We ought to take seriously the implicit Russian threats in an article in Pravda newspaper calling for Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to be punished before they cause a third world war by supporting ISIS. This is what the newspaper, which is quite close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, claims. A former adviser of Putin called insolently in the Moscow Echo for military positions and oil installations in Saudi and Qatar to be targeted. Yes, Putin is stupid and bloody. Furthermore, he cannot be trusted. And I believe he also hates the Saudis. Indeed, we should take such threats personally.
Since he took over in the Kremlin fifteen years ago, posing as Russia's strongman, Putin has endeavoured to base his popularity upon provoking nationalist sentiments and pride. He ignited semi-fascist flames in Russian minds in a bid to compensate for his economic failure and cover-up the massive wealth gap between the poor and middle classes, and a scandalously rich ruling minority.
Putin pushed ahead from victory in Chechnya, where he oversaw massive destruction and mass murder, to the Ukraine where he annexed Crimea in stark violation of international law. However, we happen to be living in the time of Barack Obama, the US president who needs someone to translate the Arab proverb, “I poured insults on them while they walked away with the camels.” The West protested, fumed and boiled but eventually accepted the new status quo. Then Tsar Putin came to the Arab world claiming that he has “vital interests” therein. He entered without permission and sat cross-legged while forging an alliance with a sectarian minority, joining it in the pursuit of murder and oppression and imposing his own fait accompli.
He is even trying to rearrange the Muslim house. He travelled to a destination where a minority of his liking exists, taking along with him a historic copy of the Qur'an written in Russia. He sat before Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian leader, just as a disciple would sit before his guru, delivering to him the gift he brought with him and rubbing his hand in full submission in a symbolic gesture that cannot escape a prudent person. He meant to say, “Here is the authority, here is Islam” while at the same time daring to attack what he described as the policy of “Islamisation” in Turkey. It is just a matter of time. He'll soon attack Saudi Arabia and hold it responsible for the sins of the past and the present altogether.
Putin has lived through a series of victories that together form a necklace, which he intends to wear on the day that he receives allegiance as the possessor of the force dominating a region that extends from Crimea to the Levant. His dream has been interrupted only by the stubbornness of three countries that oppose his project and refuse to succumb to him. Step forward Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
This was revealed clearly on Tuesday morning when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian fighter jet that fell to earth amid cheers and shouts of “Allahu Akbar” by the Syrian revolutionaries on the mountains close to the Syria-Turkey border. Those few moment were sufficient for laying the foundations of a new political game in the Middle East.
Putin changed the rules of the game when he took his aircraft to join the Iranians and the Syrian regime in their war on the people who want their freedom. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now changed Putin's rules and the world is awaiting the latter's reaction to see whether he will accept the new rules or turn the table once more on everybody.
The Russian jet incident may well be repeated. We are nearly in a state of war with the Russians despite all the visits, meetings and smiles. Sooner or later Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey will appear in Putin's eyes to overlap with the Syrian opposition. Once he fails to defeat this opposition he will start looking for someone to blame, and he will find no one but us.
Then, once the upcoming Vienna negotiations fail (and they will most likely fail), the conflicting parties inside Syria will find no route other than that of escalating the confrontation in a bid to accomplish decisive victory. This will lead to the emergence of two distinct camps: the free Syrian people and their allies on the one hand, and the sectarian anti-freedom trio and their allies on the other.
There may even be another confrontation prior to Vienna. The SU-24 incident was a slap to Putin's image as Mr Invincible, and to the image of his dreaded Russia. This will undoubtedly undermine his position domestically, especially with the return of the first body bags of the Russian soldiers embroiled in their first entirely foreign war since their defeat in Afghanistan. Perhaps he will challenge the Turks once more and that challenge will result in the downing of another Sukhoi, or perhaps a MiG. He will then go mad. The Russian president has now launched indiscriminate bombings of the Syrian Turkuman regions. This is not a war, it is an act of revenge. Who can guarantee that another Sukhoi will not be shot down, this time by a ground-to-air missile? The bear will be filled with more rage. He will accuse Saudi Arabia or Qatar or both of supplying the revolutionaries with the missile and will hold them responsible. The deterioration of his economic position also adds to his anger. His economy has lost its position as the 8th ranking in the world and is now lagging behind Spain and North Korea, both of which surpassed him in Gross National Product. At this juncture he may just accuse Saudi Arabia of causing the fall in oil prices.
Can we meet the Russians half way in the middle of a Syrian road so as to avert a disastrous result? I think that this is highly unlikely. If we were to define our project in Syria and in the region, it would be a project that does not involve intervention but is based on its full independence and the establishment of a pluralistic democratic system of governance in Damascus. If we were to define the Russian project, though, we would find it based on minority rule and foreign intervention under the guise of staged elections and fake democracy similar to the version in Russia, where public liberties are in retreat while the state is growing bigger and bigger; where the press is scared because the price of doing ones job is a bullet in the head fired by persons unknown.
These two projects stand in stark contradiction to one another in Vienna. Due to their huge differences they will never agree. They will also clash on Syrian territory until one defeats the other. Just as it is impossible for the Kingdom to accept a permanent Iranian influence in Syria, Turkey will not want, from a strategic point of view, Russian influence on its southern border. It will be inevitable for us to clash. Since Putin lacks any notion of chivalry, he will not concede defeat and back down in the spirit of a sportsman; he will, most likely, continue in the confrontation. He will escalate the situation militarily and try to drive a wedge within our ranks, for there are indeed gaps there that he will seek to exploit. Our situation is similar to that of Al-Hussein Bin Ali, may Allah be pleased with him. We have allies whose swords are with us but whose hearts are against us (I have deliberately reversed the wordings so as to agree with the context). These are the ones who agree with Putin in some aspects of his project, namely the regeneration of despotism in Syria in the guise of a deformed democratic system that does not bear the Assad head but lives with his claws. They are not unhappy with the Iranian-Russian expansion in Syria but are displeased to see Saudi Arabia rise as a regional leader. They have even shown more displeasure toward the Saudi alliance with Turkey and are unhappy to see such ties expand day after day as they plan together for the future. Should the balance of power in the region tilt in favour of Putin's camp, they will uncover their true colours and side with the tsar.
Lastly, will Putin dare carry out dirty operations in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey, such as those called for by Pravda and his former adviser? Will he, for instance, target a certain site and claim that it is a training camp for terrorists or that it is a warehouse of weapons destined for Syria where it would pose a threat to “world peace” and the safety of Russian pilots? These are dangers that should be taken into consideration. They call for the necessity of activating Saudi foreign policy in cooperation with the Turks and the Qataris in order to persuade the Europeans that adopting silence as a strategy vis-a-vis Putin will, as with every other dictator, only increase his appetite. The man is behaving like an arrogant bully and not as a prudent politician, but this should not be a surprise. After all, he is the graduate of the old Soviet school of intelligence and will, therefore, not hesitate to pursue the dirtiest of methods, such as the assassination of a former Chechen president who took refuge in Doha in 2000 or the liquidation of a political opponent in London in 2006 using poison in the most horrid way. Nor have presidents of republics escaped his wrath. He poisoned a former president of Ukraine as part of his efforts to make it submit to Russia. That led to the rigging of elections and then to a popular revolution that eventually turned into a civil war that is still raging to this day. It’s a lousy record, yet Putin remains important and it is necessary to deal with him, not least because he leads a superpower.
I do not mean to weaken anyone's resolve. Nor am I suggesting that we cannot handle him. All I am saying is that we should expect the worst and, therefore, should be careful. Furthermore, we are on the defensive and cannot withdraw from the Syrian arena. Our support for the Syrian revolution is an act of defence on behalf of our own country. What matters is that we take care as we find ourselves compelled to walk through the Russian forest.
Jamal Khashogji is a Saudi writer and journalist. Translated from AlHayat, 28 November, 2015
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.