Ukraine Crisis: Implications for the Middle East, including the US, Rojava, and the Kurdistan Region

Ukrainian servicemen wait in formation before an exercise in the Joint Forces Operation, in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. (Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP)
Ukrainian servicemen wait in formation before an exercise in the Joint Forces Operation, in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. (Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – US warnings of a Russian assault on Ukraine are growing ever sharper. As President Joe Biden, pressed by journalists, said on Thursday, "My sense is that [it] will happen in the next several days."

Yet, as US officials would also acknowledge, no one can be absolutely sure what Russian President Vladimir Putin will do. Nor can anyone be absolutely sure where he will act, with what objectives, and with what consequences.

There is a Middle Eastern dimension to the Ukraine crisis. It is focused on Syria and includes Russian deployments to its airbase there, which could threaten NATO ships in the Mediterranean.

It also includes increased pressure on America's partners in the fight against ISIS: the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria and the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

Shoigu Visits Syria, as Russia Deploys Long-range War Planes with Advanced Missiles

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Syria on Tuesday. The Russian news agency, TASS, described his trip as a "warning message" to the US and NATO.

Shoigu's visit came as Moscow announced it was deploying "Tu-22M3 bombers and MiG-31K fighters carrying Kinzhal hypersonic missiles" to "Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria to participate in the Russian Navy's Mediterranean maneuvers," TASS reported, citing a Russian Defense Ministry statement.

The Russian deployment to the Eastern Mediterranean is the largest such action in over 30 years—since the end of the Cold War, AP reported. It involves 15 warships and some 30 aircraft and "is part of sweeping naval drills" around the world, which began last month, as the crisis over Ukraine mounted.

The Hmeymim Air Base, located in Latakia, the stronghold of Syria's Alawite rulers, was built in 2015, as Moscow prepared to intervene in support of Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime. 

Hmeymim is Russia's only airbase outside the former Soviet Union, as Peter Suciu, a reporter for The National Interest, explained.

Suciu stressed the significance of the Russian Defense Ministry's statement that the long-range bombers and fighters sent to Syria are armed with the Kinzhal missile. 

"The Kinzhal was one of several flagship weapons unveiled" by Putin during his 2018 state-of-the-nation address, Suciu explained. It has an advertised range of 2,000 to 3,000 kilometers, "which makes it a threat to critical land infrastructure and large surface targets such as aircraft carrier strike groups."

Three NATO aircraft carrier strike groups—from the US, France, and Italy—have deployed for integrated maneuvers in the Mediterranean, starting on Feb. 6, as TASS noted. The dispatch of the Russian planes, armed with the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, is an implicit threat to them. 

Anticipating Russian Threat in Syria: Sen. Jack Reed, Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla

On Feb. 8, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing for Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla (US Army), who has been nominated to succeed Gen. Frank McKenzie (US Marine Corps) as CENTCOM Commander.

Sen. Jack Reed (D, Rhode Island), the Committee Chairman, asked Kurilla what the implications might be for Syria of the confrontation over Ukraine.

"Russia has a significant footprint in Syria, and Russia is now confronting NATO in Ukraine," Reed said. "How do you project their role there, together with their pretensions with respect to Ukraine?"

"Senator, I believe if Russia does invade Ukraine, they would not hesitate," Kurilla replied, "to act as a spoiler in Syria as well."

"Already we see it as one of the most contested electromagnetic spectrum environments that we're currently operating in," Kurilla continued. "So I believe they're a competitor of ours."

"So when you assume command of CENTCOM," Reed responded, "you'll be very sensitive to reactions within Syria by the Russians that may be a consequence of something happening in Ukraine? Is that fair?"

"Absolutely, Senator," Kurilla replied.

Hybrid Warfare: Dangers Besides Military Confrontation

Moscow also has other options in Syria for challenging the US and its partners. Above all, they involve working with the Assad regime.

Syria has long supported—intermittently and when it served their interests—the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Already in the first years of the US-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein and his regime, some senior US officials recognized the key role Syria was playing in supporting that violence.

In October 2004, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, told The Atlantic Monthly, "Almost no one says the real problem is that Saddam never surrendered. And even though he was captured, his people never surrendered."

Read More: Al-Qurayshi vs. al-Mawla: What's in a name? What the US doesn't understand about ISIS

"His organization is still operating as though they have a chance to win, and they're allied with people who want to help them win," Wolfowitz continued, "by which I mean the jihadis on the one side and the Syrian Baathists on the other." 

In April 2017, following a US strike on Syria for its use of chemical weapons, Wolfowitz repeated that point as he called for stronger action against Damascus. 

"The Assad regime has supported the insurgents and suicide bombers," in Iraq, he wrote, which "have killed thousands of Iraqis, and hundreds of Americans, since 2003."

"The Bush administration largely turned a blind eye to that support, and President Obama did so even more," Wolfowitz added in his Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Syria's role in supporting jihadi violence in Iraq was also explained by the German news magazine Der Spiegel, which has published the most authoritative account of ISIS. 

The report takes the story back to the early days of the Iraqi insurgency. "Syrian intelligence officials organized the transfer of thousands of radicals from Libya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia to al-Qaida in Iraq," Der Spiegel wrote. "Ninety percent of the suicide attackers entered Iraq via the Syrian route."

"A strange relationship developed between Syrian generals, international jihadists and former Iraqi officers who had been loyal to Saddam—a joint venture of deadly enemies, who met repeatedly to the west of Damascus," it said. 

A decade later, that relationship re-emerged. Significantly, as both Wolfowitz and Der Spiegel noted, the ties between Syria's Baathist regime and the jihadis are entirely pragmatic. When it serves their interests, they cooperate. When it no longer does, they may well fight each other.

The protracted US failure to recognize and explain Syria's role in supporting jihadi violence in Iraq may yet have more serious consequences. It may now intersect with the confrontation between the US and Russia—given Russia's close ties to the Syrian regime. 

ISIS's Assault on the Al-Hasaka Prison 

Hasakah is a major city in northeast Syria, which is administered by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES.) 

AANES governs the areas of northern and eastern Syria that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), working with the US-led Coalition, have liberated from ISIS's control.

On Jan. 20, ISIS launched a major assault on Hasakah's al-Sina'a prison, where over 3,000 suspected terrorists were jailed. The assault lasted for ten days before local forces managed to regain control.

The attack was a huge surprise to local parties, including the AANES and the SDF, and the US-led coalition against ISIS. The assault on the al-Sina'a prison far exceeded their assessments of ISIS's capabilities. 

The most obvious explanation for the skills and resources displayed in the prison assault was that ISIS had received outside support for the attack.

Suspicion fell on Damascus. The week before, the regime had called on Syrians living in AANES-controlled territory to reconcile with it. 

Two days later, on Jan. 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reinforced that message, calling on Syrian Kurds to follow Iraqi Kurds in recognizing and dealing with the central government. 

The AANES did not respond, and six days later, ISIS struck in Hasakah.

Following the attack, some local authorities blamed Syria. The most important of them was Siyamand Walat, Commander of the AANES's Internal Security Forces (Asayish), who gave a rare on-camera interview to Hawar News Agency.

Read More: Understanding the Hasakah prison siege: how brutal parties use force, violence 

Broader Implications for Rojava and the Kurdistan Region

Kurds in both Syria and Iraq are aligned with the US in the anti-ISIS Coalition. At the same time, the US is confronting Russia over Ukraine in a conflict that has yet to play out and yet to reveal itself in its full dimensions.

An additional way for Russia to pressure the US would be to encourage the Syrian regime to increase its backing for ISIS—whether by providing support for spectacular attacks, as occurred in Hasakah, or simply by assisting ISIS in increasing the tempo of its more ordinary assaults.

Of course, it is impossible to know how the conflict between the US and Russia will play out, but it seems prudent for those concerned to keep these scenarios in mind.