Mohamed Abdelaziz is the Arabic editor of Fikra Forum and a former project officer for Freedom House.
Over the past year, the Ukrainian crisis has reached a boiling point. While there have been few official Arab responses to the Ukrainian crisis, many regional media outlets have extensively covered the crisis and its potential impact on the Middle East.
Given Russia’s major role in the Syrian arena, most Arab media outlets have centered their coverage on the potential repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis on the situation in Syria. They have also warned that an escalation in Ukraine would favor Iran's interests while threateningIsrael’s position.
More broadly, outlets present the issue through the lens of great power competition through assessments of the U.S performance during the crisis and likely repercussions on America’s image in the Middle East. Arab media also flagged the potential economic repercussions of the crisis, including the likely global energy crisis in the event of war. Others claimed that the crisis, along with other current global challenges, is a manifestation of a developing new world order.
The current crisis has slowly unfolded over the past year: Russia’s troop buildup on the Ukrainian border initially peaked in March 2021, with 100,000 soldiers and military equipment marking the largest force mobilization since the country's 2014 annexation of Crimea. While strong international pressure helped push Russia to partially remove the troops by June, thecrisis re-emerged in October with another troop buildup.
In December, Russia submitted two draft treaties containing requests for what it called "security guarantees," including a legally binding pledge that Ukraine would not join NATO. It also demanded the reduction of NATO forces and military equipment stationed in Eastern Europe, threatening an unspecified military response if these demands were not fully met.
The United States and other NATO members rejected these requests and warned Russia of increased economic sanctions if it invaded Ukraine. Bilateral diplomatic talks between the United States and Russia this month have failed to defuse the crisis, leaving the question of future escalation uncertain.
Repercussions in Syria
There are some parallels between the Ukrainian-Russian crisis and the war in Syrian in the sense that both have become hotbeds for larger conflicts involving multiple global and regional powers. Given the large overlap of players in both issues, many media outlets have posited that developments in Ukraine may influence the war in Syria.
According to Alsharq AlAwsat newspaper, the Russian position in Syria has significantly benefited its geostrategic ambitions in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia has played a key role in normalizing relations between Damascus and Crimea by supporting an agreement linking the Russian-controlled ports of Latakia, Syria and Crimea—providing a maritime crossing serve as a crossing to Russia via the Mediterranean and Black seas. Moreover, the newspaper stressed that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan and amid growing pressure from Congress ahead of the midterm elections, the Biden Administration is looking to avoid another policy failure—whether in Ukraine, Syria, or Vienna.
Other media outlets expressed concerns about a potential deterioration of the situation in Syria if war breaks out in Ukraine. According to Al Arab Newspaper, while the Ukrainian crisis serves as a basis for strengthening the alliance between Europe and Washington, Russian military intervention in Ukraine may push the West to abandon or even sacrifice the Syrian file, triggering further instability.
Noting a further complicating factor, Al Jazeera maintained that if Turkey decides to intervene in Ukraine, Russian-Turkish relations will quickly collapse, inflaming the Syrian arena as a result. Moreover, reaching a settlement could also open the door for Moscow to barter over its position in Ukraine with those in Syria. Al Jazeeraalso noted that the Ukraine crisis endangers Syrian-Gulf rapprochement and risks strengthening the Iran-Syria alliance, especially if Vienna negotiations fail.
Others reflected on the perceived differences in international response to the two crises. "Al-Quds Al-Arabi" claimed that the Ukrainian crisis has explicitly demonstrated American double standards in Syria. According to Faisal Al-Qasim, “There is no doubt that many have noticed the enormous difference between the current American and European stance on the Ukrainian crisis and the general Western position on the Russian intervention in Syria.” Al-Qasim likewise noted that “America itself has repeatedly ignored the Russian veto in the Security Council to accommodate Russia's efforts to sustain Assad's regime.”
Impact on American Image
Arab media outlets have also underscored the repercussions of the United States’ performance during the Ukraine crisis on its image and role in the Middle East. According to journalist Dawaish Khalif, the Biden administration's policies—including its diplomatic approach to solving the Iranian nuclear file, its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and its half-hearted approach towards the MENA region—have already sent a negative message to U.S. allies. As a result of this soft diplomacy, both China and Russia have started to fan the flames in Taiwan and Ukraine, further obfuscating \U.S. foreign policy.
As to potential responses to Russia’s buildup, Arab media outlets have labeled the potential U.S. and European sanctions on Russia in the event of a war as unfeasible. According to Alsharq newspaper,in the face of growing Russian military build-ups, America is still using "an old sanctions manual, which has proven to be a failure for decades.” In this context, the Emirati newspaper Alittihad held that potential sanctions efforts from Washington this time around may fail to isolate Russia from the global financial system, and that European countries may hesitate to follow suit due to their reliance on Russian gas.
Looking to Russia’s motivations, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Wafd stressed the fact that Moscow still has a strong conviction that the former Soviet Union has not yet vanished and that former Soviet Republics should not be allowed to join NATO or other hostile forces as a matter of national security. And while Russia continues to take a firm stance on the Ukrainian issue, the site argued that the U.S administration’s weak statement reflects a state of political uncertainty.
In the same vein, Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq maintained that in the face of shaky American policy towards the Ukrainian crisis and the growing state of distrust within the Western camp, a tripartite coalition comprising of Russia, China, and Iran is further solidifying. All components of the coalition appear to be working in harmony to serve one goal: thwartingAmerican strategy in the region.
TheAlkhaleej newspaper concurred with the view that the current conflicts between world powers indicate the rise of a new world order. It added that the current escalation in Ukraine, including the expansion of NATO eastward towards the borders of Russia and the refusal of either side to make concessions from both sides,coincides with growing tensions between China and the United States, including military alliances across Southeast Asia that aim toencircle China. Alkhaleej argued that these factors are a manifestation of the struggle over the international system, driven by a U.S. insistence on maintaining its posture as global hegemon.
Expanding on this view, the official Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram accused the Western camp of attempting to embroil both Ukraine and Russia in a war that the United States itself will avoid. In doing so, al-Ahram stated, the West has overlooked the fact that Russia is currently ruled by a “cunning fox” named Putin who will not be easily dragged into an absurd adventure.
An Expectation of Increasing Disorder
In terms of regional impact, Arab media also underscored the global economic repercussions of war. The Jordanian newspaper Aldastour emphasized that since Russia is the second largest exporter of oil and the largest exporter of natural gas in the world, the invasion of Ukraine would have a major impact on world economies and especially the oil, gas and energy sectors.
Failure to contain the Ukrainian crisis could be highly beneficial to Iran, which is currently resisting U.S. pressure on its nuclear file. According to Arabicpost, if Russia and the U.S fail to reach a settlement to the crisis in Ukraine, Moscow may proceed to relax its restraints on Iran, or refrain from pressuring Tehran to make concessions in Vienna altogether. Russia could also abandon its agreements with Israel, which required the latter to minimize it military ties and coordination with Ukraine in return for limiting Russia's arm sales to Iran.
On the other hand, Raialyoum newspaper held that reaching a settlement between the United States and Russia over the Ukrainian crisis could isolate Iran from Russia during the nuclear negotiations and push Iran to sacrifice its relations with Russia to pursue its national and economic interests. A settlement to the crisis could also provide more room for the United States to continue to pressure Iran in return for some long-term benefits.
As for Israel, Raialyoum newspaper claimed that Israel is internally divided over the crisis due to its “balanced” diplomatic relationship with the two sides of the Ukrainian crisis and in its attempts not to become distracted by its concerns over Iran. The newspaper further claimed that any disruption of Israel’s current policy of balancing between Russia and NATO could push Russia to support Palestinian resistance by way of Iran. Therefore, it argues, Israel will be one of the countries most sensitive to any escalation of this crisis.
Even as many media sources float the possibility of escalation, both sides surely realize the dangers and the ensuing high costs of war. Both regional media and the larger diplomatic community seem to recognize the importance of reaching a settlement to the current crisis, while weighing the potential impact on the global economy if further sanctions are imposed. Russia should also keep in mind that Ukraine is a sovereign country, possessing the right to determine and shape its international relations based on its interests and national objectives.