Russia and Saudi Arabia: Convergence and divergence over Syria

Russia and Saudi Arabia: Convergence and divergence over Syria
Analysis: Moscow and Riyadh's foreign ministers contradict official Saudi policy demanding Assad step down, revealing a potential relaxation of the Saudi position.
5 min read
19 October, 2015
Salman and Putin agreed to 'fight terrorism', but not on who the 'terrorists' are [Getty]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, in Sochi on Sunday, and appeared to make statements contradictory to the official Saudi policy over Syria.

The meeting in the Caucasian Riviera resort mirrored talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who had also met in Sochi, a week previously.

The Russian-Saudi summit discussed how to fight terrorism in Syria and attempted to formulate a solution to the crisis there.

Following the meeting, Jubeir's statement underscored two issues which have been key to Riyadh's policy: Saudi Arabia remains part of the international coalition fighting "terrorism", and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down after a transitional process.

Such a process would see a transitional authority shared between the current Syrian regime and the opposition. It would be a structure, said Jubeir, that would preserve the unity of Syria and maintain its civilian state institutions.

Jubeir said that Saudi Arabia was one of the first states to demand the formation of an international coalition to confront terrorism - and that its military aircraft were some of the first to take part.

Jubeir also relayed Saudi concerns that Russian military action in Syria could be understood as "an alliance with Iran, Hizballah, and Assad", but indicated that "Saudi Arabia will increase its cooperation with Russia in the fight against terrorism."

Lavrov, meanwhile, said the Saudi stance corresponded with Russia's position in regards to defeating the Islamic State group, and said that Russia "understands" Saudi concerns, while emphasising that Russia's intervention was only targeting IS, the Nusra Front, and "other terrorist groups".
Jubeir relayed Saudi concerns that the Russian intervention in Syria could be understood as an alliance with Iran, Hizballah, and Assad

These statements, according to analysts, suggest that Saudi Arabia has accepted Russia's intervention in Syria and is allied with it against certain groups - but this contradicts with stated Russian objectives to support the Assad regime.

It also contradicts Riyadh's stern stance over the departure of Assad - even if his removal requires military intervention, as Jubeir said a few weeks ago.

But Saudi media outlets stressed that the deputy crown prince had told the Russian president that the kingdom rejected Russia's intervention in Syria.


A Saudi source also told Reuters on Monday that "Assad should leave, and Riyadh continues to reinforce and support the moderate Syrian opposition", pointing out that Saudi Arabia had informed Russia that its intervention in Syria would have "serious consequences".

Lavrov and Jubeir's statements reveal a confusion over spinning the meeting between the deputy crown prince and the Russian president.

Russia seems keen to show that Saudi Arabia is understanding of its intervention in Syria because it does not want it to look like a religious or provocative war against the Muslim world.

Moscow, after all, remembers the Soviet Union's bitter losses in Afghanistan, when Saudi Arabia - in alliance with Pakistan and the US - mobilised jihadis from all around the Muslim world to confront communism.

Some political analysts say that Saudi Arabia does not want to deal with Russia as an enemy because of the kingdom's newly shaken relationship with the US - and its pre-occupation with bombing Yemen - particularly after Jubeir made remarks in New York that Assad should step down or face a military response.

No-one in Riyadh or Moscow, it seems, wants to see a military confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Russia on Syrian soil.
The Russian side seems to be keen on showing that Saudi Arabia is understanding of its intervention in Syria

"You are against terrorism, we are against terrorism too. But we do not trust you and your alliance with Iran, Hizballah, and Assad," said one analyst, summarising Riyadh's position.

Saudi Arabia does not trust the Russian intervention for two reasons. 

First, they see that they have not targeted organisations defined as "terrorists" by Riyadh - ie: IS and the Nusra Front - but factions that Saudi Arabia considers to be moderate and worthy of political and military support.

Second, Russia's open support for the Assad regime infers support for an "axis" of Iran, Syria and Hizballah that is working against Riyadh in the region.

      Rebel fighters of the Failaq al-Rahman brigade
train in Syria's Eastern Ghouta region [AFP]

Political experts say that Lavrov has tried to portray the preliminary agreement with Saudi Arabia on "fighting terror" in Syria as though Riyadh is consenting to the Russian intervention.

However, Jubeir's statements can be seen as an invitation to Russia to join the existing US-led alliance against IS, rather than fighting it unilaterally.

Regarding the position on the Syrian regime, some believe the statements mark a change in the Saudi vision for a solution in Syria, with Riyadh now accepting that the regime should remain in military and civilian state institutions, with Assad stepping down during or after the "transition".

Others meanwhile say the Saudi position has been unchanged since at least 2012. Riyadh has often called for Assad and those it said had the blood of Syrians on their hands to step down, without the wholesale dismantling of the regime.

This was mentioned as part of the international accords stipulated in Geneva I in June 2012 - which Saudi Arabia considers to be the basis of its action against Assad.

The only Saudi change that could clearly be marked here is that the kingdom has relaxed its demand for Assad to step down immediately - and now accepts him in a symbolic capacity at least during a transitional phase that ends with him leaving, according to some observers.

Saudi Arabia insists on the Syrian president stepping down, but it is offering to negotiate the timing with Russia and Iran.

Geneva I guarantees the unity of Syrian territories and calls for a transitional phase to begin with the formation of an interim government comprising parties from the regime and the opposition, while maintaining the military and civilian institutions of the state, and transitioning towards a democracy that overcomes sectarianism and emphasises Syrian national identity.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.