In an interview with Muslim Press, Mark N. Katz says "Moscow tends to regard Saudi Arabia in the same way that Washington has tended to regard Iran: as a source of trouble."
Below is the full text of the interview:
Muslim Press: How would Russia's growing influence on the Middle East affect Saudi Arabia?
Mark N. Katz: Moscow tends to regard Saudi Arabia in the same way that Washington has tended to regard Iran: as a source of trouble. Moscow sees Saudi Arabia—whether as a government, Islamic foundations, or individuals—as acting to support Sunni jihadists in the Middle East, Russia’s Muslim regions, and elsewhere. Moscow sees Saudi support to the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria as an example of this. At the same time—and somewhat contradictorily—Russia also wants to do business with the Kingdom, and to encourage Saudi Arabia to cut back oil production in order to raise oil prices, which would benefit oil-exporting Russia.
While Moscow fears Saudi support for the Sunni opposition in Syria, it sees Saudi involvement in Yemen as well as Saudi economic difficulties as serving to limit what Riyadh can accomplish there. Yet while Moscow prefers the Kingdom to be weak, it certainly does not want to see it replaced—since a replacement regime may be openly jihadist as well as hostile toward Russia.
MP: According to a recent UN report, "Indiscriminate airstrikes across the eastern part of Aleppo by Government forces and their allies [Russia] are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties." What's your take on this?
MNK: Since Russian forces and Syrian ones they support are the ones conducting airstrikes across eastern Aleppo, they are indeed responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties there. This, however, does not seem to bother them.
MP: A number of human rights and aid organizations have urged the United Nations to deprive Russia of its seat on the UN's Human Rights Council (UNHRC). How does it affect Russia's actions in Syria?
MNK: Moscow will strongly resist any such effort, and may well round up enough allies to prevent it. What it will not do is change its actions in Syria, but will blame all negative reports about it on hostile Western propaganda.
MP: How has Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad evolved since the beginning of the Syrian conflict?
MNK: From the outbreak of the uprising against Assad in 2011 up through September 2015, Moscow mainly played a supporting role through providing arms, advisers, and diplomatic protection from Western efforts to impose UN Security Council sanctions against the Assad regime. Moscow was content to allow Iran and its Shi’a militia allies (including Hezbollah) to undertake the main burden of the fighting to preserve Assad. But when it became clear during the summer of 2015 that this might not be enough to save the Assad regime (or preserve it outside its Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast), Russia directly intervened beginning in September 2015. Still, Russia’s support has been limited mainly to launching airstrikes, and not fighting a ground war; this is a task that Russia continues to leave to Iran and its Shi’a militia allies.
MP: What's your opinion about Russia's relations with Arab countries? Have these relations deteriorated because of the Syrian conflict and Russia's role in it?
MNK: Some Arab countries—including Egypt and Algeria—appear to agree with the Russian argument that the Assad regime is better than its most likely alternative: replacement by Sunni jihadists. These governments, after all, fear just this in their own countries. Other Arab governments may not like what Russia is doing, but do not wish to oppose it themselves. The two Arab governments most actively challenging Russia in Syria are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Moscow may calculate that after the Assad regime has become stabilized, even these two will have no choice but to work with the Assad regime (which they did before the uprising against it began in 2011). Arab public opinion may have become increasingly critical of Russian policy in Syria, but Moscow may calculate that between Arab public opinion’s continued negative view of America and Arab governments acting to contain the impact of Arab public opinion anyway, Russia need not worry too much about this.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, United States. He researches and teaches classes about Russian politics and foreign policy, revolution, and the "War on Terror."