While there are indications of an ongoing proxy war between the U.S. and Russia in Syria, Saudi Arabian clerics are urging Arab and Muslim countries to launch a holy war against the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian supporters.
Saudi clerics have called Arab and Muslim states to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to what they see as a jihad (holy war) against the Bashar al-Assad regime, Russia and Iran, according to Reuters and VICE News.
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The news come as a growing outrage over Russian and Iranian interference in the Syrian conflict continues to spread all over the Middle East.
The Saudi clerics, although not affiliated with the official Saudi government, are proving that there is a strong sectarian and anti-Christian sentiment in the Middle East, while Russia tries to form an alliance with Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq.
Last week, Russia launched a series of airstrikes as part of, what it claims to be, a campaign against ISIS targets. However, according to numerous reports by rebel groups and U.S. surveillance, it’s not exclusively ISIS whom Russia is bombing, but also U.S.-trained rebels who fight against the Assad regime.
The airstrikes have killed at least 39 civilians, including eight children and eight women.
The alarming rise of jihadist groups in Saudi opposition
Saudi Arabia, Turkey as well as other Persian Gulf countries have backed the U.S.-trained rebels trying to remove Assad from power and have voiced their outrage against Russian airstrikes in Syria, as it contradicts their strategic goals in the region.
The Saudi war-monger clerics’ calls for war have described the Russian attacks as part of an Orthodox Christian crusade.
“The holy warriors of Syria are defending the whole Islamic nation. Trust them and support them … because if they are defeated, God forbid, it will be the turn of one Sunni country after another,” the clerics’ statement said.
The Saudi government is concerned over the rise of jihadist groups, including ISIS, in the opposition. Saudi state-affiliated clergy has already called for a jihad in Syria, but at the same time, some Saudi religious leaders have called Saudi citizens to give the U.S.-backed rebels money only through government channels and not go abroad.
The four-year long bloody conflict in Syria, which has killed over 230,000 people, has become a part of a large-scale fight for regional dominance between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran and has spread sectarian anger all across the Middle East.
It was recently reported that hundreds of Iranian troops arrived in Syria along with military hardware to launch ground combat operations on rebel-held areas in the north of the country.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and has been fighting alongside the Syrian government since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, told Reuters that it is preparing to join the operation as well.
Will the Kurds side with the U.S. or Russia?
Russia’s involvement in Syria has placed the Kurds into the center of the war, leaving them with two options: to either side with the U.S. or Russia. Having established self-rule in the north of Syria, the Kurds fighting ISIS became the player, which both the U.S. and Russia consider to be their ally.
The Kurds are trying to establish the kind of relations with either the U.S. or Russia that would guarantee its existence in the future Syria. And as of now, the Russians look like a more promising option for the Kurds compared to the Americans.
Seeing the current state of affairs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the Kurds are not exactly excited about the kind of future the Americans promise for Syria, which is why they will likely turn to the Russians.
The Kurds also believe that only Russia can persuade the Syrian government to establish an autonomous governance model in the political arena of Syria.
As for the struggle against extremist group in the region, the U.S. is limited to only fighting against ISIS, which does not help the Kurds. Unlike the U.S., which distinguished between ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ terrorists in the region, Russia targets not only ISIS with its airstrikes, but also other armed groups, which have been waging a war against the Kurds for the past 3 years.
Thus, if the Kurds side with Russia, they sign up for the elimination of all extremist groups in Syria and it gives them an opportunity to use the Russian authority in the region to get official Kurdish autonomy in the north of Syria.
Will Syria be divided into pieces?
However, there are also other factors that turn the Kurds toward Russia. First of all, Russia’s stance on many international and regional issues is more appealing to the Kurds.
The fact that Russia is the main supporter of the Assad regime is a problem for the Kurds right now, since they want Assad to step down. Not just the Kurds, but also other groups in the region believe that Russia’s fight against ISIS is more effective and genuine than that of the U.S.
Besides, Russia’s experience with autonomous regions and various ethno-religious structures helps the Russians understand the Kurds. But if it is the U.S. who will be persuading the Assad regime to give an official autonomy to the Kurds, then it will be automatically seen as a conspiracy to divide Syria into small pieces.
As of now, the Kurds balance their relations with Russia and the U.S. But if there is a military clash between the U.S. and Russian forces, which is of high probability given that Russia is bombing U.S.-trained rebels, then the Kurds will have to decide which side they are on.