A flurry of diplomatic activity is occurring between Riyadh and Moscow over not only Iraq but Syria. Russia is seeking to play the role of negotiator on all questions and Saudi Arabia holds the keys. If successful, Russia stands to gain substantially at the expense of the United States. The Kingdom engagement policy with the Russians may indeed produce peace dividends and further alter the geopolitical landscape.
Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Jeddah two days ago discussing the Levant crisis with senior Saudi officials. The talks follow a meeting on June 3 between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. On June 9, Lavrov and Prince Saud held a telephone conversation on ways to resolve the crisis in Syria. On June 20, Putin called embattled Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki to give him support in the attempts by Iraqi parties and other countries to force him to step down. Putin confirmed Russia's "full support for the Iraqi government's action to quickly free the territory of the republic from terrorists." This flurry of activity shows that the Kremlin wants to play a major role in settling the situation in the Levant that leaves America out of the picture.
Russia proves its point
Russia’s role as a mediator in the Near East and in other conflict zones is not new. During the air war over Serbia, then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiated a halt to America’s air campaign that raised the ire of Moscow. For more than a decade, Russian foreign policy has ostensibly been against intervention of foreign powers in the affairs of other sovereign nations and it has increasingly viewed the Middle East as a good example to prove its point, highlighting the chaos and violence following direct U.S.-Western military action or support in various states. In addition, the Kremlin has positioned itself as a peacemaker, trying to avert the same Western mistakes in Syria by pushing for a solution to the country’s internal conflict that does not involve U.S. military action and making America and Western Europe the villains. Notably, Russia’s role in finding a solution to the use of chemical weapon in Syria and halting “American aggression” is seen as a diplomatic win for the Kremlin by some Arab officials.
Riyadh sees Moscow as a future security and economic partner who is an honest broker; much more than other Western powersDr. Theodore Karasik
The Kingdom and the Kremlin agreed to return to the Geneva 1 process which is to find a political transition in Syria. This is a significant development that signals that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s election on June 3 for another term is cemented as Russia wants and which Riyadh now appears to see as critical for Syria’s stability. Iran will be happy with this outcome because their efforts supporting Assad with military and financial aid are paying off. Iran is close to the Kremlin, and Russia will be able to negotiate between Riyadh and Tehran in a way to please both parties in the Syrian outcome. Time will tell what that political transition will look like.
Riyadh’s distrust of America
ISIS’s tidal wave in Iraq played right into Kremlin arguments about how the failures of “global color revolutions” led by the “American-Atlantist Community” wreck countries and leave them wide open to terrorist infiltration. Russia’s fresh diplomatic offensive is based on the new conceptual, doctrinal outlook from Moscow and is now being presented to the Saudis as a reason for the Levant’s woes and especially the unfolding catastrophic debacle in Iraq. The Kingdom seems to be buying the argument, and well they should, based on Riyadh’s distrust of America.
ISIS’s activity in Iraq is reminding the Saudis how opposed they were to American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Consequently, the events are giving the Kingdom “a ground-hog day moment” according to an Arab official.
During their meeting in Jeddah, Lavrov and Saud also said efforts should be made to “maintain the integrity of Iraq and the unity of all the components of the Iraqi people, who should benefit from equality of rights and duties”. Clearly this is a signal that the Kingdom and the Kremlin want to find a middle ground for Iraqi state stability while at the same time finding a possible solution to the leadership crisis in Baghdad. According to an Arab official, Riyadh and Moscow agree that Ayad Allawi is the best candidate to run Iraq as he has had close ties to Kingdom and Kremlin in the past. In addition, the key is Assad: All sides now see that Assad and the stability of Syria is now key and is part of the deal to getting Alawi into power in Baghdad. Clearly, the Saudis see the Russians are able to exercise their good ties with Iran and Iraqi Shiites to accept Allawi.
Also of critical importance during this sequence of events is King Abdullah’s visit to Egypt. This visit to Egypt to support Egyptian President Sisi is full of significance and importance because Saudi Arabia sees Egypt as the core of the Middle East. The Kingdom also sees that Al-Sisi represents a model that needs to be emulated in the Levant: a strong ruler who is able to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic extremists. Moscow’s support for Egypt is also at play and taken together, the Kingdom and the Kremlin see eye to eye across the region. As such, this cooperation may be acceptable to Iran since such activity does not hurt the Islamic Republics interests—at least for the time being given the threat of Sunni extremists.
Overall, Saudi Arabia is acting quickly to help resolve regional security issue. Russia sees her historical mission coming to fruition by rushing into the debacle of the Levant and coming up with solutions that will perhaps firmly place the Near East within Moscow’s orbit and influence. The move is smart and timely. As such the status and prospects for the Saudi-Russian bilateral relationship are growing, and both the Kingdom and the Kremlin stressed their readiness to intensify it, including trade, economic and energy cooperation which has a solid potential for growth. On June 18, Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed on a draft intergovernmental framework agreement on cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy and subsequent steps in preparing the agreement for signature. All of these developments come on the heels of Putin’s praise for King Abdullah a few months ago and the resumption of Lukoil’s drilling efforts in the Eastern Province. Clearly, Riyadh sees Moscow as a future security and economic partner who is an honest broker; much more than other Western powers.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.