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Mon Mar 3, 2014, 06:41 AM

Juan Cole: The Crimean Crisis and the Middle East: Will Syria & Iran be the Winners?

The Russian intervention in the Crimea is more direct and dramatic than the one in Syria, with actual troops deployed. But there are similarities. One of the little-noted rationales for Russian support for the Baath government in Damascus is that it is seen as more favorable, being secular and minority-dominated, toward Syria’s roughly 2-3 million Christians, the bulk of them Eastern Orthodox (i.e. the same branch of Christianity that predominates in Russia and among ethnic Russians in the Ukraine). Indeed, there are more Eastern Orthodox Christians in Syria than in Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin is giving as a rationale for troop deployments in Crimea that the ethnic Russian population there is in danger from Ukrainian nationalists.

In both cases, Russia is exaggerating. The vast majority of Syrians who rose up against the Baath were moderates. Only when the regime of Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with massive military force did the opposition militarize, at which point Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates came to the fore as seasoned fighters with substantial Gulf money. Most oppositionists are still moderates and most Syrians want more freedoms, not a Taliban state on the Euphrates. The Russian official press often slams those who oppose its provision of huge amounts of money and arms to al-Assad as backing “al-Qaeda,” but that is propaganda.

Likewise the popular movement in Ukraine against President Viktor Yanukovych was not primarily led or fueled by nationalist extremists. Most who went to the streets in Kyiv were disturbed at Yanukovych’s neo-authoritarian tendencies, his acquiescence in Moscow’s demand that he move away from the European Union, and his jailing of his opponent in the 2010 elections (Yulia Tymoshenko) on what seem likely to have been trumped up charges. There was zero evidence of ethnic Russians in Crimea being menaced by Ukrainian nationalists, but plenty of evidence of foreign Russian forces intervening there. Of course, now that Putin has violated Ukrainian sovereignty so blatantly, there could be a backlash against Ukrainian Russians; Putin might even secretly hope for such polarization as a pretext for further intervention.

If Russia is pushed further into Tehran’s arms by US sanctions then ironically Bashar al-Assad and Sayyid Ali Khamenei may be the biggest winners of the Crimean crisis. At the same time, Turkey could also be a winner in the sense that its value to NATO, the US and the European Union will be much enhanced because of its Black Sea presence and its own historical interests in Crimea.

http://www.juancole.com/2014/03/crimean-middle-winners.html

Cole seems to think that economic/financial sanctions on Russia would backfire. That may happen, but a military response is out of the question and some sorts of sanctions seem to be the only alternative to doing nothing. Here's an article that suggests that financial sanctions against Russia's elite might be effective:

“The threat of sanctions could be quite effective” as Russia’s elite have their assets in “Western bank accounts” while the nation’s companies rely on international debt markets for financing, Standard Bank’s Ash said. “The West has quite a lot of leverage on Russia if it’s clever and uses it the right way.”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-02/ruble-set-to-weaken-as-putin-s-ukraine-incursion-risks-sanctions.html

The 2 main Russian stock markets are down about 8% this morning which would be a decline of about 1,300 in the US stock market. The futures for the US market look like a decline of about 1% when it starts today. The ruble has also sunk to historic lows. Russia is certainly not vulnerable militarily but may be economically.

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