At first they were ready to go to Ukraine to join the international legion fighting there. But in the weeks following the Russian invasion, the three young Syrians changed their minds.
“Why should we fight someone else’s war?” One of them explained last week as the trio sat around a cafe table in Berlin-Mitte. All three friends, all in their early 30s, are refugees and have been in Germany since 2015. They had talked about going to Ukraine to fight the Russians, who had ruthlessly bombed their own city of Aleppo.
But they decided against it. “We have our own problems,” argued another of the men. “[Syrian dictator] Assad is still in power, the Russians are still supporting him – and nobody cares.”
Neither man wanted to name those comments, aware that what they said was controversial in Europe, where most countries are fully supportive of Ukraine.
While not everyone thinks so, and there have been demonstrations of Syrian solidarity with Ukraine, the group’s stance is far from uncommon in the Middle East or even other parts of the world. Africa and India do not necessarily see their struggle in this either.
For the past month, commentators across the Middle East have been quick to point out what they see as the hypocrisy of this situation. You have spoken about double standards, mentioning conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine and the treatment of refugees arriving in Europe.
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The tragedies in Syria “didn’t provoke any response in the West remotely comparable to solidarity towards Ukraine,” wrote Michael Young, senior editor of the Carnegie Middle East Center, on the think tank’s website this month.
The same argument has been a popular topic for Arabic-language columnists.
“If you think that Putin is a criminal for taking military action against Ukraine and you don’t think the same [George] bush jr, [US administration officials] Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell who occupied Iraq… Their brain cells are not working properly,” said Ahmad al-Farraj, a well-known columnist for the conservative Saudi daily Al Jazirah. tweeted.
An author from Hespress, a Moroccan publication, followed the reactions of the Arabic-speaking public on social media. He concluded that many of the angry altercations had more to do with anti-American sentiment than genuine sympathy for the Russian invasion.
“This is the new image of dirty competition between America, Russia and Europe,” Mohammed Filali, a pharmacist’s assistant in Rabat, Morocco, suggested to DW, echoing his opinion. “They compete on the territory of Ukraine, and poor Ukrainians alone are paying a heavy price.”
Anti-American instead of pro-Ukrainian
But maybe that’s not surprising. Polls show that locals have been thinking this way for years. The Arab Opinion Index 2019-2020, a regular study surveying over 28,000 people in 13 Arab countries, asked respondents to rate the impact of foreign policies of different nations.
More than half – 58% – had a negative opinion of US foreign policy towards Arab countries. Only 41% feel this way about Russian foreign policy. The semi-annual survey shows these numbers have been roughly the same for over a decade.
Russia continues to carry out airstrikes in Syria to this day
The same poll provides further clues as to why people in the Middle East are determined to remain neutral when it comes to the war in Ukraine.
When asked about their main priorities, a majority of citizens indicated that these were economic in nature. Some were concerned about corruption and political stability, but 57% cited unemployment, inflation and poverty as the top challenges they faced.
Mohammed Karim, a 39-year-old Iraqi living in Baghdad, told DW this is the main reason he follows events in Ukraine. “This war is having an impact on people’s livelihoods here,” Karim explained. “It has already caused prices to rise and some goods to become scarce.”
Ukraine and Russia export significant quantities of wheat and cooking oil to the Middle East, and the price of these goods has risen significantly in recent weeks, prompting protests in some parts of Iraq.
Russia has expanded its commercial and military ties in the region, and these are among other explanations offered for the Arab attitude towards the war in Ukraine.
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Other reasons suggested by local media include an apparent admiration for autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” as well as Russia’s foreign policy approach in the region; Unlike others, Russia does not impose any conditions related to human rights or democratic norms.
Who cares what they think?
But does it really matter? Voters in Middle Eastern countries with autocratic rulers cannot exert much influence over foreign policy. But could this kind of public opinion have long-term international implications?
In the recent United Nations vote on whether to bar Russia from the organization’s Human Rights Council, only one Middle Eastern country, Libya, voted yes. Almost everyone else abstained or was absent. These included the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq, all traditionally viewed as friends of the US.
“That was the right thing for Iraq,” argued Rami al-Saleh, a 29-year-old Iraqi journalist from Baghdad. “Any war that takes place in this century will affect every country, and Iraq needs to keep its allies everywhere, be it to deal with economic problems or terrorists. The axes of power are shifting,” he noted.
The vote was about “countries that do not want to blow their bridges to the multipolar world order,” confirmed Samuel Ramani, an international relations tutor at Oxford University in the UK who specializes in Russian foreign policy and security in the Middle East. “They see Russia as one of the pillars of it [world order].”
The move away from US dominance gives Arab nations more opportunities to assert themselves. For example, Morocco used diplomatic language to remain neutral, explained Mohammed al-Ghawati, a professor of political science in Rabat.
Morocco “reaffirms the unity of Ukrainian territory, but is also working to consolidate strategic ties, particularly with permanent members of the Security Council,” he noted.
Morocco was absent from the last two UN votes on Russia’s invasion and needs allies in the Security Council over its territorial dispute over Western Sahara.
Although there are factional differences within countries – for example, Iraqi militias allied with Iran have expressed support for Russia, an Egyptian politician has parroted Russian disinformation very openly – most people in the region do not have a passionate opinion on the Ukraine conflict, Ramani agreed.
The two areas where public opinion on this could play a bigger role and ultimately impact government policy are food security and mercenary recruitment in the region, he told DW.
That being said, the way Middle Eastern states and their citizens are dealing with the war in Ukraine is unlikely to involve a direct confrontation with Russia.
“Basically, they’re either trying to reach an agreement, or they’re acknowledging that the world order is changing, or they want to be a voice for conflict resolution,” Ramani concluded. “Even if they criticize Russia’s behavior, it does not mean that they will support Ukraine.”
With contributions from Ibrahim Saleh in Iraq and Abdessamad Jattioui in Morocco
Edited by: Andreas Illmer