September 30, 2017 marked the second anniversary of the beginning of Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war. That intervention totally altered the course of the war and the fate of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Two years later, the Assad government remains safely ensconced in Damascus, calls for his removal from Western and Arab capitals who wanted to bring about regime change in Syria have ceased, and the Syrian military is reclaiming and reasserting its control over territory it had earlier lost.
Also, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — which earlier controlled more than 70 percent of territory — is significantly defeated, holding less than five per cent of the territory, and at least for now, seems to have been defeated in Syria and Iraq. The Syrian opposition and other armed factions and militant groups are in disarray, and some of Bashar Al Assad’s most formidable foes like Turkey have all come around to the realization that his government will remain in power for now. This is largely due to Russian intervention in the civil war there.
Yet this momentous event was eclipsed by something even more momentous — the first ever state visit by a Saudi monarch. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s recent visit to Moscow, with a large delegation in tow, saw several deals inked with Moscow. A major agreement was for the supply of the Russian S-400 missile system — deployed in Syria.
The Saudis, arch rivals of Iran, have been bitterly opposed to the Iran-supported Assad regime which is seen as an Iranian proxy. They and the Russians have been on opposite sides of the divide in the Syrian civil war. While Russia recognizes the Assad regime as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, the Saudis, interested in regime change, have supported the Syrian opposition. What explains this détente?
Observers of the Middle East will know that this cooperation is not entirely surprising. The two sides have for a while now been seeking avenues to increase cooperation and find common ground. One factor has been the fall in oil prices since 2014. Both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) — within OPEC — and the Russian Federation — outside OPEC — are oil giants. Both have increasingly been feeling the pinch but yet have been reluctant to cut back on production.
Russia is increasingly dependent on revenues from its energy exports, which has been necessitated by the imposition of Western sanctions. KSA too has been grappling with unemployment and falling revenues, and is seeking to diversify its economy. The Saudi Vision 2030 was launched to address just these issues. “Both Russia and Saudi Arabia, as the two largest oil producers in the world, have the heaviest burdens to see the oil markets stabilize,” Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said. deal to cut oil
The other major determinant has been the receding American footprint in the region. The US, based on the Carter doctrine, has for decades been the security provider for Saudi Arabia. However, with the advent of the Arab Spring, it seemed to have fallen short of the expectations of its Gulf allies. They often found themselves supporting opposing sides, like for instance in Egypt. The Saudis wanted to maintain the status quo to prevent the Arab Spring, which swept away old despotic regimes, from reaching the House of Saud. Former US President Barack Obama’s administration however encouraged the removal of Hosni Mubrarak’s regime and recognized the government of Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Al Morsi.
While the position of the Saudis and the US converged on Syria, with both sides supporting the Syrian opposition, including arming the Syrian rebel groups, President Obama was loath to intervene militarily. Even when certain “red lines” laid down by him were transgressed, like for instance the chemical attack in Syria in 2013 which the US blamed on the Syrian government. However, President Obama did not take any action, except to condemn the attack. The Russians on the other hand acted decisively, stepping in as guarantors for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons and thereby preventing a Western assault there.
Where the US has been found to be dithering, Russia is seen to stand its ground, prevailing over those opposing it.
Russia has since stood by Assad decisively, vetoing UN resolutions criticizing him or calling for his removal. This was driven primarily by two factors. One was to avoid another Libya-like situation, where, after UN approval for the imposition of no-fly zones, NATO then overthrew President Muammar Gaddafi. This action unleashed chaos and anarchy, making Libya a magnet for groups like ISIS today. With many from Russia flocking to join ISIS in Syria, Russia wanted to prevent a similar situation from arising there. Already, the removal of Saddam Hussein had engendered the rise of ISIS in Iraq. The other was Russia’s close military and defense ties with Syria, including Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus.
However, the greatest affront to the Saudis, according to analysts like former CIA director Bruce Riedel, came from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the Iran Deal. This pact, that the P5+1 countries led by the US entered into with Iran on its nuclear program, had lifted all hitherto imposed sanctions on it. A resurgent Iran, with more of its oil flowing into global markets, once again integrating into the global economy and flexing its muscles, was a Saudi nightmare.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition’s decision to launch the war in Yemen was a signal of their willingness to “go it alone.” Part of the reason was to take security issues into their own hands, heightened by a desire to reduce dependence on the US, and to diversify their security alliances. Thus, also the initiative to launch the 24-nation anti-terror coalition in 2015. In Yemen too, save for some lackluster airstrikes, the US did not intervene. Two years hence, there is no end in sight to the war, and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who overthrew the government of Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have not backed down despite numerous airstrikes and bombardments by the Saudi-led coalition.
As relations between the US and Iran began to be on the mend, the Saudis looked east. Russia, which had been closely cooperating with Iran on Syria, became an obvious choice. Simultaneously, US-Russia relations deteriorated over the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, and equally spilling over into Syria.
But whereas Russia’s support to Assad helped swing the war decisively in his favor, American support to Syrian rebels was found to be wanting. Russia’s actions were also effective in striking terrorist groups who were also threatening the interests of the West.
Even in the more recent intra-Gulf crisis, where Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies like the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt severed ties with Qatar, the US has again been unable to take up a decisive position, instead calling for mediation between the two sides.
Where the US has been found to be dithering, Russia is seen to stand its ground, prevailing over those opposing it. When Turkey, a NATO member-state that had been supporting Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime, shot down a Russian military aircraft, Russia responded by imposing economic sanctions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to hold out the olive branch to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Turkey dropped all opposition to Assad, and today Russian-Turkish positions on Syria largely converge.
Russia has also proved its ability to talk to opposing sides. While it views Hezbollah as a legitimate political player in Lebanon, its arch rival Israel also enjoys close ties with Russia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a regular guest in Moscow.
While US President Donald Trump has recently decertified the Iran deal, the Saudis, by cementing their missile system deal with Russia, have both preempted Iran from acquiring it, as well as sent a strong message to the US. Economic and arms deals are also good news for cash-strapped Russia. There are hints that the Saudis may seek Russia’s help in Yemen where they are facing a quagmire. Russia has abstained from UN Security Council votes calling for arms embargos against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-backed resolution demanding the Houthis withdraw from all territories seized in their campaign. The two sides will also have to coordinate their position on Syria.
Clearly, President Putin’s Middle East blitz has been a success. Cementing friendships, standing by its ally, forging military and economic deals with all sides, and reconciling differences — Russia is expanding its footprint in the region, and has emerged as a major strategic player in the region. The Saudi monarch’s recent visit is a testimony to just that.