King Salman, Putin and the Syrian Elephant in the Room

Sami Moubayed

Bilateral relations were discussed and billion-dollar deals signed at the Kremlin during King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s historic visit to Moscow. The elephant in the room, however, was Syria — the one topic that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin were dying to address, although their visions for the war-torn country were light-years apart.
King Salman landed in Moscow October 4, marking the first visit by a Saudi monarch to Russia since the start of bilateral relations in 1926. The Saudi daily al-Hayat reported that large portraits of King Salman filled the streets leading up the Kremlin, reflecting high homage to the visiting Gulf monarch.
Explaining the historic visit, former Saudi intelligence chief Turki bin Faisal Al Saud told Russian news agencies: “I think that there is much that can be negotiated with Mr Putin. We have shared interests in the Middle East. We see Russia’s growing influence in the Syrian situation. Saudi Arabia is equally interested in bringing peace and stability to the Syrian people and so, on that level, Russia and Saudi Arabia have a lot in common.”
He added: “The killing must stop (in Syria). Saudi Arabia has never said that Assad should remain the Syrian president. What we say is that it should be up to the Syrian people to decide and that we need a mechanism to help them do this.”
That was a soft U-turn, coming from a country that has insisted on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s departure as a precondition for any political deal since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
The royal visit bore the fingerprints of pragmatic Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who didn’t accompany his father to Moscow but stayed in Riyadh to run state affairs in the king’s absence.
Prince Mohammed realises that there is very little his country can expect from the Trump administration, which has seemingly surrendered, rather completely, to Russia’s version of the Syrian endgame and is no longer interested in regime change in Damascus. With no US backing, he, too, realises that banking on Assad’s removal will lead to nowhere, in light of Russia’s commitment to the Syrian president.
Since being sworn-in last January, US President Donald Trump has focused on three objectives in Syria, none of which include Assad’s departure. One is counterterrorism and the eradication of the Islamic State (ISIS) and second is clipping Iran’s wings and ejecting Hezbollah from Syria, two topics in which Saudi-US relations overlap.
They disagree over the future of Syrian Kurds, however: Trump wants to empower and reward them as vital allies in the war on terror.
Prince Mohammed hopes to build on commonalities with the United States while simultaneously bridging an entire century of differences with Moscow to get a piece of the Syrian cake that Putin has been delicately slicing since his army rumbled into Syria in September 2015.
If he doesn’t do that, King Salman fears that Iran, Turkey and perhaps even Qatar will take everything that remains in Syria, leaving the Saudis with little to nothing. To do that, King Salman needs to do things differently in Syria.
That shouldn’t be too hard, as the Saudis have formulated a different approach towards dealing with Iraq, another regional, war-torn country under control of the mullahs of Tehran.
For ten years, Saudi Arabia tried to fight Iran in Iraq with little luck. It bankrolled Sunni militias, trashed the Iran-backed governments of Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nuri al-Maliki and tried to isolate Iraq from its Arab environment, punishing the state for its alliance with Iran. None of that worked, and now Saudi Arabia is courting Iran-backed Shia figures such as Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, striking beyond enemy lines in the complex web of Baghdad politics, hoping to lure Iranian proxies into the Saudi orbit, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections next April.
In Syria, Saudi Arabia has already hinted, via Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, that it, too, has surrendered to the fact that Assad is going nowhere, stressing nevertheless that it is not satisfied with such an endgame.
It might be too difficult for Saudi Arabia to say that bluntly but Putin is willing to accept Saudi’s future silence as an adequate confidence-building measure. In exchange for ending its anti-regime tirade and for quietly halting the funding of the armed opposition, Putin is willing to help clip the wings of Hezbollah in Syria, slowly squeezing its warriors out of the Syrian-Jordanian border area and minimising Iran’s influence on the rest of Syria.
Already in Idlib in north-western Syria, Putin made sure that Iran’s military presence was balanced by Russian and Turkish troops. King Salman wants to guarantee that Syria will not end up squarely in the hands of Iran and this is something on which he and Putin are in full agreement.
For his part, Putin wants to see a unified Syrian opposition delegation — one that is injected with Moscow-backed figures and not monopolised by Saudi proxies — at the talks in Geneva in late November. He is also willing to assure King Salman that Qatar will get no share of the Syrian endgame as well and that all Doha-backed figures are fully eradicated, both politically and military, from the Syrian battlefield.
Finally, Putin is offering to help broker a ceasefire in Yemen — to the liking of Riyadh, rather than the Houthis and Iran — something that is far more vital for Saudi Arabia than seeing an end to Assad.

Sami Moubayed
is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
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