Arab media reported on something this week that I did not see any mention of in the Israeli media: the Kremlin announced that by the end of this year – that is, within the next few months – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud will pay a visit to Moscow. It doesn’t seem like a terribly important bit of information at first glance, just a blurb about one leader paying another a state visit, but this is not just a visit. This is a political gesture that signals Saudi Arabia’s move towards forging an alliance with Russia.
There are four reasons that lie behind this step. The most important is America’s weak standing in the region, obvious to all and exacerbated by Obama’s announcing his retirement from the position of world policeman and the beginning of the American electoral campaign. There is no one to talk to anymore in Washington, especially now that it has become clear that the Iran Agreement is a “done deal.” The Saudis are furious that the agreement was allowed to pass and see it as no less than a breach of trust towards their country on the part of the United States. In contrast to Israel, however, they are keeping their feelings to themselves and playing the international scene coolly with a clearheaded assessment of the new and future realities.
The second reason is the decisiveness Russia displayed in its Syrian involvement, all the more glaring in comparison with the ineffectual US and NATO responses. The Saudis fear that Assad, whom they consider a heretic Allawite whose blasphemous regime must not and can not be allowed to rule over Muslims, will remain in power. They are also furious at the “Butcher of Damascus” bloodbath that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives, many of them Sunnis. King Salman wants to get Putin’s ear in order to influence him on this issue.
The third reason is Saudi fear of an Iranian-Russian alliance outside therange of Saudi influence. Without the backing of America and Europe, the Saudis prefer to act along the lines of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” The king feels that he will have more influence on the Iranians with regard to Yemen, Iraq and Syria if he joins the club instead of remaining outside it.
The fourth reason is Saudi Arabia’s desire to be sure that Russia does not put “boots on the ground” in the war against ISIS. The Saudis do not like Caliph Abu Bakr’s Jihadists, mainly because they have given Islam a bad name, but the Saudi king does not want to see Russia – the land of the unbelievers who drink vodka and eat pork – eliminating large numbers of Sunni Muslims and conquering a Sunni-Islamic state. Remember, there were times when the Saudis supported Islamic State.
The sum total of these reasons has propelled the Saudi king right into Putin’s muscular arms.
But it is also important to note the meeting’s framework: the Saudi king will leave his palace and travel to visit Putin in Putin’s home. In the past, presidents and prime ministers would gather at the entrance to the Saudi King’s throne room, and today it is he who is going to visit Putin, the new kid on the block. And the block is that decaying slum known as the Middle East.
Israel, too, has discovered Russia and its growing sphere of influence in the region – and that realization is what sent Netanyahu to Putin a month ago and brought about the visits of high ranking Russian army officers to Israel. It looks as though Israel does not want to be left outside the equation now that Russia is becoming increasingly involved in Syria, especially since Iran is solidly placed on the other side of the equation.
Recently, there has been a noticeable and interesting change in the tone of Russian spokesmen appearing on the Arab media. Up to as little as a week ago, they spoke about Russia’s limited goals in Syria, including ensuring the continuation of the Assad regime even if it is limited to a small part of the country – the Allawite region on the coast near the ports of Latakia, Tartus and Banias. It did not sound as if Russia is planning a massive campaign against Islamic State, which wields control over 60% of Syria.
Now, the tone of Russian broadcasters has changed. They have begun expressing worry about the slow trickle of Islamic State into countries that were once considered Southern Soviet Russia: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tagikistan, as well as its infiltration into those Muslim minority groups who live within the Russian Federation: Chechins, Tatars, Pamiris, to name a few.
The Tatars have good reason to rise against Russia after masses of their people were expelled from the Crimean Peninsula, taken from Ukraine and annexed to Russia. The Chechens still have not avenged the destruction of their capital Grozny or the thousands the Russians murdered there in the nineties.
It is important to recall that there are large numbers of Muslims among the low- ranking soldiers in the Russian Army, making it quite possible for ISIS to try to enlist army men to do what Nidal Hassan did in Fort Hood – that is, kill 13 of his friends and wound 31. This is not far off the mark, because there are 200 Muslim rebel volunteers who come from Russia – and one of them, a redhead of Chechen origin – is the commander of the rebel forces near Aleppo. At least one film shows him butchering three regime supporters with his own hands.
He and those like him, can speak Russian or Chechen to their Russian soldier friends, and if just one soldier in a thousand becomes secretly loyal to ISIS, he could then sow death and destruction among his friends.
ISIS knows no mercy and imposes no limits on its behavior. Anyone who enlists in the Russian Army and identifies with ISIS thought processes and activities could bring catastrophe on Russian forces. Imagine what kind of disaster could be wreaked by a soldier on an armed battleship bringing weapons to Syria, if he were willing to die as a shaheed while performing a terror act that sinks the ship.
In addition to all the above considerations, it seems that the Russian air force bombings do have the ability to change the situation on the ground. Over the last few days, Assad forces, Hezbollah and the Iranians, launched an unprecedented ground attack against the rebels and ISIS, succeeding in retaking certain areas and villages for the Assad regime. It is quite possible that Putin’s appetite will increase as he gets a taste of victory – and that, as long as the Russian coalition forces are ringing up successes, he will try to extend the framework of the fighting against ISIS before it gets a foothold in Russia and changes the war against extremism to a war within that country.
Two months ago, a US Army officer said that ISIS will be around for at least a decade. Russia’s actions over the last few days point to the possibility that Russia does not intend to wait for NATO or the US, and will do what everyone else is afraid to do, that is, wage an all-out battle against the Islamic extremists, destroying ISIS before ISIS destroys Russia.
There are situations that boil down to “either them or us”. Putin seems to think he is facing one of them now. Only time will tell.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel National News.