When columnist Peggy Noonan asked, “Whose Side Are We On?” about Ukraine, the answer was obvious. The people in the streets of Kiev were demonstrating for freedom against an authoritarian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was shooting them down. We Americans were all with the demonstrators for freedom and democracy. We knew it in our hearts.
Yet, Yanukovych had been in power only four years, elected in what had been called “an impressive display of democracy” by outside observers. In the face of the protests, he agreed to European demands for early elections and a more representative cabinet. But the demonstrators refused, forcing the imperious Yanukovych to flee in what seemed like a victory for the people. But was it democratic to overthrow an elected government? Does democracy matter here?
The first parliamentary acts of the new government under speaker and interim president Oleksandr Turchynov were to issue mass murder charges against the outgoing leaders and downgrade Russian from a second official Ukraine language. Governor Mikhail Dobkin of Russian-speaking Kharkiv region called the ski-masked Pravy Sektor demonstrators “fascists” for the violence of their demonstrations and the prejudice shown in their demands. The mayor of eastern Sevastopol resigned under pressure from Russian-speaking Ukrainians and his self-appointed replacement promised to resist the western Ukrainian government. Russia’s Vladimir Putin recalled his ambassador, cut aid, warned against oppressing the Russian-speaking majority of Ukraine’s eastern regions and then, in the guise of protecting his fleet, introduced troops into Russian-language-speaking Ukrainian Crimea.
Ukraine is closely divided between primarily Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers, as demonstrated in each of its razor-thin, passionate elections. The great majority of the demonstrators were from the Western-oriented Ukraine-speaking areas. Were the Ukrainian people as a whole or just its westerners the ones to support? It is true that the old Soviets coercively settled Russians in the eastern regions specifically to weaken the westerners, but they are there now and provide pretext for Putin if not support. A civil war would be a disaster for all, even Putin, whose own Russians could turn on him. While we are for Ukraine, Russia is the only nation state other than the U.S. that has sufficient power to cause a nuclear holocaust. Experts all agree the U.S. cannot do much militarily, and minor moves like U.S. sanctions often irritate without results. It is in everyone’s interest to calm things down even if our hearts are inflamed.
Our hearts speak in Syria, too. The U.S. government, the media, and probably most Americans consider themselves on the side of the Sunni majority rebels against the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite/Shiite led coalition of minorities. He is not democratic, and liberty is rare, so the choice seems simple. But the effective rebel military units are radical Islamists. The moderates the U.S. is supporting are mostly in exile or ineffective, so much so that the U.S. supported replacing Free Syrian Army leader Gen. Salim Idriss with Abdul-Illah al-Bashir, an Assad defector. While top Washington Post foreign correspondent David Ignatius was still celebrating the replacement, the moderate military commanders of all five battle areas in Syria and nine other military leaders called Idriss’ replacement a “coup” and were breaking ties with the U.S. backed Supreme Military Council.
Meanwhile, the two top Sunni Islamic rebel groups—the Nusra Front (designated as al-Qaeda’s official group) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the previous official al-Qaeda)—were fighting each other; ISIS leader Abu Khalid al-Suri was killed the next day. At the same time, Saudi Arabia announced a new Syria policy leader, Mohammed bin Nayef, an aggressive supporter sending of more arms to fellow Sunni fighters on the scene now planning to send them antiaircraft and other heavy weapons.
Bush administration White House aide Michael Gerson demanded a “coalition of the willing” headed by the U.S., including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and France, to give more assistance to the Syrian rebels, perhaps including air power. But France was merely the former colonial boss seeking future influence. The other allies were all Sunni powers and any real coalition would include more Sunni nations, as the Saudis also announced aid from Pakistan. The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith identified the “real enemy” as Shiite Iran, to confront it “on all fronts.” So the U.S. was asked to join in the thousand-year war between Sunni and Shiite on the Sunni side, soon after bringing the Shiites to power in Iraq. In the middle are the Christians, a million having been forced out of Iraq by Shiites; double that would follow from a Sunni Syria, as a consequence of supporting Assad. When the ISIS took control of Raqqa they forced every Christian to either convert to Islam, “face the sword,” or pay an extra tax, dress modestly Islamic, and end all public religious activity.
The Middle East is divided by religion and tribe. Ukraine is divided by culture, reinforced by religion. Russia is held together by history and power. America has interests in these areas but mainly for peace and stability. Israel too has interests in the Middle East. But there are Russian interests as well, which most likely do not include administering a struggling and fiscally-draining Ukraine. European Union trade membership for western or even all of Ukraine might be possible with Crimean autonomy and Russian influence, but NATO membership would be almost an act of war. What would the U.S.’s position be if Canada decided to join a Russian military alliance?
That Turchynov reversed himself and vetoed the anti-Russian language bill and offered to negotiate on increased Crimea autonomy are enormous steps in the right direction. In Syria the only way out for the moderates may be a similar negotiated decentralization agreement with Assad. There was an earlier Alawite state. Indeed, both of these discussions are advancing but need patience. Negotiation and decentralization are the only ways forward and hot rhetoric and simplistic solutions from outside only make things worse. The reasonable steps toward restraintproposed by former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine, William B. Taylor, Steven K. Pifer, and John E. Herbst are the place to begin.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Personnel Management during his first term.
This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom