting Attack On Syria

The Syrian government press also claimed that the events in the Ukraine were American revenge against Russia. Turki Saqr, a columnist for the government daily Teshreen, wrote in an article titled "The Ukrainian Fireball And The Revenge Against Moscow": "Russia had barely extricated itself from the collapse of the Soviet Union when it began massive regrowth on the internal and global arenas, with [the elections of] Putin for President. [In response,] the U.S. and its Western allies immediately began setting traps and laying minefields in order to stunt this Russian growth and reduce it. They stretched their hands to spark the crisis in the Caucuses and support Chechen terrorism, and they continued to start fires throughout the Russian federation under the title of the "orange revolution," as happened in Georgia and Ukraine. Furthermore, [Western] incitement against Russia continued in Central Asia and Eastern Europe... as Russian presence in the international arena increased...

"During the three years of the Syrian crisis, Russian policy had many successes and toppled the unipolar equation that Washington had imposed [upon the world] for decades. [The U.S.] could no longer exclusively control U.N. Security Council resolutions or trade in them, since the Sino-Russian veto and the union of the BRIC and ALBA nations[23] changed the direction of global winds and thwarted the policy of military intervention in the affairs of other nations. Russian diplomacy made impressive achievements in the Syrian chemical agreement and Iranian nuclear agreement...

"In the face of the many successes of Russian policy, the U.S. resumed its old tricks to take vengeance on Putin for his policy. It used old Europe to spark the fire in the Ukraine and establish a new armed terrorist opposition incited by European countries and funded by Saudi and Gulf money under the slogan 'revolution, freedom, and democracy...' This is evil and hostile revenge against Russia for its positions, and especially its successes in preventing an American attack on Syria; establishing the option of a political solution to the crisis; and organizing the international arena in opposition to the policy of American and Western hegemony, which began to crumble in the face of increasing Russian successes in the global economy, the seizing of international trump cards, and the defeat of the American plan that is based on exclusive control of the fate of the countries of the world and their peoples..."[24]

Article In Lebanese Daily: The Resistance Axis, Including The Yanukovych Regime In The Ukraine, Is Under Attack

Nahed Hattar, a columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, also accused the West of sparking the violence in Kiev and complained that the resistance axis – from Syria, to Hizbullah, to Ukraine (under Yanukovych) and Venezuela – stands passively in the face of an attack on it by its enemies that include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and the West led by the U.S.: "The barbaric gangs of the fascist militias, the crime networks, and the spies [disguised as] NGOs [operating] in the squares of the Ukrainian capital are funded and directed by American and Israeli intelligence officers. Liberal Western media portrays them as a democratic movement and they receive constant political backing from Western capitals, while they receive weapons and orders to take over government buildings and fire at security personnel...

"These fascists, criminals, and NGO operatives are funded and organized by the CIA. We can find them operating in another country of the global axis that resists imperialism, since the West is also attacking Venezuela – the independent country that insists on building a unique economy, society, and culture... [In this situation,] we ask the question: What is the resistance axis doing aside from receiving blows and standing fast? ...We are in a state of defense, and we have not yet learned how to attack! But we still pin our hopes on the Russian response."[25]


[1], February 22, 2014.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), February 21, 2014;

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1059, Geneva 2 Conference For Resolving Syrian Crisis Convenes Amid Impossible Challenges, January 24, 2014.

[5], February 22, 2014.

[6], February 21, 2014.

[7] Al-Sharq (Qatar), February 23, 2014.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 24, 2014.

[9], February 21, 2014.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), February 24, 2014.

[11] Al-Sharq (Qatar), February 23, 2014.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 31, 2014.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), February 25, 2014.

[14], February 23, 2014.

[16] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 21, 2014.

[17] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), February 23, 2014.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 24, 2014.

[19] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 24, 2014.

[20] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 24, 2014.

[21] Fars (Iran), February 24, 2014.

[22] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), February 24, 2014.

[23] BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, China. ALBA (formerly the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America – Peoples' Trade Treaty) is an intergovernmental trade union between several Latin American countries including Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines. It also includes Suriname as a guest country and Haiti as an observer country.

[24] Teshreen (Syria), February 23, 2014. Similarly, the official daily Al-Thawra likewise claimed that "the West and its politicians" were responsible for the events in the Ukraine and that they "call on radical organizations to fire on the [Ukrainian] police and Special Forces and bring about a civil war." Al-Thawra also wrote that the Ukrainian opposition, which is tied to European and American elements, is attempting to seize power by creating chaos. Al-Thawra, (Syria), February 23, 2014.

[25] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 24, 2014.

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