When the Russians started flying from Latakia on September 30 it put the Syrian opposition in a decisively precarious situation.
Whereas the Syrian air force was largely out of date and relied on replacement parts and continual maintenance to remain viable, Moscow brought one of the most formidable sky attacks on the planet to a fight against rebels with zero air capability and exceptionally limited capacity to defend themselves against an aerial assault.
Starting in October, the Russian Defense Ministry began posting video clips (hundreds of them) depicting strikes on a variety of rebel and militant targets and The Kremlin also went out of its way to capture full color, HD footage of Su-34s and long-range bombers in action over Syria where the opposition was quite simply powerless to defend itself.
For about a month (sometime between mid-November and mid-December) it appeared that President Obama was right. The fanfare around the initial wave of Russian airstrikes had subsided and the push north to Aleppo appeared to have stalled. The "quagmire" it seemed, was real. Then, suddenly, Hezbollah surrounded Aleppo and reports indicated the Russian air force had implemented what amounts to a scorched earth policy when it comes to the militants battling Iranian forces.
Once it became apparent that the country's largest city would soon be recaptured by forces loyal to Assad, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia began to weigh their options. A ground assault by Ankara and Riyadh would be a veritable nightmare for the US and the West. It would invariably devolve into a direct conflict with Iranian forces and the first time a Russian jet hit Saudi or Turkish troops the world would be plunged into a global conflict with the potential to drag every nation in the developed world to war.
So far, the Turks and the Saudis haven’t invaded, although Ankara is now shelling the YPG in the Azaz corridor in an effort to roll back Kurdish efforts to consolidate border gains. According to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Riyadh’s next move may be to introduce surface-to-air missiles so that the rebels will be able to defend themselves against the Russian air attack.
“Is Saudi Arabia in favor of supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels?,” Der Spiegel asked al-Jubeir on Friday. Here was the minister’s response:
Yes. We believe that introducing surface-to-air missiles in Syria is going to change the balance of power on the ground. It will allow the moderate opposition to be able to neutralize the helicopters and aircraft that are dropping chemicals and have been carpet-bombing them, just like surface-to-air missiles in Afghanistan were able to change the balance of power there. This has to be studied very carefully, however, because you don't want such weapons to fall into the wrong hands.
Now obviously, the whole “dropping chemicals” line is a ruse. The only thing introducing advanced surface-to-air missiles would do is allow the opposition to shoot at Russian air power and that’s completely at odds with the following response al-Jubeir gave when asked about the kingdom’s relationship with the Russians:
Other than our disagreement over Syria, I would say our relationship with Russia is very good and we are seeking to broaden and deepen it. Twenty million Russians are Muslims. Like Russia, we have an interest in fighting radicalism and extremism. We both have an interest in stable energy markets. Even the disagreement over Syria is more of a tactical one than a strategic one. We both want a unified Syria that is stable in which all Syrians enjoy equal rights.
No, no you both do not want that. Syria was already a state where citizens enjoyed equal rights, loosely speaking. That’s not to say that Assad tolerated much in the way of dissent when it came to his grip on power, but when it came to Mid-East states where different sects and religions could live alongside one another, things were going ok in Syria before Riyadh, Washington, Doha, and Ankara decided to play on fears of Iranian influence to whip impoverished Sunnis into a sectarian frenzy.
The hypocrisy and outright absurdity only gets worse from there (in fact, this is one of the most egregious interviews in recent memory with a Saudi official) and we’ve included some of the “highlights” (or “lowlights” as it were) below, but the point here is that the Saudis appear set to supply surface-to-air missiles to the rebels. We’re not sure how today’s announced “ceasefire” will ultimately affect those plans, but it’s worth noting that when the US, Turkey and the Saudis supplied TOWs to the opposition in an effort to combat the advance of pro-government armored vehicles, the FSA ended up using one of the weapons to destroy a Russian search and rescue helicopter. Footage of that effort was posted by the FSA on YouTube.
Does Saudi Arabia really believe the best idea is to supply the rebels with the capability to shoot at the Russian air force? At what point do Washington’s Sunni allies admit that this has been a giant mistake that’s cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people? Perhaps most importantly, when will the US and NATO finally admit that they are on the wrong side of the sectarian divide and thus on the wrong side of history? Does The Pentagon really want to get behind arming Sunni extremists (who espouse the same ideology as ISIS and al-Nusra) with weapons to shoot down Russian warplanes?
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the traditional distinction between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys no longer holds. Long live the "good" guys - whoever they are.
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Excerpts from Adel al-Jubeir's interview with Der Spiegel (try not to laugh):
SPIEGEL: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke of the danger of "World War III" at the Munich Security Conference.
Al-Jubeir: I think this is an over-dramatization. Let's not forget: This all began when you had eight- and nine-year-old children writing graffiti on walls. Their parents were told: "You will never see them again. If you want to have children, go to your wife and make new ones." Assad's people rebelled. He crushed them brutally. But his military could not protect him. So he asked the Iranians to come in and help. Iran sent its Revolutionary Guards into Syria, they brought in Shia militias, Hezbollah from Lebanon, militias from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, all Shia, and they couldn't help. Then he brought in Russia, and Russia will not save him. At the same time, we have a war against Daesh (the Islamic State, or IS) in Syria. A coalition that was led by the United States, with Saudi Arabia being one of the first members of that coalition.
SPIEGEL: That sounds well and good, but you are also providing support to the opposing camp in a war. Even more than your relationship with Russia, the world is worried about the deep schism between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Al-Jubeir : Iran has been a neighbor for millenia, and will continue to be a neighbor for millenia. We have no issue with seeking to develop the best terms we can with Iran. But after the revolution of 1979, Iran embarked on a policy of sectarianism. Iran began a policy of expanding its revolution, of interfering with the affairs of its neighbors, a policy of assassinating diplomats and of attacking embassies. Iran is responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in the Kingdom, it is responsible for smuggling explosives and drugs into Saudi Arabia. And Iran is responsible for setting up sectarian militias in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, whose objective is to destabilize those countries.
SPIEGEL: Your Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, accused Saudi Arabia of provoking Iran by actively sponsoring violent extremist groups.
Al-Jubeir: What's the provocation that he's talking about?
SPIEGEL: Is Saudi Arabia not financing extremist groups? Zarif speaks of attacks by al-Qaida, the Syrian al-Nusra and other groups -- of attacks on Shiite mosques from Iraq to Yemen.
Al-Jubeir: Yes, but that's not us. We don't tolerate terrorism. We go after the terrorists and those who support them and those who justify their actions. Our record has been very clear, contrary to their record. They harbor al-Qaida leaders. They facilitate al-Qaida operations. They complain about Daesh, but Iran is the only country around the negotiating table that has not been attacked by either al-Qaida or Daesh.
SPIEGEL: How do you explain the ideological closeness between the Wahhabi faith in Saudi Arabia and Islamic State's ideology? How do you explain that Daesh applies, with slight differences, the same draconian punishments that the Saudi judiciary does?
Al-Jubeir: This is an oversimplification which doesn't make sense. Daesh is attacking us. Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, wants to destroy the Saudi state. These people are criminals. They're psychopaths. Daesh members wear shoes. Does this mean everybody who wears shoes is Daesh?
SPIEGEL: Are you contesting the similarities between the extremely conservative interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia and Islamic State's religious ideology?
Al-Jubeir: ISIS is as much an Islamic organization as the KKK in America is a Christian organization. They burned people of African descent on the cross, and they said they're doing it in the name of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in every religion there are people who pervert the faith. We should not take the actions of psychopaths and paint them as being representative of the whole religion.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't Saudi Arabia have to do a lot more to distance itself from ISIS and its ideology?
Al-Jubeir: It seems people don't read or listen. Our scholars and our media have been very outspoken. We were the first country in the world to hold a national public awareness campaign against extremism and terrorism. Why would we not want to fight an ideology whose objective is to kill us?
SPIEGEL: At the same time, your judges mete out sentences that shock the world. The blogger Raif Badawi has been sentenced to prison and 1,000 lashes. On Jan. 2, 47 men were beheaded, among them Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. His nephew Ali has been sentenced to death as well and his body is to be crucified after the execution.
Al-Jubeir: We have a legal system, and we have a penal code. We have the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, and people should respect this. You don't have the death penalty, and we respect that.
SPIEGEL: Should we respect the flogging of people?
Al-Jubeir: Just like we respect your legal system, you should respect our legal system. You cannot impose your values on us, otherwise the world will become the law of the jungle. Every society decides what its laws are, and it's the people who make decisions with regards to these laws. You cannot lecture another people about what you think is right or wrong based on your value system unless you're willing to accept others imposing their value system on you.
SPIEGEL: Is it even compatible with human rights to display the body of an executed person?
Al-Jubeir: This is a judgment call. We have a legal system, and this is not something that happens all the time. We have capital punishment. America has capital punishment. Iran has capital punishment. Iran hangs people and leaves their bodies hanging on cranes. Iran put to death more than a thousand people last year. I don't see you reporting on it.