Don’t Ally with Saudi Arabia against Russia

by Eldar Mamedov

While the usual suspects flood the US media with ideas on how to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over his audacious move in Syria, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution on October 8 on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. The focus of the resolution was the case of Ali Mohammed Nimr. The Saudi authorities sentenced the 21-year-old Saudi citizen and nephew of a prominent Saudi Shia dissident cleric, to death by beheading to be followed by crucifixion.

Apart from condemning Saudi Arabia for such a shockingly barbaric sentence, the resolution calls on Riyadh to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a pillar of the UN-based international human rights system. Saudi Arabia is one of a few countries in the world (many of the others being fellow Gulf monarchies) yet to sign this document. By contrast, the much-maligned Iran is a party to the Covenant.

This is the third highly critical resolution on Saudi Arabia adopted by the European parliament so far in 2015. The first, which involved the case of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, took Saudi Arabia to task for promoting its extremist Wahhabi version of Islam and practicing identical punishments as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Another resolution condemned Saudi Arabia for indiscriminate bombing and blockade of Yemen.

These resolutions are non-binding, but they send a strong political message of disapproval of Saudi rights practices. The leaders of Western states maintaining close ties with the Saudi regime have found these resolutions increasingly difficult to ignore, as British Prime Minister David Cameron learned during an excruciating interview with Jon Snow.

The Syrian Connection

One of the countries that from the outset of the crisis insisted on the immediate removal of President Bashar Assad from power was Saudi Arabia. Consistent with its Wahhabi vision, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in fostering  a jihadist opposition to Assad. The most obvious example is the Saudi-funded Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam) led by Zahran Alloush, one of the strongest outfits fighting Assad. The prevalence of extremists among the anti-Assad rebels was a chief reason why the Obama administration refused to get dragged into a full-scale effort to topple the Syrian president.

But Russian direct military involvement on the side of Assad has now given a new lease on life for those who always deplored Obama’s “retrenchment.” Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have now changed their tune: American intervention in Syria is no longer about saving Syrians from a brutal dictator but standing up to Putin´s provocation and restoring the American leadership. Typical in this chorus was the voice of senator and Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio who called a potential war with Russia a risk worth taking for the sake of asserting American power.

But “standing up to the Russians” would inevitably lead to mission creep and would end up dragging the US toward a policy of regime change in Damascus. Given the relative lack of public support for a stepped-up intervention, the US would end up depending on Saudis for intelligence, logistics, troops and funding. Given the total fiasco of the US “train and equip” program, Washington will have to dramatically lower the bar in accepting allies on the ground. This means that it would find itself in bed with sectarian jihadist groups sponsored by Riyadh. This is where Saudi Arabia and its allies have wanted to lure the US from the beginning of the conflict. But it would be a strategic disaster for the US to follow this path for a number of reasons.

Errors of Intervention

First, an active US involvement in Syria on the side of the Saudis and other Sunni allies would lead to a replay of the Afghan jihad against Soviet Union. Saudi Wahhabi clerics have already called for an all-Muslim “holy war” against Russians. In contrast to the earlier war in Afghanistan, Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, is not isolated in the Muslim world. It has important allies like Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Besides, not all Sunni Muslims are eager to support a Wahhabi-led and inspired jihad. And even if such an effort were to be successful in its own, narrowly defined terms—the expulsion of Russians and ouster of Assad—the most likely replacement would be an extremist regime that might generate severe terrorist blowback in the West. Is this a price worth paying for asserting American power against Russia in the Middle East?

Second, if the current or the future US administration falls back on US-Saudi alliance it will have to operate in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment.  For one, America’s European allies are unlikely to join such an effort. They are eager to re-establish normal trade and diplomatic relations with Russia. If the current calm persists in eastern Ukraine till the end of the year, the EU might consider lifting some sanctions it imposed on Moscow for the destabilization of its neighbor. In their Council conclusions on Syria on 12 October, the EU governments urged “all those with influence on the parties, including on the Syrian regime, to use this influence to encourage a constructive role leading to a political transition and end of violence.” It won’t be possible to call on Russians to nudge Assad in a right direction and side with their enemies in the Middle East at the same time.

Significantly, the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker criticized the US for failing to treat Russia as a great power and reaffirmed the EU independence from the US in formulating its Russia policies. And even those EU countries that have strong ties with Riyadh—UK and France—are moving away from pre-conditioning any political solution in Syria on Assad´s departure. It seems doubtful that the EU will ratchet up pressure on Russia in Syria even if US decides to do so—especially if European public opinion comes to see this as an effort bolstering the same jihadist groups threaten Europe.

This, again, would only further tie the US down to a regime that still practices beheadings and the de facto slavery of domestic workers, among other human rights abuses. Apart from being strategically unwise, reinvigorating such an alliance would also further undermine any claims of American leadership in promoting human rights worldwide. That’s why the stringent calls to “reassert American leadership and stand up to Putin” in Syria must be resisted as leading to morally reprehensible and strategically reckless choices.

Photo: Jon Snow interviewing David Cameron

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.