The Sunni world is revving up for an explosive counterattack to Russia’s powerful intervention in Syria, and with limited options are likely to advance even more resources to Islamist rebels facing off against the Syrian regime.
The blood feud between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Syria and the region is not going to go away because of Russia’s attacks. In recent days, dozens of Islamist Saudi Arabian clerics have called on Arab and Muslim countries to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to what they term a jihad, or holy war, against Syria’s government and its Iranian and Russian backers.
The clerics’ statement compared Russia’s role today to the Soviet Union’s 1980 Afghanistan invasion, which prompted an international jihad and the eventual withdrawal of Soviet forces.
Top Saudi media personality Jamal Khashoggi, head of a news channel owned by a Saudi prince, published an article in the past week on the Al-Arabiya News website and in the London- based Al-Hayat
newspaper, stating that Saudi Arabia “will not bear an Iranian victory in Syria.” Khashoggi outlines two options for the Saudis: first, boost support for the Islamist opposition, not including Islamic State and al-Qaida’s Nusra Front; second, to use diplomacy to create international support for its position against the Russia-Shi’ite Iranian alliance in Syria.
The Russians are backing not only the Shi’ite-led Iran alliance, which includes Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, but also other non-Sunni minorities in the region that feel threatened by the Sunni Islamist wave that has risen following the Arab uprisings.
Earlier this month, Al-Monitor interviewed a Syrian Kurdish leader who appeared to show relief at Russia’s military intervention.
Salih Muslim, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) said that Russia would “prevent Turkish intervention, not to defend us [Kurds] but to defend Syria’s border.”
Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that the Russians believe that they are in an existential battle with Sunni Islam. Putin has told various foreign leaders that he sees himself as the protector of Russian culture.
“One third of Moscow is Muslim,” said Rhode, some of them illegal residents. Russians have a lower birthrate than the country’s Muslim birthrate – which is also declining, but more slowly than the Russian one. One of the ways the Russian government is dealing with this is by promoting conversion of its Muslims (and those from the former Soviet Union who immigrate to Russia) to Shi’ism, which could provoke strife amongst Russian Muslims.
Most Russian Muslims are of Turkish origin, as are the Uyghur Muslims in China, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has been egging them on over the years,” said Rhode. Syria’s Alawites, Iran, Hezbollah, the Kurds, and other minorities in the Middle East, including Israel, “are all swimming in a Sunni sea.”
Rhode notes that Kurds are also overwhelmingly Sunni, but see fellow Arab and Turkish Sunnis as a threat.
Within this context, explains Rhode, we can understand Russia’s cooperation with the Shi’ite alliance led by Iran.
Assad’s Alawite area around its coastal stronghold of Latakia is where the Russians are building military bases. There are some Sunnis in the coastal area, which is the traditional Alawite homeland; neither Russia nor the Alawites would mind if these Sunnis went elsewhere, leaving that area almost exclusively Alawite. “This means that the Russians would have a strategic ally against their common adversary – the Sunnis,” he said.
Moreover, the Russian air incursion over Turkish territory on Saturday took place over the largely Alawite Turkish province of Hatay where many Syrian Alawites have close relatives.
Syria and Turkey have long disputed this province. “This clearly was a warning to Turkey not to interfere with Russian military objectives in Syria,” he said.
Regarding the Saudi position, Rhode pointed out that they have been promoting jihad abroad in return for support from the country’s religious establishment. While the Saudis funded the jihad against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the difference now is that there are more jihadi groups, and the Saudis worry about becoming their target.
In 1979, the al-Saud family made a deal with the Wahhabi religious establishment that in return for not promoting jihad against the Saudi regime inside the country, the Saudis would fund jihad outside the Saudi kingdom. But that has now come home to haunt the Saudis, who fear that if the fundamentalist Sunni groups in Syria win, they would then use Syria as a base to threaten the Saudi regime. “That’s why the Saudis back the so-called ‘moderate’ Sunnis in Syria,” continued Rhode.
“Now the Russians are attacking the Saudi and US-backed ‘moderate’ Sunnis as a warning to Saudi Arabia not to meddle in Russian affairs, and to leave the jihadists to possibly threaten both Iran and the Saudis in case either of them steps out of line.”
Asked if the Sunni masses, which vastly outnumber the Shi’ite Iranian alliance forces in Syria, would eventually topple Assad’s regime, Rhode responded that it is power that matters and “the Russians have no problem bombing civilians or doing whatever is necessary to achieve their goals. “Putin does not have to worry about the international reaction like Israel does.”
Hence, Rhode doubts that the Alawite Syrian regime is going to collapse anytime soon, as Russia will prevent it from happening. “Assad might be expendable, but not the Alawite regime. And that is one of the most important reasons the Russians are supporting the Alawites.”
David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Post that a sense of perspective is needed, “as just two months ago many observers were breathlessly predicting that Saudi Arabia was rushing into the arms of Russia instead of continuing to rely on US protection.”
“While the king’s son did pledge some new investments in Russia, the king’s expected follow-up visit to Russia never materialized. Now, analysts are predicting the total opposite: that Saudi Arabia will dramatically escalate in Syria against the Russians to bring down Assad.”
Toppling the regime in Damascus just got harder for Riyadh, said Weinberg, and Riyadh isn’t prepared to confront Russia directly over this. As for the Saudi clerics who called to support jihad in Syria in opposition to Russian “aggression” there, Weinberg said the most prominent preacher on the list is Nasser al-Omar, who is not a state official, but rather a prominent individual who occasionally receives gestures of state acceptance.
Weinberg, who has previously researched Gulf clerics, said that al-Omar had “held hands” with the Emir of Qatar.
Al-Omar also met this past month with Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, a onetime mentor to Osama Bin Laden, whom the US and UN has sanctioned on charges of funding al-Qaida.
Al-Omar previously signed a petition endorsing the “holy warriors” of the Islamic Front coalition in Syria against “the Zionist-American project and the Safavid-Rafidhi project.”
Eran Segal, a researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told the Post that the Saudis appear to be trapped.
After failing to get the US to intervene, the Saudis managed to create a coalition that almost toppled Assad, but now they face the Russians, explained Segal.
Despite recent attempts, the Saudis have not been able to win the Russians to their side.
And “in light of a growing budget deficit due to low oil prices, they will have to decide if they are willing to invest more money in Syria.”Reuters contributed to this report.