Is the Syrian Crisis a Proxy War against Russia?

Yusuf Fernandez

During the Cold War, Moscow constructed a solid relationship with many countries of the Arab and the Muslim world that became its allies. However, Saudi Arabia and some other US-backed Arab regimes launched a global jihad campaign in the 1980s against the Soviet Union, which had sent troops to Afghanistan to prevent the fall of the communist regime to the “Islamist insurgents”. At the same time, they conducted a strong propaganda campaign to persuade Muslims that “the Russians” were actually an enemy of Islam.
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After the end of the Soviet Union, the US invaded Iraq with a false pretext, the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq war meant for Russia the loss of another ally and the further reduction of its influence in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

However, Russia worked to reverse this trend and launched a diplomatic offensive in the Arab world in the end of the 2000s. Moscow then offered Syria and Egypt nuclear power stations and reestablished a naval presence at the Syrian port of Tartus. It also started relations with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement ruling the Gaza Strip. As member of the Quartet of Middle East negotiators (along with the EU, the United States and the UN), Russia insisted that Israel should respect the international law and freeze the expansion of its illegal settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem as a condition of further talks.

Russia began to cooperate in different fields –energy, defence, trade and so on- with Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. This alarmed the US and Saudi Arabia, which understood that if Russia expanded its relations with all these countries, the Middle East would acquire a totally different appearance. That is why they sought to further reduce the Russian presence in the region by toppling two regimes that had traditionally been allies and trading partners of Russia: Libya and Syria.

The Libyan mistake

Most Russians think that one of the biggest mistakes that then president Dmitry Medvedev ever made was to order Russia´s ambassador on the UN Security Council not to veto a West-sponsored resolution to create no-fly zones in Libya.

By naively allowing the creation of these no-fly zones over Libya, Russia gave the US, Britain and France the pretext they needed to openly use the force against Muammar Gaddafi´s regime. They launched a facto campaign of regime change, funded by the Arab monarchies; that overthrew the Libyan government.

What the Western propaganda presented as a “humanitarian intervention” ended up with a convenient result that favoured NATO strategic interests and damaged Russia´s position in the Arab world.

Moscow lost a former ally and trading partner and a $4-billion arms deal with Libya, which the new leaders of this country have not respected. Russian experts claim that the Libyan mistake should never be reLibya nato strikepeated.

The following one in the West´s list was Syria, one of the best allies and clients of Russian arms. In recent years, Syria has increased its weapons purchases. From 2007 to 2010, the value of Russian arms deals with Syria more than doubled to $4.7 billion from $2.1 billion.
Russia also has a naval station at Tartus, in northern Syria, its only military installation outside of former Soviet territories. The site is not actually a real naval base but a station to replenish food and water and carry out some occasional repairs. However, it serves the Russian navy to maintain its presence in the Mediterranean Sea and it big enough to take in a missile cruiser and nuclear submarines.

The commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Vice-Admiral Viktor Chirkov, was quoted by Russian news agency RIA-Novosti as saying: “This base is essential to us; it has been operating and will continue to operate.”

There are numerous other economic and cultural bonds between Russia and Syria. Many Russian companies are working in oil and natural gas in the Arab country. The state-owned nuclear energy giant, Rosatom, has agreed on building a power plant there. Other Russian companies have also interests in sectors such as agriculture, pharmacy, infrastructures and telecommunications.

In this way, the attempts by a group of Western and Arab states to promote violence in Syria and install a new regime under their influence have led to rising tensions between Russia and these countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Along with its regional ally Qatar, Saudi Arabia has been funnelling money and weaponry to Syrian armed opposition groups. The hostility of these regimes toward Syria has nothing to do with “democracy” –Saudi Arabia is one of the most violently repressive and backwards countries in the world- and everything to do with the alliance of Damascus with Moscow and Tehran. Saudi Arabia is trying to create a group of anti-Iranian states and to expel Russia from the Middle East by depriving it from its main ally in the region.

However, Saudi rulers feel frustrated because the Russian and Chinese vetos have doomed their efforts to promote a foreign military intervention in Syria to failure. Riyadh has accused Moscow of opposing itself to the so-called “Sunni world” while allying itself with the alleged “Shiite” axis. For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 2, in which it accused Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism in Syria.

Konstantin Dolgov, Russian envoy in the Human Rights Commission, has also recently expressed his “great concern” about the situation in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia following the clashes between Saudi security foces and peaceful demonstrators in which several people were killed and dozens were wounded and arrested.

The jihadist war in Syria and the North of Caucasus

Apart from their role in the Middle East, Russia fears that a victory of Saudi and Qatari-sponsored jihadist groups in Syria could also have a negative impact on the situation in Russia´s North Caucasus, where “Wahhabi insurgency” is widespread, especially in regions as Chechnya and Dagestan.
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Moscow distrusts Saudi Arabia because of its backing of the Wahhabis or Salafists. Actually, the insurgency in the North of Caucasus has been funded by Saudi private organizations and individuals. At the same time, Russia sees Iran and Syria as two bulwarks to the spread of extremist Wahhabism into Russia´s North Caucasus region.

It is noteworthy to point out that Syria has an important Chechen community with links to the North Caucasus but this community has never given problems to Moscow. However, this could change if rebels toppled Assad´s regime. Syria could then become a haven for anti-Russian activities and a source of funding and support for terrorism in the Russian territory.

Some media has already reported the presence of Russian jihadists in Syria. A Chechen extremist site recently revealed that Rustom Gelayev -son of a former separatist Chechen leader, Ruslan, who participated in the war against Russia- was killed in the streets of Aleppo. Rustom arrived in Syria at the beginning of the summer with two groups of volunteers. He was killed between 11 and 13 August. His body was repatriated on August 17.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian  
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