GCC analysts see spectre of Afghanistan in Syria
LONDON - As Russian air strikes entered a second week in Syria and Moscow announced that “volunteer” ground forces would soon join the fight, observers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states perceive the escalation as a last-ditch effort to preserve the regime of a long-time Kremlin ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russian jets have pounded areas controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS). However, moderate members of the Syrian opposition and civilians have also been hit during Moscow’s bombardments, much to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, the main backers of the moderate opposition in Syria.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the situation in Syria is the worst humanitarian disaster of the current era.
“Yet, the international community continues to be unable to save the Syrian people from the killing machine that is being operated by Bashar al-Assad,” he said, underscoring that the conflict has claimed more than 240,000 lives and driven millions of Syrians from the country.
Jubeir called for collective action to end the suffering of the Syrian people, based on a political solution as set out in the 2012 Geneva communiqué.
He also emphasised that Assad and “other perpetrators of crimes” should not be part of that process, saying: “Those whose hands are stained with the blood of the Syrian people” have no place in a “new Syria”.
Gulf analysts for the most part have been critical of the Russian incursion. In a recent column Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid warned: “The recent Russian military moves — far from leading to the defeat of the militant group — have increased the risk that the Syrian conflict and the fight against ISIS will escalate into a full-blown proxy war.”
Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi journalist who covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89), cautioned that Russia’s involvement in Syria would make Assad’s crimes pale in comparison.
“The Russians are ugly in their wars,” Khashoggi wrote. “They destroy the land and its people in order to kill one fighter. This is what they did in Afghanistan. They displaced 5 million Afghanis from their country in one year, making them the largest number of refugees from one country.”
However, retired Saudi general and military strategist Anwar Eshki sees benefits to the Russian intervention in Syria. “The Russian operation is complicated because of the reality on the ground,” Eshki said.
According to Eshki, Russian authorities are aware that ISIS’s equivalent of minister of defence — what they refer to as the “Emir of Jihad” — is one of the former Soviet Union’s biggest enemies, known as Abu Omar al-Shishani.
“Moreover, there are thousands of Chechnya fighters in Syria and Moscow knows that when the war is over these fighters are going to go home and turn their attention there,” he said.
With regards to the targeting of civilians and the moderate opposition, Eshki said this was due to faulty intelligence from pro-Assad supporters, including Iran and Hezbollah.
“I think it’s important to support Russia in removing these terrorists from Syria but the concerned Gulf states need to be involved in the aftermath and work with Russia, so not alienating Moscow is important,” he added.
However, the prospects of a GCC military response is highly unlikely according to Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc. “Given that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is yet to achieve its objective of restoring President [Abd Rabbo Mansour] Hadi’s government in Sana’a, it seems unlikely that the Saudis would become militarily involved in Syria in the near future,” Nazer said.
“It is one thing for Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis and their allies across the border in Yemen. It is something very different to project its military power into Syria where Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are actively supporting Assad,” he added.
Nazer pointed out that while there is wide support in Saudi Arabia for diplomatic outreach to Russia, Moscow’s recent military involvement in Syria has been met by dismay by officials and Saudis at large.
A consortium of Saudi clerics not affiliated with the government issued a religious decree calling for jihad against the Assad regime, Russia and Iran. The online statement, which echoed the calls for jihad during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, was signed by a number of scholars with a history of opposing the Saudi government.
In October 2013, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, urged Saudis to refrain from fighting in Syria. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh issued a fatwa emphasising that jihad in Syria was “not obligatory”.