From 1979 to 1989, the Soviet Union was involved in a long, drawn out war in Afghanistan which came to be known as “Russia’s Vietnam.” At the time, the US was backing anti Russian forces in the country. Those forces – collectively known as the Mujahideen – were fighting against the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
One of the main leaders of the Mujahideen was Osama Bin Laden – originally from a wealthy Saudi Arabian family – and were ultimately successful in toppling the government. They didn’t, however, form a new government right away, and ultimately the Pakistan and Saudi-backed Taliban were able to seize control. These radical groups backed Bin Laden’s attack on the US in September 11, prompting the US to enter a near-decade-long war in the country.
Unfortunately, it seems that neither Russia nor the US has learned much from history, and the geopolitical conflicts of the Cold War have shifted almost entirely to the Middle East. Russia’s control over Europe’s oil supply gives the country a substantial amount of influence in that region, but the oil comes from the Middle East, making it the strategically relevant region of the 21st century.
The difference between the Middle East and the former battleground of Eastern Europe, though, is that in the 1940s, Eastern Europe had no strong regional powers. The empires which had previously dominated the region had disintegrated, and no one had replaced them. The Middle East, however, does have its own strong regional players.
The Saudis and Iranians are vying for control over the Middle East, and each support different sets of regional forces. The Saudis are allied with the USA, while Iran is backed by Russia and China; the Saudis support Al Qaida, and Iran supports Hezbollah. The Saudis support the rebel forces – much as they did in Afghanistan – while Iran’s alliance is with Syria’s current leader, Bashar Hafez al-Assad.
It’s in this context that recent reports of Saudi-Russian negotiations have emerged. In a recent meeting with Vladimir Putin, Prince Bandar bin Sultan tried to urge the Russian President to withhold support from Assad’s regime. The Saudi Prince and intelligence leader reportedly offered Putin a multi-billion dollar arms deal, as well as guaranteed continued control over Europe’s oil supply.
Russia declined, but Russian and Lebanese reports have detailed other alleged incentives from Saudi Arabia. Russia’s relationship with Syria gives it a warm-water naval base on the Mediterranean, and Bandar promised to safeguard that even if Assad is removed from power. He also issued threats, according to those sources, including threatening the Russian Olympics next year.
“The Chechen groups which threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,” he said, adding that “We use them in the face of the Syrian regime, but they have no role or influence in Syria’s political future.” He said this to assuage any potential Russian concerns over helping the Chechen terrorists who have killed so many Russian civilians.
It’s worth noting that, as America backs the Saudis, and they back Al Qaida and the Chechen terrorists, through its relationship with the House of Saud, America is actually helping to fund terrorism against both Russia and itself. The moral implications are far greater than any inaction in Syria. Involvement in Syria will support Saudi Arabia more than it does anyone else in the region, or indeed the world. The Russians have every right to be skeptical of the Saudis, just as the US has every right to be skeptical of Iran.
Unlike Eastern Europe, the Russian-American geopolitical games in the Middle East will have no positive impact on the region or its people. Both countries are acting as mere pawns for regional empires with no moral conviction in their relations with other nations, or even toward their own citizens. To support either is shortsighted and actively detrimental, and could easily lead to more of the long, drawn out conflicts both Russia and America have experienced in the region.