Sunday, December 13, 2015

The conflict in Syria is between states not rival sides


Jamal Khashogji
Jamal Khashogji

Last week I warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a threat to Saudi Arabia due to his stubbornness and politics when it comes to Syria. There was wisdom behind my warnings, which found their place among some of the most widely read articles in Al-Hayatnewspaper, which was confirmed by the online comments.

Yet, even with the great deal of public interest in the article, my ideas were the subject of a smear campaign as some of my colleagues took offence and sought to combat my opinions with their own. They not only offered counter-arguments but one writer was also pushed over the edge to ask who was I to “give the impression that [Syria] is at war with Russia.”
To him I would say that I am a writer like he is and I have the right to help form public opinion on this topic by providing an analysis of what is going on; if he seeks to limit me and prevent me from expressing my opinion then I dare say that he would limit himself and the industry as a whole. Another reaction to my article framed Putin’s actions as if they were opportunistic while yet others accused me of attempting to drag Saudi Arabia into a Turkish-Russian conflict on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. A former colleague even wrote me a letter in which he scaled the cause of the Syrian conflict down to one party: the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a clear example of the Brotherhood-phobia that has been adopted by some who no longer see the danger of adopting such a philosophy. The real danger of this phobia is that it has caused one writer to confront another and has also entered the most dangerous ranks of decision-making circles.
The Syrian conflict is a complicated regional and international crisis that is far greater than the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam as a whole. The main concern of the smallest players within this large-scale conflict is that it is first and foremost a struggle for liberation by a large number of the Syrian people, who have taken up arms against the brutal ways of the Damascus regime. There are now more than 150,000 young Syrian men in dozens of different militias and we cannot ignore their demands and needs if we want to find a solution to this conflict. For that reason, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has invited 15 or so armed factions to represent the Syrian people in the general convention that will take place in Riyadh and Abha within the coming days. In addition, the kingdom has also invited a number of traditional national and religious actors, as well as the representatives of religious minorities whom we have grown accustomed to seeing in conferences in Istanbul, Doha or Cairo.
The Syrian crisis is a crisis of regional actors. From the Saudi perspective, the kingdom will not tolerate permanent Iranian military influence in the north of the country. Until this point, Riyadh has not tolerated any discussion of any regional actor’s suggestion that there will be a “Syria without Iran”; until this condition is met Russian intervention in the country might make the situation more sensitive as many will want to avoid colluding with the Russian giant. Saudi Arabia has yet to change its firm position, as was evidenced by Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir who insisted on Assad’s departure even after a Russian jet was downed by Turkish forces. The minister also insisted that the kingdom prefers finding a peaceful solution rather than one of war. He also stressed that Riyadh’s point of view on Iran was based on the latter’s defence of its sectarian strongholds along the Mediterranean, whether in Syria, Lebanon or elsewhere.
If war has a place in our world then at least Turkey has allied itself with the Saudis in this regard, as it not only rejects Iran’s presence in the Syrian conflict but also seeks to protect the Turkmen minority in Syria as well as prevent the Kurds from expanding into their own mini-state.
On the global level, this is also a battle between Russia and the West, as it expands from the Crimea, Ukraine, the eastern Mediterranean and even the former Yugoslavia, including Montenegro. Putin sought his own global rehabilitation as he announced to NATO last Wednesday his intention to include Montenegro in the alliance. This announcement infuriated many Russians and even went so far as to cause concern for Egypt as the country was pressured to choose an international camp to help resolve the internal conflict that has taken place in the country since July 2013. Following the military takeover, Egypt has stood confused between one man here and another man there but the international community will not allow the country to remain confused forever. It cannot and will not allow Egypt to stand with more than one place at any one time, which may help explain the Saudi position with regards to Egyptian public opinion as well as the cooperative efforts that took place in Riyadh a few days ago.
There is quite a bit of deliberate ambiguity when it comes to the Syrian crisis and this becomes more and more evident upon listening to any press conference held by the foreign ministers of any country concerned with finding a solution for Syria. The current status quo calls on any and everyone to come to terms with the moment of truth and their position in the crisis. There needs to be frankness in attitude, relationships and overlapping interests. Even in the case of the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, neither is a complete enemy of Turkey, as the government in Ankara needs Saudi oil in addition to access to the markets in both countries. Even western countries as of late have benefitted from gaining access to Iran’s markets after the signing of the nuclear agreement.
The UAE stands in complete agreement with Saudi Arabia concerning its position on Yemen but does not want to get involved in the Syrian conflict or with Turkey and wants to maintain its economic relationship with Iran. While Jordan rejects Bashar Al-Assad and has allowed both Saudi Arabia and the US to train soldiers on its territory, it does not want to get involved in a conflict that is far bigger than Jordan itself. The United States, meanwhile, is the mother of all contradictions as it stands against Assad but refuses to arm rebel fighters. Washington is also considering ground operations against Daesh in Syria to support the Kurds further. They seek to launch operations from Turkish territory, a country that fears the Kurds and their ambitions, especially the American-backed PKK, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organisation. While Saudi stands in opposition to Russian interference in Syria, it continues to foster the possibility of growing trade relations with the country, which is perhaps the key to better understanding Moscow. While Germany opposed NATO operations in Libya, it is considering sending five thousand soldiers to fight against Daesh, a position that reflects the standing of other countries as well.
The possibility of building a deal on the provisions mentioned previously are not feasible as the positions of global actors are changing constantly. What needs to be done is for provisions to be built on constant factors, such as the position of Saudi Arabia, which insists on a “Syria without Iran”. What is more important is that this is the position of the majority of the Syrian people who call for a “Free Syria”. These are the outlooks that we need to consider as opposed to western and American viewpoints, which place the current blame on political Islam or the Muslim Brotherhood.
I would like to point out that while there are certain opinions that remain constant in Saudi Arabia’s point of view, the kingdom has not been rigid and unreasonable in its consideration of the Syrian conflict. In the last NATO meeting, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and a third country that he did not wish to name would all be launching a military operation in Syria to fight terrorism. We do not know the details of this operation or who this third country is, but what we do know is that no high level security official has denied Davutoglu’s statement, nor have any details been disclosed of any security meetings among the three countries involved.
Should we consider this latest development as a Turkey-Saudi military alliance? Those who are affected by a Muslim Brotherhood phobia would reject such an outcome and view Turkey as a regional state rather than a larger regional actor. Many people view the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies as a large coalition, but have Turkey and Saudi Arabia just created the same thing?
Translated from Alkhaleejonline, 5 December, 2015

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