Russia’s fear of radical Islam drives its support for Assad

Amal Mudallali writes: It was no coincidence that Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria just hours after twin attacks killed a moderate Muslim official and injured the Mufti in the central Russian republic, Tartarstan, last week. Russia sees the assassination as a direct attack on moderate Islam by Islamic radicals. And the veto, Russia’s third since the Syrian crisis began, is grounded in a deep-rooted policy of war against one enemy: Islamic radicals.

Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because of a strategic relationship and what it views as the same fight in Syria and Russia against the Salafi and extremist Islamic threat.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Russia has accepted the official government line and branded the opposition as terrorists, Islamic radicals or Salafists. A wide array of explanations have been given by Russia, as well as the West, for its support of Assad, some of which are to the detriment of Russian interests in the Arab world. They cited strategic assets that the Russian Navy has in a Mediterranean seaport, arms sales to the Syrian military, a general East–West rivalry, and even Russian President Vladimir Putin’s refusal, “on principle,” of the removal of national leaders by outside intervention. But the Russian position is actually rooted in a deep-seated fear, and sometimes paranoia, of the spread of Islamic radicalism.

This factor in defining Russian policy has received scant attention. Russia does not see itself as an ally of Assad, but as a target, like him, of a Salafi-terrorist plot to destabilize Russia — just as they are doing in Syria, with help from the West. Even when regime forces massacred over 100 women and children in Houla, the Russians blamed the Wahabis, the Saudi form of Islam. After 18 months of bloodshed and over 15,000 dead, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile Russia’s reading of the situation in Syria with Assad’s brutal one.

Putin’s government sees the Islamic threat as one of the most important challenges to the Russian state and its neighboring countries. Most of these states have restless, largely Muslim, populations and one form or another of dictatorship. So the Russians are fearful that change in these countries might bring Islamic radicals to power and Russia will be encircled by extreme Muslim regimes. [Continue reading…]

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