As Chairman of the International Relations Committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, I met with the Russian delegation which attended this year’s Jeddah Economic Forum. I explained that Saudis were not very welcoming, due to Russia’s position on Syria.
They asked why Saudis would care about what is going on in another country. I asked, in return, why they supported the ethnically and religiously related Serbs against Muslims and Croats, and why they thought that the Muslim world supported Afghanis and their jihad against the Soviet invaders. Syria is an Arab neighbor with whom we have strong ethnic and cultural ties. In fact, Damascus was the capital of the Muslim caliphate for a long while. How can we ignore our brethren’s strife?
I reminded them of a time when Russia was very popular in the Middle East for its “apparent” support of the Palestinian cause. Few noticed then that Jewish immigration from Russia to Israel never ceased. Many of the immigrants were great nuclear scientists and industrialists who helped tip the balance in Israel’s favor.
A member of the Russian delegation later told me privately: “The reasons Russia supports the Syrian regime are strong. We do have great economic and military interests in Syria, but the most important reason is not known to all.”
He explained: “After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the loss of Eastern Europe to the West, we have been losing ever since. The Soviet Union was dissolved, many of its republics joined NATO and now threaten our borders. Our allies from South America to Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia were joining the other camp, one after the other.
“In this region alone we lost Egypt, South Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Syria stands alone as the last base and ally. If we lose it, we would be saying goodbye to our global influence, and would be declaring defeat to NATO and the West. We cannot afford that.”
I told him that Russia was betting on the wrong horse. Al-Assad and his regime are already losing. If Russia takes the right stand today it may cut its losses. The Syrians, Arabs, Muslims and the international community will never forgive or forget that Russia stood beside a genocide president until he dropped dead. Not only did Russia protect him from Security Council resolutions, but it actually supplied him with weapons and tools to kill his own people. History and the world will judge Russia for that. Is Russia willing to pay such a high price for supporting a regime that has already lost?
He promised to put my points in his report and take my message to the right people. He warned me, though, that more than cold calculations are involved in influencing the Russian public and politicians on this issue. When national pride is involved, it is hard to discuss passionate issues with pure logic.
I maintained the above reasoning in my discussions and political analyses as the motive for Russia’s stand on Syria. But I later learned another vital reason.
Russia has a growing minority of Muslims (16 percent, according to Reuters), not only in Chechnya, Dagestan and other Muslim republics in the Russian Federation, but also in Russia itself. Islam today is the fastest growing religion in the country, and some Russians are even following the extremist Salafi sect.
While the general Russian population becomes older, with less marriages and fewer children, Muslim families are on average younger and with more children. Therefore, more Muslims are entering the army and the security agencies.
The country’s southern borders are lined with Muslim countries, many of which have bitter memories of the anti-religious suppression campaigns the Soviet Union led against them for seven decades.
Knowing that the new government in Syria will probably follow the example of the Arab Spring revolutions, Russia may have decided to make an example of the Syrian revolt for its Muslim audience.
These reasons combined may explain why Russia is fighting to the end in an attempt to save the Syrian regime and prevent the Islamist revolution from succeeding. As usual they will lose. Putin can take this promise to the bank.