by Samuel Ramani
On October 3, Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat published a wide-ranging interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In this interview, Lavrov reiterated Russia’s support for Syria’s return to the Arab League and extolled Saudi Arabia’s ability to impact Syria’s future. As Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Riyadh next week, Lavrov’s interview sparked speculation that Putin will raise the issue of Syria’s Arab League membership with Saudi officials.
Although Saudi Arabia has refused to re-establish diplomatic relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Russian policymakers view the increasingly moderate tone of Riyadh’s rhetoric on Syria since early 2018 with optimism. In March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that “Bashar is staying” as Syria’s leader, and in August 2018, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Lavrov that Saudi Arabia would cooperate with Russia on the Syrian peace process. These statements, combined with the decision of two of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to re-establish diplomatic relations with Damascus, has caused Russia to intensify its outreach to Riyadh on Syria’s Arab League membership.
In spite of Russia’s outreach efforts and Riyadh’s expression of solidarity with Damascus against Turkey’s military incursions, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to change its thinking on Syria’s Arab League membership in the short-term. As Saudi Arabia has insisted that the Syrian civil war cannot be resolved until Iranian militias are expelled from southern Syria, Saudi policymakers fear that changing their position on Assad could convince Iran of the effectiveness of its maximum resistance strategy. Severe mistrust between the Saudi monarchy and Assad’s government could also impede a genuine normalization between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Andrei Baklanov, Russia’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2000 to 2005, told Lobelog that Bashar al-Assad views Saudi Arabia’s efforts to overthrow his government as an act of betrayal, after Damascus stood by Riyadh during the 1991 Gulf War, and Assad’s negative perceptions of Riyadh continue to restrict potential cooperation between the two countries.
While these issues could remain sticking points for the foreseeable future, there are clear strategic benefits associated with Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Assad. Re-establishing diplomatic ties with Damascus could allow Saudi Arabia to invest in Syria’s reconstruction process, in tandem with Egypt and the UAE. Egypt believes that construction and engineering projects in Syria are potentially lucrative and would welcome Saudi Arabia’s entry into the Syrian market. The UAE is also taking steps to invest in Syria’s reconstruction process, as a Syrian delegation met with leading Emirati investors in Dubai in January and a large group of Emirati businesspeople travelled to Damascus on August 30. A Saudi-UAE-Egypt investment partnership in Syria could counter Iran’s influence over the Syrian reconstruction process and over time, help soften Assad’s staunch alliance with Tehran.
Supporting Assad’s return to the Arab League would also be an effective way for Saudi Arabia to strengthen its relationship with Russia, without risking the potential backlash associated with a purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. The stability of the OPEC+ oil price stability pact and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDFIF)’s growing interest in collaborating with Saudi companies underscore Russia’s value as a potential international partner for Saudi Arabia. Much like how Russia-UAE relations strengthened after Abu Dhabi normalized relations with Assad, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Moscow could similarly improve and allow Riyadh to partially hedge against growing strains in its relationship with the U.S. Congress.
In spite of these strategic benefits, Riyadh’s policy towards Damascus is more likely to be impacted by the progress of Saudi Arabia-Iran dialogue than conditions on the ground in Syria. While Saudi Arabia has many preconditions for serious engagement with Iran, which include an end to Tehran’s support for the Houthis in Yemen and a cessation of Iran’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities, it has comparatively few bargaining chips to offer Iran in return. The most valuable inducement that Saudi Arabia could make to Iran, if bilateral negotiations proceed in Baghdad, is a reversal of its long-standing opposition to Assad’s retention of power in Syria.
Given the high levels of distrust between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Riyadh is unlikely to make a unilateral concession to Tehran on Syria, but instead use a normalization with Damascus as a quid-pro-quo for Iran’s cancellation of support for the Houthis in Yemen. The recent offer by the Houthis to suspend drone strikes on Saudi territory and indications that the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a UAE-aligned south Yemeni separatist movement, will withdraw from Aden have created a rare opening for Saudi Arabia to extricate itself from its military intervention in Yemen. If Saudi Arabia takes tangible steps towards de-escalating its two-front confrontation with Yemen, it could bargain for a Syria-for-Yemen deal with Iran to restore a baseline of stability to the Persian Gulf.
While a Syria-for-Yemen quid pro quo might advance Saudi Arabia’s interests, Iran views this prospect with skepticism. Hamidreza Azizi, a professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, told Lobelog that Iran feels that Saudi Arabia is in a weak position in both Syria and Yemen, so it might not see a Saudi pivot on Syria as a decisive development. Azizi also noted that the dominant view in Iran is that Bahrain and the UAE normalized relations with Assad in coordination with Saudi Arabia, so Riyadh recognizing Assad’s legitimacy would not be viewed as a good will gesture, but as a pragmatic recognition that Assad has won the Syrian civil war. Azizi concluded by stating that the “interpretations by Iran and Saudi Arabia of wins and losses in the region are totally different,” and this chasm impedes genuine dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran.
Although Putin will likely urge Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Syria and advertise Russia’s role as a potential backchannel facilitator of dialogue with Iran, Moscow will struggle to secure Riyadh’s immediate support for Assad’s return to the Arab League. For strategic reasons, Saudi Arabia’s position could converge more closely with Russia’s in the long-term. But as long as Saudi Arabia and Iran maintain a zero-sum approach to regional diplomacy, a Saudi policy shift on Syria might not result in reciprocal compromises from Tehran or a substantial relaxation of tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Samuel Ramani is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford specializing on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East and the protracted conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Follow him on Twitter@samramani2.