We had better take seriously the implicit Russian threats made in an article published by the Pravda website, which is supportive of President Vladimir Putin. It urged the sanction of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey due to what the writer claimed was the three countries' support of ISIS, something it said threatens to trigger World War III. Such a sentiment was also reflected in the Echo of Moscow website by one of the Russian President’s former advisers, who was blatantly calling for the targeting of military positions and oil sites in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Yes, Putin is foolish, brutal and cannot be trusted. But I believe he also hates us - and that we must consider these threats as being made directly by him.
Putin built his reputation as Russia’s ruthless strongman when he first came to power 15 years ago. He gained popularity by stimulating the feelings of nationalism and the Russian national pride and by rekindling in Russians’ hearts some kind of hope, in a similar way as under fascism. This was his way of compensating them for his economic failure, and the disparities of wealth between poor and middle-income earners, and the opulent ruling minority.
Violation of international legitimacy
Putin moved victorious from Chechnya, where he conducted all sorts of killing and destruction, to Ukraine where he annexed Crimea to his empire, in a clear violation of international legitimacy.
The West objected at that time, and used a lot of rhetoric, before accepting the fait accompli. Then the Tsar came to our Arab world, where he claims to have “vital interests”, and entered without permission, got comfortable and concluded an alliance with the sectarian minority, joining them in the killing and oppression, and imposing his own status quo.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will become intertwined with the Syrian opposition in the eyes of Putin. After he will fail to defeat them, he will search for someone to blame - and will find no one but us.Jamal Khashoggi
Putin is even meddling in Muslim affairs, turning to a minority that shares his passions and ambitions. He met with Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, offering him an old Quran manuscript as a gift, as if saying 'here is Islam'. Meanwhile, Putin dares to criticize what he calls the policy of “Islamization” in Turkey! It is, therefore, only a matter of time before he attacks Saudi Arabia and makes it carry the burden of both the old and the new.
Putin has scored victory after victory, arranging them as medals on his chest to be worn on the day he would be acclaimed as the head of the dominating power in a region that extends from Crimea to Syria. Putin’s dream was however hindered by three stubborn countries that rejected his project and refused to be submissive to him: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.
All of this became evident last Tuesday morning when the Turkish air force downed a Russian fighter jet, which fell amid “God is great” chants and the cheering of Syrian rebels in mountains near the Syrian-Turkish border. A few moments were enough to draw the new rules of the political game in the Middle East.
For just like Putin changed the rules of the game when he backed the Iranians and the Syrian regime in their war against a people longing for freedom, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the one changing the rules now.
The incident of the Russian plane will happen again as we are almost in a state of war with the Russians despite of all the visits, meetings and exchanged smiles. Sooner or later, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will become intertwined with the Syrian opposition in the eyes of Putin. After he will fail to defeat them, he will search for someone to blame - and will find no one but us.
Moreover, if the coming negotiations in Vienna fail (which is most likely to happen), parties involved in the Syrian conflict will have no choice but to escalate the confrontations to achieve a victory that will end the conflict.
Putin invincible no more
Another confrontation might take place even before the Vienna negotiations. The downing of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet has distorted the image of the invincible Putin and his feared Russia. This will affect Putin’s situation internally, especially with the arrival home of the bodies of the soldiers involved in Russia’s first external war since its defeat in Afghanistan.
Putin might defy the Turks for a second time; then, another Sukhoi or Mig will be shot down and he will definitely lose his mind. Putin, indeed, started an indiscriminate bombing of the Syrian Turkmen areas. This is not a war but a revenge operation! Who can guarantee that another Sukhoi fighter jet will not be shut down, this time by a surface-to-air missile? The bear will get angrier; he will accuse Saudi Arabia or Qatar or even both of providing the revolutionaries with the missile, and put the blame on them.
The deteriorating economic situation of Russia is also increasing Putin’s anger, as Russia lost its ranking as the world’s eighth biggest economy and dropped in terms of GDP. From this perspective, Russia will accuse Saudi Arabia of reducing oil prices.
Can we meet halfway with the Russians in Syria in order to avoid the unthinkable? I rule that out. Consider our project in Syria, which does not include any intervention, but is based on Syria’s full independence and the establishment of a democratic Syrian government. On the other hand, the Russian stance is based on the rule of the minority, and a permanent foreign interference under the cover of false and democratic elections similar to the ones held in Russia, where the government has become a savage and where the journalists fear being killed for pursuing their profession.
These two stances will never converge due to their big differences. At the same time, they will keep on clashing on Syrian territory, until one triumphs over the other. Just as Saudi Arabia will never accept a permanent Iranian influence in Syria, Turkey will also reject any permanent Russian influence in its southern part. The bottom line is that we will inevitably confront each other. Given that Putin lacks the chivalry to accept defeat and walk away, he will most probably cause a military escalation in Syria. He will try to break our ranks and divide us, as we have many gaps he can seek to exploit.
Will Putin dare threaten Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Qatar as called for through Pravda and his former adviser? Putin is behaving arrogantly, like a bully, rather than a skilled politician. He was trained in the old Soviet intelligence school and, thus, adopts their dirtiest methods with no hesitation. Putin has a very negative track record; nevertheless, he remains important and we must deal with him because he is the head of a major power.
I am not saying that Putin is beyond our control but I expect the worse, and call for caution. We are in a defensive position and cannot withdraw from the Syrian arena because our support to its revolution is a way of defending our country as well. It is important to be cautious as we are forced to enter the Russian forest.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Nov. 28, 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