Brian M Downing
King Salman of Saudi Arabia visited his counterpart in Russia last week – a further sign that events and alignments move quickly in the world. Such a visit was improbable two years ago when Putin sent his military to Syria against Saudi-backed rebels, and unthinkable thirty years ago when the Saudis and Americans were supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even today, the meeting goes against the logic of the sectarian conflict in which Russia is closely aligned with Iran.
The Saudis showed their earnest by purchasing the Russia S400 air defense system. The deal came a few months after Riyadh inked an immense arms deal with Washington. Only a few days after the S400 deal, Riyadh bought the American THAAD missile-defense system. What does the meeting between khan and tsar mean for the region and for US foreign policy?
Discussion of the stalemated Syrian civil war surely figured highly in the talks. Moscow and Riyadh have been shoveling large amounts of money into the conflict and would like to cut back. This is a pressing matter as both face soft oil prices and large youth populations.
Certain problems about the civil war must be addressed and solutions will be difficult and probably unstable. Damascus will have to abandon the idea of reconquering the country. Assad once boasted of this goal and Putin responded by withdrawing some of his fighter aircraft.
Sunni regions will be established, and respected, in the north and east. The Free Syrian Army, a Sunni force once backed by the US but now by Turkey, has already established control over parts of northwestern Syria. The US- and Saudi-backed Syrian Democratic Forces will do the same in the northeast and east.
Khan and tsar will have to agree on lines of communication between Iran and its allies in Syria and Lebanon. SDF units were assembling in southeastern Syria over the summer, probably to interdict communication among Shia powers. However, that campaign fizzled, probably because Riyadh rethought the wisdom and finances of a protracted conflict with Iran.
The SDF comprises Kurdish forces as well as Arab ones, and they will likely figure in Saudi policies. The Saudis may ask for similar lines of communications with the Kurds of northeastern Syria and perhaps even those in Iraq.
Tehran is wary that Riyadh’s diplomacy and attendant arms purchases in Moscow are designed to convince Putin to at least soften support for Iran. This is unlikely. Iran too is an avid buyer of Russian arms, having bought the very same S400 system only a few years ago.
Further, while perfidy isn’t unknown in Russian foreign policy (or that of many other states), the Syrian intervention aimed to underscore Russia’s reliability as an ally in the wake of NATO interventions in Serbia and Libya.
The Saudis will urge Russia to prevail upon Iran to accept partitioning of Syria (perhaps the same in Yemen) and to refrain from supporting insurgency in Shia populations across the Gulf region.
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Four years ago, Russia’s influence in the Middle East was at its nadir. Egypt booted it out in the seventies. Qaddafi was forced out of power in Libya and killed. Syria was on the verge of collapse, endangering the Russian naval base at Tartus. Since then, Russia has seized the Crimea as a base of operations, propped up the Assad government and installed an airbase near Tartus, all but detached Turkey from NATO, and bolstered ties with Iran. Quite a feat.
Russia, having good relations with Iran and now with Saudi Arabia, is positioned to manage tensions in the Gulf. The US played this role from World War Two until the ouster of the shah in 1979. However, by increasing hostilities toward Iran, the US has discarded the possibility of reprising its role as balancer in the Gulf – and opened a door that Vladimir Putin is scurrying toward.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.