By Madawi Al-Rasheed
LONDON: Defeating Russia in the Arab world was a priority for Saudi Arabia even before it became a fully-fledged commitment in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The current Syrian crisis is perhaps one last opportunity to undermine Russia’s eroded sphere of influence in the region. The Saudis may think that defeating Russia this time in Syria could add fresh vigor to their old mythology about defeating atheism in the world and supporting Sunni Muslims globally. While Russia has changed in the last two decades, the Saudi regime is still very much dependent on projecting itself as the defender of Sunni Islam. Such claims are enough to worry the Russians in their own backyard.
Russia’s insistence on rejecting calls at the United Nations Security Council for the overthrow of Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad or militarily intervention against him reflects agony over letting go of its last Arab ally. Arguably, there is more to the Russian position than the loss of a Mediterranean naval base and arms deals. It seems that Russia does not want to create a historical precedent where oppressed Muslim protestors seek international and Muslim solidarity against their dictators. The troubled Chechnya and Northern Caucasus region remain a threat to Russian security.
As a result, Russia’s troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia has a lot to do with its own internal challenges, mainly the remaining Muslim population under central Russian control where endorsement of global jihadi strategies, ideologies, and iconography has been visible since the 1990s. Saudi ideological and religious connections to groups that challenge Russian policies continue to haunt Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin decades after the end of the Afghan jihad. In the minds of many Russians, “wahabiyya” is an evil religion that can produce the likes of Ibn Al-Khattab and strike terrorist attacks in the heart of Moscow.
It may come as a surprise then that Moscow — rather than London or Washington — was the first to recognize Saudi occupation of the Hijaz and open a consulate in Jeddah in 1927. The ex-Soviet Union had internal reasons for this unexpected presence in the land of the two holy mosques. At a time when Muslims in the Soviet republics were being told to free themselves from the chains of religion, their Communist central government was trying to build bridges in a region where a substantial number of Soviet Muslim exiles from Chechnya, the Caucasus and the Central Asian republics had previously migrated in search of refuge after successive Russian repressions. The Hijaz was a destination for many Soviet Muslims seeking to escape Russian and Stalinist experiments at banishing religion from people’s lives. A Russian foothold in Jeddah was desirable, then, to remain in touch with potential intrigues and appease local Soviet ethnic Muslims.
The rift between communism and Islam, magnified by decades of cold war politics, facilitated Saudi enlistment in defeating the “evil empire” in the Arab world first. From Egypt, Yemen, and Iraq to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia became active in eroding the Soviet Union’s expansion in the region. After the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saudi Arabia endeavored to bring his successor, Anwar Sadat, into the Arab-US camp thus weakening Russian influence. In Iraq and Libya, Saudi policy often blamed the Russians for backing the radical politics of these regimes.
Saudi-Russian relations entered a new phase of animosity with the Afghan jihad. For a decade, the image of the godless communists occupying and repressing fellow Muslims enflamed the Saudi imagination and gave the Saudi regime a great opportunity to demonstrate its Islamic credentials through active support. Even today, the memory of Saudi participation in the Afghan jihad remains alive among old jihadi veterans, who commemorate it in vivid online iconography and songs. The Saudi regime boasts about its wise religiously-driven policy to defeat atheism and tries to forget that this jihad backfired, haunting it afterwards.
In Saudi Arabia, Assad’s regime is likewise being depicted as a godless dictatorship, the last remaining heretical minority state that oppresses Sunni Muslims while supported by the Russians. Many Saudi religious scholars have already called for beheading Assad, if captured, and launching a global Islamic jihad against his Alawite troops. For many Saudis, the Syrian revolution is a religious war against blasphemy, repression and heresy.
Saudi Arabia was initially hesitant to recognize the Syrian National Council, arm the Free Syrian Army, or support calls for jihad in Syria made by the likes of religious scholar Aaidh Al-Qarni. By February 2012, however, the Saudis took a strong position against Assad, with Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal declaring that arming the Syrian rebels was an excellent idea. This came when the “Friends of the Syrian People” international conference, attended by 60 countries, was held in Tunis.
Saudi Arabia rejected Tunisian President Munsif Al-Marzouqi’s suggestion that the Syrian crisis be ended through negotiations, safe exit for Assad, and the formation of a transitional government along the lines of the Saudi-backed agreement in Yemen. Al-Faisal actually walked out of the conference upon hearing these ideas.
Al-Faisal’s position can only be interpreted as a diplomatic statement obfuscating his country’s plans to arm the Syrian rebels despite a lack of international consensus. To this end, long-standing links to the Hariri dynasty across the border in Lebanon will undoubtedly prove useful, not least because of shared animosity towards the Syrian regime. The most likely transit point for arms and jihadis alike is the deprived Akkar area of northern Lebanon, with its neglected Sunni population. On Youtube, Syrian rebels have already circulated images of the “King Abdullah Brigade” allegedly formed to honor the kingdom’s commitment to overthrowing Assad and arming Syrian revolutionaries.
This will no doubt be a very risky policy unleashing old familiar radical forces and precipitating a long civil war, ethnic cleansing and sectarian strife in Syria and neighboring countries.
Russia’s rejection of such futuristic plans can only be understood in the context of its own internal challenges and the historical legacy of its troubled relationship with the Saudi regime. The memory of Saudi religious and military interventions in Russia’s backyard continues to haunt Russian leaders.
It is unfortunate for the Syrians that their revolution has become the terrain where old scores are settled, among them Saudi-Russian rivalries.
Madawi al-Rasheed is a professor at King’s College in London. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.