The United States, Russia, and The Syrian Crisis

The most important international factor that influences the Syrian crisis is the politics of the United States and Russia.  In the eyes of the majority of the American observers, the primary factor for the continuing bloodshed in Syria is the diplomatic and military support rendered to Assad's regime by Russia.

Let's take a closer look at the main arguments of the powerful group of observers and experts who tend to blame exclusively Moscow for the endless bloodbath in Syria.  Some of those arguments are absolutely correct.  It is true that one of the main reasons for the Russian attitude is the traditional close relationship between Moscow and Damascus that has lasted for decades.  It is also true that the loss of this connection will deprive Russia of its only remaining ally in the area.  In case of a regime change, Russia is about to lose Tartus, which is the only base of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean. 

Undoubtedly, given that in the eyes of President Putin the United States is the main geopolitical enemy of his country, he is determined not to allow an American victory in the Syrian confrontation.  All this is true, and it fits the "blame Russia for Syria's calamity" school of interpretation.  At the same time, however, there are some additional elements of the picture that as a rule are absent from Western analyses but which happen to be absolutely correct.

The most important among them is Moscow's stake in the future of bilateral relations with Syria and the Russian interest in finding a solution to the crisis that will preserve the secular system of government.  This dimension of the Russian approach to the Syrian crisis has never been properly understood by Sec. Clinton.  As far as the State Department bureaucracy is concerned, they also don't understand, or rather pretend not to understand, that a victory of the opposition will be nothing short of the establishment of an Islamic dictatorship over Syria

At the same time, regardless of the hostile attitude of President Putin, portraying the United States as enemy number one, he realizes to an extent the nature of the Islamic danger hanging over Russia.  That is why at least part of the Russian policy regarding Iran is based on the fear of the Shia-related Iranian influence.  Any confrontation with Teheran will increase the magnitude of the Islamic threat to Moscow.

The main threat for Russia is the Saudi-originated Wahhabist branch of extreme Islam.  Wahhabism is the ideological fuel to the fundamentalist guerrilla warfare in the area of the Northern Caucasus.  The most disturbing recent development was the attempt on the lives of two leading Muslim clerics who were attacked in the center of Kazan (the capital of Tatarstan, the largest Muslim-populated province of the Russian Federation, located 400 kilometers east of Moscow).  One of them died, and the other was wounded.  The reason for the attack was their hostility towards Wahhabism.  In short, Moscow doesn't want to see the Assad regime replaced by a fanatical Islamic state ruled by Wahhabists.

There are two possible exits from the seemingly endless conflict that ravages Syria.  One of them is highly desirable but also highly unlikely.  It would require an American-Russian understanding based on the agreement of both countries not to accept the establishment of an Islamic-dominated dictatorship over Syria after the end of the Assad regime.

The second option would express itself in the breakup of Syria by the emergence of a mini-Alawite state along the coastline, where most of the Alawites live.  Such a state will be protected by the Syrian army in its present composition.  There are talks also between some Kurdish activists and their compatriots from Northern Iraq for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region on Syrian soil.  Under such a scenario, most of Syria, including the capital of Damascus, will be a part of an Islamic, theocratic state.

There is much more contradiction than unity within the ranks of the Syrian opposition.  Heavy-duty mutual accusations are flying back and forth among the representatives of the different organizations and leaders.  The ideological pendulum of the enemies of the Assad regime varies from the hardcore jihadists all the way to the relatively limited group that includes pro-Western democrats.

Every outside attempt to help the unification of the anti-Assad opposition has failed.  As a matter of fact, the most recent event along those lines that took place in Cairo in early July, instead of bringing about much-sought-after togetherness and solidarity, made things worse.  The Kurdish delegation, for instance. virtually stormed out of the last session of the conference because of the unwillingness of the potential Arab allies to recognize their national identity.

There is more to this picture, though.  The most numerous and the best-organized component of the opposition is represented by the notorious Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the many tragic features of the civil war that devastates Syria expresses itself in the fact that the Brotherhood is not fighting for democracy.  The goal of the Brothers is to replace the authoritarian and secular dictatorship of Bashir Assad with an Islamic tyranny based on the ideology of the Sunni-based extreme variety of Islam.

In the aftermath of the repressions that followed the crackdown of the Hama-based Islamic insurrection of 1982, many participants have left the country.  The majority of them settled in Germany and Spain, where they were immediately granted the status of political refugees.  With the growth of Jihadism that followed 9/11 and the outbreak of the Iraqi war, the Syrian Islamists were amongst the most active fighters for global jihad.  They fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya -- in short, everywhere.  Evidently oblivious to the hospitality of the people of Spain, their Syrian guests established a connection of their own to the infamous Madrid bombing of 2004.

A Syrian jihadist by the name of Abu Musab al Suri played a key role in the popularization of the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world.  It was al Suri who published on Pakistani soil a book entitled The Islamic Jihadi Revolution in Syria, which established him as one of the main theoreticians of jihad.

As it has been pointed out, the most tragic aspect of the American-Russian confrontation over Syria is the fact that it is the clash between Washington and Moscow that feeds the continuation of the Syrian civil war and, consequently, the huge loss of innocent life.  Unless the policymakers of both countries accept the reality that it is Islamic fundamentalism which represents the biggest threat hanging over them, the Syrian tragedy will continue under different shapes and forms that finally will impact the ability of the country to survive.

Georgy Gounev, Ph.D. teaches the ideology & strategy of radical Islam in Southern California and is the author of the book The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon. The Islamization of Europe and its Impact on the American-Russian Relations, Foreign Policy Challenges LLC, Laguna Hills, 2011.

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