Putin’s Holy War: Syrians Outraged At Russia Intervention

Moscow's decision to enter the Syrian conflict with bombing raids may bring smiles to the Assad regime. On the ground, ordinary Syrians are paying the price.

Syrians in Aleppo after airstrikes on Sept. 20
Syrians in Aleppo after airstrikes on Sept. 20
Omar Abdallah

TALBISEH â€" It didn't take long for Russian interference in Syria, where the country's air force is carrying out airstrikes against ISIS targets, to trigger a strong backlash. Last week, on the very first day of the offensive, Russian airstrikes killed 17 civilians in Talbiseh, a town in the rural northwestern province of Homs, nearly 30 miles from areas controlled by ISIS militants. Russian warplanes also reportedly targeted Tajamu al-Ezzah, a U.S.-backed rebel group, in the northern rural areas of Hama province.

Talbiseh residents who spoke with Syria Deeply expressed anger over Moscow's attacks on the town, and over Russian President Vladimir Putin's aid to the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Assad. "Russia launched the attacks to protect Assad," says Abdul Latif, a 34-year-old father of three from Talbiseh, who works at an auto shop in town and volunteers in his spare time distributing food to the needy. "These are Putin's words, but he actually attacked civilians."

Another resident, Abdul Latif, is indignant. "He wants to protect Assad by killing civilians? We cannot tell who will kill us next. It was Assad, then Iran and Hezbollah, and now Russia. They are all killing innocent Syrians. How much did Assad pay Russia for this kind of protection?"

He wonders where the Friends of Syria Group is and why the United States, Europe and the Gulf are not helping more. "Where are they? Why don't they do something? They have sat and watched while we were slaughtered for five years now, but they have done nothing serious about it," Latif asserts. He says that in Talbiseh, people call President Barack Obama "the chicken" because he lacks the will or the courage to stand up to Russia.

Latif isn't alone in criticizing the Friends of Syria Group. Many Syrians are expressing anger and disappointment.

Lamya, a 22-year-old medical student at the University of Homs, believes Putin's military intervention in Syria's civil war is a clear attempt "to weaken the militant opposition on the ground, so that when negotiations start, Assad will be in a stronger position."

No advocates

"Our biggest problem," she argues, "is that we do not have a political entity that truly represents Syrians and cares for them. All the Syrian National Coalition does is condemn others. They've taken no actions and have no political weight. People are fed up with them. I won't call them traitors, like many Syrians do, but honestly, stupidity, irresponsibility and impotence are not much better than treason."

Friends of Syria Group meeting meeting in Istanbul in April 2012 â€" Photo: U.S. DoD

Abu Abdul Ilah, a 41-year-old Algerian currently in Idlib fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), frames Russia's military intervention in a different light. "This is a war on Islam," says Abdul Ilah, who recently moved to Syria after years of fighting with al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Russia's animosity toward jihadists dates back to the days of Chechnya and Afghanistan," he adds, arguing that Russia is using the Syrian conflict as an expedient opportunity to take revenge.

"The Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin's military intervention in Syria and calls it a holy war," he continues. "Why is our jihad seen as terrorism, while when they fight in the name of religion, it's seen as "necessary?""

Ahmad, a 52-year-old doctor from Kensabba on the outskirts of the coastal city of Latakia, believes the global community should unite and fight both the Assad government and ISIS. "They're both terrorists," he says.

Ahmad says he finds it hard to understand the logic of Moscow's recent air raids, given that Putin's purported reason for getting involved in Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year, was to defeat ISIS. "We just received news that the Russians targeted the U.S.-backed First Coastal Division in the Jabal al-Turkman area in Latakia," he says. "This a group that fights against ISIS. If they had really hit ISIS, Syrians would have welcomed their raids â€" but instead, they targeted moderate opposition groups and civilians."

Syrians have lost trust in the world leaders, especially in the U.S. government's espoused slogans about human rights, democracy and justice for all. "For the past five years, the whole world has been watching the slaughter of Syrians every day, but nobody moved a strand of hair on their head," Ahmad says. "Our crime was that we dreamed of democracy and justice, but what we received instead were death, displacement and torture, while the developed world has done nothing. How can we trust them or believe their slogans?"

Some Europeans worry that the wave of Syrian refugees flooding Europe will change the continent's character, he notes. "We understand their concerns, but I believe that in order to stop this wave, Europe should help us get rid of the causes that forced Syrians to leave their country in the first place," he says. "Assad is every bit as responsible as ISIS for the displacement of Syrian people."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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