Russia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia | Shahab Jafry

And a new confrontation in the Middle East

Russia buying into American suspicion that ISIS bombed the Metro jet (“99.9pc sure”) will mean only one thing. Putin will green-light ground troops into Syria, further raising the stakes in the Levant. Russian pride will not take the affront lightly and, if proved, the government will sell the ground offensive feverishly to a heated public. That, of course, will once again change the tone of the Syrian war. The air campaign has already taken some pressure off the Syrian Arab Army and reportedly inflicted heavy losses on ISIS, especially in the Alawite heartland around Latakia, the home town of the ruling Assad family.

But the Middle East has been complicated for some time now. Someone, or some force, after all, has been behind ISIS’s phenomenal rise. It’s not as if they buy their weapons on ebay. Someone has clearly funded and armed them. And cities like Mosul don’t just fall suddenly. There is a long process; encirclement, infiltration, taking out communications, mobilising sleeper cells inside, etc. All this takes considerable intel work. And that is not something they teach you in the typical Wahabi seminary – alongside latest jihadidoctrine and suicide bombing basics. Running the caliphate isn’t a solo deal either. Someone, for example, is buying oil that an internationally recognised terrorist organisation is putting on the black market.

The more Moscow helps Assad consolidate, therefore, the more ISIS’s friends will be frustrated into reaction. It is no secret that the Saudis were the first to subvert the Syrian uprising by smuggling al Qaeda like hordes into the country. They had just done a good job in Libya, where they complemented the NATO air campaign by hounding Gaddafi loyalists on the ground. And now they were turned onto the biggest thorn in the Saudi side for decades – Syria, the main ally of archrival Iran.

So many fault-lines have run across the Middle East since Sykes-Picot. But the main theme of the last many decades has been the anti-Israel campaign. Syria and Iran, along with militias Hezbollah and Hamas, have formed the traditional axis of resistance to Israel. Incidentally, Alawite Syria, Shi’a Iran, and Shi’a militia Hezbollah have also been the main power rivals of the Sunni-Wahabi GCC alliance. That is why veteran Middle East correspondents like Robert Fisk were not really surprised when reports of Israel providing medical care to ISIS militants around the Golan Heights first surfaced.

The timing of the Russian interference is crucial. Moscow-Damascus friendship is not new, neither is the Russian warm water port at Tartus. In another world, Soviet and US foreign ministers spent more time in Syria and Israel than their home countries when they wound up the ’73 Yom Kippur War. Both Damascus and Tel Aviv considered the other’s deterrence good enough to respect the Golan status quo since then. But the uprising gave the Israelis the upper hand once again, since the Syrians had to vacate the Heights to relocate troops to protect Damascus.

The friendship naturally grew a little silent in the post-Iron Curtain days. All this while SaudiRiyal politik extended Riyadh’s influence across the region. The Afghan War – where Saudi intelligence partnered with CIA and ISI to bring down the Russian Bear – elevated Saudi to first among equals in the Gulf Ummah hierarchy. But it also left the kingdom with an obsession for building mullah-cleric making factories – like the ones that produced themujahideen of the Afghan jihad – to extend its Wahabi influence across the length and breadth of the same Ummah.

It is ironic that should the plane intel add up according to US findings, the Russian army might find itself face to face with a toxic degeneration of the same mullah fighter it faced and lost to in the rugged, unforgiving hills of Afghanistan; in the twilight of the bipolar world. But it’s not just the setting, but also the partners, that have changed.

There are yet more fault-lines. Russia is on a diplomatic collision course with America. In confronting the superpower, it has smartly exploited its weaknesses. It has counted on US/Nato inability to wage any more wars for the time to disturb the European power balance by its adventures in Ukraine. It has gone active in Syria for the same reason. And it is also turning one of America’s long standing allies – Pakistan – to its side, and that, in turn, touches upon so many more fault-lines.

Moscow recently revoked its self-imposed embargo on arms sales to Pakistan, a policy posture from ancient times. Since then, there has not only been ground-breaking movement on Russian military sales to Pakistan, but also convergence of interest on crucial issues like Afghanistan, and both countries’ relationship with China. They have also signed unprecedented deals regarding intel-sharing.

But Pakistan is also a vital Saudi ally. And the lengths Riyadh can go to in establishing its dominance in the new Middle East became clear when it asked for Pakistani military support in Yemen. As the Russian-Saudi proxy confrontation intensifies in the Middle East, Pakistan will be torn between conflicting long-term policy options. One the one hand is the old Saudi-US alliance, only with increased commitment. Following Saudi-US position will mean worsening relations with Iran and unwinding of progress lately made with Russia. But on the other hand is direct partnership with rising powers Russia and China – along with their financial and military support – though at the cost of re-seting the Gulf equation that has lasted decades.

Strangely, Putin’s gambit in Syria, and ISIS’s possible foolish bombing of a Russian jet, might just have forced Pakistan to take clear positions in the Saudi-Russian proxy war, the Irani-Saudi proxy war, the US-Russian proxy war, and the Gulf-Israel proxy war, even as it fights an existential war of its own at home.

Since Zarb-e-Azb, the military has been taking crucial decisions regarding national security and foreign policy. With the GHQ also behind the advances with Moscow and the recent thaw with Riyadh, while a weak government without a foreign minister sits in Islamabad, it will again naturally be the military that decides which side Pakistan takes. That will show which fault-lines it will risk upsetting, and which it’d rather not touch for now as a new confrontation unfolds in the Middle East.


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