Syria struggle is between countries, not groups!

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi
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I wrote an article last week warning that Russian president Vladimir Putin might be a threat to Saudi Arabia due to his stubbornness and politics in Syria. I also pointed out that it would be wise to anticipate this danger in order to prevent it from happening.

My article, which was widely read, attracted tremendous attention and received the highest number of comments from al-Hayat’s readers, most of whom were supporting my point of view, according to what the IT department of the newspaper told me.

However, along with this attention, the article was targeted by a smear campaign led by colleagues who are supposed to be wise enough and refute one argument with another, adding what might have been missing and correcting what might have been wrong. Nevertheless, a colleague started shouting “who does he [the author] think he is to give the impression that we are in a state of war with Russia?”

Well, “he” is a writer just like you, defending your right to express your views freely, form the public opinion and analyze the ongoing situation. Therefore, if he were to be muzzled, so would you be, which would affect the process of forming opinions. Another colleague qualified those who are warning against Putin’s threat as opportunists and started hitting below the belt stating: “These are the author’s desires that serve both a cause he is fond of and his affiliations outside his country’s borders!”

Such criticisms are usually unworthy of any response, had they not been approved by many who were affected by the nihilistic conflict between movements, and considered the article as an “attempt to drag the kingdom into a Turkish-Russian conflict that serves the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood,” as a former colleague and editor-in-chief wrote to me, confining the Syrian crisis and its repercussions to the Brotherhood. Some persons are suffering from a very advanced state of Ikhwanophobia – or fear of the Muslim Brotherhood – which is blurring their vision and preventing them from seeing the real imminent danger. This phobia might happen to any author who would then discuss and correct others’ opinions, but once it affects decision-making, it becomes more dangerous and vicious.

The Syrian crisis is a complicated regional and international matter bigger than the Muslim Brotherhood, and all of political Islam, which are nothing but small players in a larger playground. It is a revolution for freedom for the large number of the Syrian people who had to take up arms and defend themselves against the regime’s oppression. And when resolving the crisis, we must listen to them. For this purpose, the kingdom was keen to invite some fifteen armed factions to represent them in the Syrian general conference which will be held in Riyadh or Abha in a few days, in addition to Syrian national and religious figures, as well as representatives of the minorities.

The crisis is a struggle among countries that are bigger than a simple organization, and a race of movements.

Jamal Khashoggi

The crisis is a regional power struggle. If we consider it from a mere Saudi perspective, the kingdom will neither stand nor accept a permanent Iranian military influence in its northern part or in Syria. To date, no party has provided Saudi Arabia with a regional solution that would ease its security fears and guarantee its one condition: “Syria without Iran”.

Until this condition is met, the ongoing Russian interference might make the kingdom think twice before stepping on Syrian ground to avoid any confrontation with the Russian giant. Nevertheless, it did not alter its firm stance. Here, we can go back to the statements of Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir who, even after the downing of the Russian plane by the Turks, is still insisting on Assad’s departure as a condition to reach a solution “through peaceful or hostile means”.

On the other hand, if we consider the crisis from an Iranian perspective, Iran is defending its influence, which has spread to the Eastern Mediterranean and is allowing it to reconstruct history according to its narrow sectarian vision. And if they lose Syria, they will also lose Lebanon and their influential party there. Therefore, it is a war of existence that the Iranians are waging in our world. As for the Turks, they agree with Saudi Arabia on rejecting the Iranian presence and have a number of interests such as protecting the Turkmen minority there, and preventing the extension of the Kurds in a micro-state of their own.

Global race

Globally, it is a race between Russia and the West, extending from the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine to the Eastern Mediterranean, and to the Republic of Montenegro. The latter country previously belonged to Yugoslavia, considered as a part of the old Soviet strategic realm inherited by Putin, who wants to rehabilitate it after NATO declared its intention to add Montenegro to the Alliance, infuriating the Russians.

The race might expand to include Egypt, which is under pressure to choose a side after it became confused due to the resolution of its internal struggle in favor of the army, which came to power in July 2013. It seems clear that the latter’s tendencies are directed towards the East, to achieve its vision of independent decision-making. Nevertheless, Egypt is still unbalanced. The persisting pressure will compel it to choose one of the two sides as it is impossible and unacceptable for it to stand in two places at the same time. This might explain the Saudi position, putting up with the excesses of the Egyptian media expressing the opinions of the powers inside the system that are heading east, and its enacting of the Saudi-Egyptian coordination council which held a series of other meetings in Riyadh a few days ago. There is a prevailing and deliberate state of ambiguity that can be clearly discerned when listening to the press conference of the foreign minister of any country “involved in the Syrian conflict” as floating statements joined together bear more than one interpretation.

It is an attempt from everyone to avoid the “moment of truth” which requires an explicit sorting of positions as relations and interests are intertwined. Even Iran – which is the evident enemy of Saudi Arabia, for example – is neither an absolute enemy of Turkey because it has interests in its oil and markets, nor that of Western countries currently seeking economic gains for its companies in the big and virgin Iranian market, after they signed the nuclear agreement with Iran that is, in reality, a historical reconciliation.

UAE, Jordan, U.S.

A state such as the UAE is completely aligned with Saudi Arabia in Yemen but does not want any cooperation with Turkey in Syria, and is maintaining its trade relations with Iran. Jordan is against Bashar al-Assad and is allowing Saudi Arabia and the United States to support and train the revolutionaries from its lands but, at the same time, does not wish to get involved in a struggle it is unable to handle. For its part, the United States is a ball of contradictions. It is against Assad but, in parallel, is preventing the armament of the revolutionaries and intends to conduct a military ground operation against ISIS in Syria, with the support of the Kurds, that is launched from Turkey, which is the state that fears the Kurds and their ambitions. Even the kingdom, which is rejecting the Russian interference in Syria and had, indeed, warned them straight away from its consequences, is still developing its trade relations with Russia; perhaps such approximation could constitute a possibility of agreement between both countries. After rejecting NATO’s operations in Libya, Germany is planning to send five thousand fighters to fight ISIS in Raqqa, not to mention the stands of the rest of the countries.

Making judgments based on the previous details is useless as stances can change. We should, rather, form our opinion based on consistent stands like the ones of Saudi Arabia (“Syria without Iran”), Iran’s (“red lines in Syria”) and the most important of all, which is the position of the Syrian majority (“a free Syria”). These three positions form the founding principles for understanding the Syrian conflict rather than the transient and changing American, European or Russian stances. In this case, what would be the role of an orphan stance such as the “political Islam” or the “Muslim Brotherhood” in the conflict?

I will go back now to my precedent article and respond in short to the colleagues that an article written in a newspaper cannot influence the kingdom, which has a consistent principle it will not deviate from, even if it adapts its positions to arising developments and its own capabilities. Moreover, it cannot be dragged to line up with Turkey because it is already on the same page with it. They have also overlooked the fact that the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated last Monday, while standing next to NATO’s Secretary-General, that his country, Saudi Arabia and a third unspecified nation are preparing to launch a military operation in Syria to fight terrorism.

Saudi Arabia did not deny such a high-level statement, and Davutoglu would certainly not say that if he did not personally participate or, at least, know about top security meetings between the three countries dedicated to planning such an operation.

Can we call that a Saudi-Turkish military alliance? Those who are suffering from Ikhwanophobia reject it, or do not want to believe it, and insist on considering Turkey as an organization rather than a regional power! Turkey is not an organization; however, Iran and al-Assad’s regime as well as their ally Russia are observing the alliance and are, most probably, getting ready for it. They are aware that the crisis is a struggle among countries that are bigger than a simple organization, and a race of movements. So could you please do the same?

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 5, 2015.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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