|An-Nahar file photo of Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Ali Khamenei|
This is my paraphrasing of a commendable think piece by Jihad el-Zein, which was penned in Arabic for Lebanon’s independent daily an-Nahar:
Why did Russia get to view fundamentalist Shiism as ideologically toothless, hence a worthwhile ally against fundamentalist Sunnism that has made common cause with Washington?
Despite the Western media and American and European think tanks giving contrasting, if not contradictory, explanations for Russia and China’s solid backing of the Syrian regime, most Westerners, Arabs and Syrian opposition groups are adamant the two countries, particularly Russia, will change their positions “sooner or later.”
They insist the Russian position is “temporary” and bound to change once a “deal” is struck, allowing the Russians to drop the Syrian regime as soon as they bag a “good bargain.”
This misperception did not dissipate when the Russians shockingly vetoed a UN Security Council draft resolution sanctioning military intervention in Syria.
Nor did this “analytical syndrome” evaporate after the second double veto by Russia and China at the Security Council or the downing by Syria of a Turkish fighter jet.
Two factors explain the flawed view of Russia.
One factor is underestimation of the Russian Federation’s political, economic and military clout after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Many find it hard to accommodate Russia’s challenge of U.S. supremacy in its own backyard. The Putin Administration has drawn a clear strategic line delineating this backyard or “vital sphere of influence.” Syria, which is not too far from the Caucasus region where Russia has a military presence in Armenia, falls in this backyard.
The second factor is the reluctance to acknowledge how important and serious fundamentalist Islam is in Russia’s internal calculations. The fact fundamentalist Sunnism envelopes the overwhelming majority of Russian Muslims is a cause for concern for Russia. Ditto China apropos its Chinese Muslims.
While the first factor is understandable and expected, the second is less tangible.
It is extremely hard to find public studies by Russian research centers that shed light on the surge of Islam inside Russia. Most studies address the rise of fundamentalism in other countries.
However, the Russian psyche has been encrusted with the Chechnya experience for more than two decades, eventually catapulting Vladimir Putin to the helm. The experience drove Russia to draw a virtual frontline to stem Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s roles in Chechnya. In the view of Russian’s elite and intelligentsia, the two countries supported Chechen rebels in the Russian Caucasus.
We have to take at face value Russian fears of homegrown Islam being a secessionist force in a country that is still the world’s largest. On top of that, the Americans and Europeans have been aspiring for a “spring” in Moscow that would boot out the Putin Administration since before the onset of the Arab Spring. Their aspiration remains alive and kicking. China has similar internal reasons for echoing Moscow’s reservations.
The aim of this think piece is not to enumerate all the reasons behind the Russian position. Some of them are “classic” and well known, such as the question of strategic security relating to the US deployment of a new ballistic missile defense system in Europe and Turkey or the subject of what remains of Russian military presence on the Mediterranean coastline.
The intention is to shed as much light as possible on how Islamic fundamentalism permeates and perhaps shapes Russia’s political thought.
We’ve come to face today a real life situation whereby a Russian alliance with Shiite Islam is fending off an American partnership with Sunnite Islam.
Obviously, such generalization needs to be qualified.
Looking at modern history, Russian sensitivity to Muslim fundamentalism originally did not distinguish between Shiism and Sunnism because the ascendancy of the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s and early 1980s gave a shot in the arm to all Sunnite and Shiite fundamentalist currents. At the time, the Iranian Revolution uplifted religious movements throughout the Islamic world. Tehran became a shrine for Arab, Pakistani and other “Muslim Brothers,” particularly that the Khomeini movement embraced the traditional postulations of the Muslim Brotherhood society founded in Egypt in 1928…
The Russians, much like the Soviets before them, were never comfortable with the ascendency of Islam. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan marked the pinnacle of their problem with political Islam led by fundamentalist movements. Khomeini’s Iran challenged the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan alongside fundamentalist Sunnite mujahideen who led the confrontation chiefly from Pakistan.
It was thought-provoking to read in the Indian and Russian print media of the early 1990s articles written by Indian and Russian experts mutually calling for a bilateral alliance to face up to Islamic fundamentalism.
But segregation between Sunnite and Shiite, which was initiated by the Taliban before being violently amplified in post-Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the emergence under Iran’s wing of the first “Shiite” seat of power in Baghdad since the Middle Ages produced a two-ponged reality:
(1) Partial liberation of American policy from its 9/11 obsession and allowed the United States to start dynamic relationships with moderate Islamist political movements. Turkish “Islamists” from Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s generation created the template for such movements. This partial liberation has reached the stage of overlooking al-Qaeda activities serving U.S. national interests such as happened in Iraq, Libya and now Syria.
(2) A tendency by Putin’s Russia and the security establishment he represents to differentiate between Sunnite and Shiite Islamists -- already torn apart by the Saudi-Iranian power struggle -- and to deem the fundamentalist threat as exclusively Sunnite. This happened after Iran lost most of its Sunnite tentacles subsequent to the Arab Spring and the appearance of a solid alliance between Washington and Muslim Brotherhood Arabs now in authority. In this sense, distinction between Sunnite and Shiite not only returned Iran to its minority status in a Sunnite sea but also lost it the ability to be a source of change. Iran, in other words, was stripped of its Islamic fundamentalism credentials and became a force to maintain the status quo in which it has the upper hand in Iraq and Hezbollah-ruled Lebanon.
Turning to the landscape of Syria, you have a defensive “pact” -- comprising Russia (thus China), Iran, Iraq (albeit from Baghdad to Basra), Syria and Hezbollah’s confessional-military base in Lebanon – opposing an American offensive fronted by most of the Arab world.