Assad watches on as sands of diplomacy shift
Lebanon’s daily Al Akhbar, which supports Hizbollah, revealed last week that Russian mediation had led to a recent meeting in Riyadh between Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s national security bureau, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defence minister.
While nothing was reportedly agreed, the fact that the meeting occurred at all was an opportunity for Al Akhbar to imply that the Saudis accept that Bashar Al Assad is here to stay. The reality may be different. It is more likely that the Saudis sought to do Russia a favour at a crucial time in Moscow’s own reconsideration of the Syrian situation.
The nature of this reconsideration is not yet clear, but, according to Al Akhbar, it appears the Russians made the argument to the Saudis that the real risk in Syria is the rise of ISIL and terrorism. Mr Al Assad would not be toppled, the Russians allegedly said, but unless the Saudis and Syrians co-operated, ISIL and other terrorist groups would gain.
The Russians have called for an alliance against terrorism that includes Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Jordan. They worry that the large number of combatants in Syria from Central Asia and the Caucasus may return home to combat Russia.
The Saudis, while sympathetic to the terrorism argument, are not ready to cooperate with Mr Al Assad, and this week the Gulf countries rejected the Russian proposal. But there could have been another calculation behind the Saudis’ agreement to meet Mr Mamlouk: to play on the potentially different Russian and Iranian approaches to Syria.
While nothing suggests there are profound disagreements between Tehran and Moscow – both continue to have significant parallel interests – there has been a difference in attitude to the conflict there. While the Russians have sought to preserve Syria and its army and security forces relatively intact, Iran has advanced a project leading to fragmentation.
Indeed, Iran has facilitated a new reality in which Mr Al Assad and his regime have been marginalised. By supporting the creation of militias that tend to answer to Iran and its allies, for instance, the Iranians have been able to circumvent Syria’s leadership when necessary, a strategy also adopted in Iraq.
Russia is said to have backed Iran in advising Mr Al Assad to defend core geographical areas in Syria and avoid dispersing his army. But ensuring Mr Al Assad’s immediate political survival does not mean that Russia approves of Syria’s partition.
Things are far less clear with Iran. For the Iranians to advance their interests in Arab countries where the Shia are a minority, they must divide societies and exploit their contradictions, allowing them to retain control over key districts. And here Moscow and Tehran may not be on the same wavelength.
Russia and Iran regard ISIL as a major danger. But ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate, can only thrive in a fragmented Syrian environment.
That appears to be why the Russians are so keen to enhance Mr Al Assad’s legitimacy and allow him to stabilise himself at home, whatever their medium-term plans for him. This can only be done by returning Syria to the Arab fold. Moscow regards the antiterrorism agenda as the country’s door back into the region.
Iran, on the other hand, has shown no such inclination. Mainly, that’s because it is regarded by most Arab states as the essence of the problem in Syria and is mistrusted. But it is also because if Mr Al Assad is embraced by Arab governments, Iran understands that a condition for his acceptance will be that he downgrade Syrian relations with Tehran.
For the Iranians a weak Syrian regime dependent on them allows Iran not only to maintain its influence in Syria and Lebanon, but also exploit the chaos to open new fronts against Israel. Yet for the Russians such a situation creates only volatility and impermanence, while empowering the extremists opposed to Mr Al Assad. This may ultimately threaten Russia.
To presume this will lead to a split between Russia and Iran goes too far. Both want to save Syria’s regime, or at least its core. Both welcome a negotiated solution that does so. But what Iran does not want is for a political process to reduce its power in Syria.
Russia’s priority is different. It wants to sustain its sway in Damascus but above all avoid a failed Syrian state, thereby ensuring that Syria does not remain a reservoir for anti-Russian terrorism.
The nuclear deal with Iran is a part of it. As the Saudis adapt to American disengagement from the region, both they and the Russians may see advantages in exploring relations to counter the eventuality of closer Iranian-American ties. This is perhaps an additional reason why the Saudis acceded to the Russian request that Prince Mohammed meet Mr Mamlouk.
As the regional context changes, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia will manoeuvre to guarantee they do not come out losers. Mr Al Assad can only watch, think the same thing, and worry.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling
Updated: August 5, 2015 04:00 AM