The reaction of the Arab Gulf states to Russia’s sudden and dramatic escalation in Syria is moving beyond rhetoric and into actions. How far countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and others – along with non-Gulf countries in the Middle East that are also adamantly opposed to the continuation of the Assad regime like Turkey – are willing to go in countering the Russian moves will only become clear over time. At stake are relations between the Gulf states and Russia, which had been improving in recent years as countries like Saudi Arabia have sought to build varied alliances in order to reduce their dependence on the United States.
Russo-Saudi ties are significant not only in terms of the bilateral relationship but also because they could be the key to an eventual resolution of the Syrian conflict. The two countries have powerful vested interests in Syria. Russia is the main international supporter of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey and Qatar, is the main funder and arms supplier of the Syrian rebels not associated with the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant. If there is to be a political solution that addresses the needs of all the major warring factions and their domestic constituencies, as well as the interests of the main regional and international actors, Russia and Saudi Arabia will be indispensible to the process and each other. Therefore Riyadh and Moscow have a powerful incentive to maintain reasonable, if no longer warm, working bilateral relations, despite what amounts to a proxy war in Syria.
Russia, along with France and China, is usually at the top of Saudi lists of potential “alternatives” to the United States as a source of arms and military technology, signals and human intelligence, and diplomatic support at multilateral institutions like the United Nations. Therefore courting Moscow has been increasingly important to Riyadh. Saudi interest in Russian weapons systems was demonstrated by high-level delegations to the Russian army 2015 exhibition at Kubinka in June and the IMDS-2015 naval convention in St. Petersburg in July. Also in June, the Saudi defense minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The Saudis are reportedly preparing to purchase the Iskander-E tactical ballistic missile system (Saudi Arabia would be the first foreign country to access this high-precision, close-range system, which can be a game changer in many conflicts), the Tigr frigate, Erin coastal defense systems, Kh-35 anti-ship missiles, and what are described as “small submarines.” The package under discussion is estimated to be worth at least $15 billion. Another aspect of the growing relationship that raised eyebrows around the world during the summer was a deal announced in June wherein Saudi Arabia would build 16 nuclear reactors for civilian energy production, with Russia playing a major role in operating them.
However, according to Reuters and other news outlets, Major General Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force also visited Moscow and Putin in July. Suleimani is one of the most senior figures in Iran’s foreign adventures, and particularly its use of proxy militias in countries like Iraq and Syria. Reuters’ sources said that Iran had already convinced Russia of the need for an intervention in order to save the Assad regime from imminent collapse. Suleimani allegedly presented a detailed plan for the joint offensive that is now underway, and Russia reportedly agreed to the outline he proposed.
These dueling summer visits illustrate that Russia has been attempting to square a circle. It has been developing closer relations with Saudi Arabia and promising to supply it with some of its most sophisticated weaponry, while simultaneously serving as the principal global supporter for Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, the most powerful international supporter of the Assad dictatorship. Saudi Arabia and some of its key Gulf Cooperation Counsel allies are committed to regime change in Damascus, while Tehran and Moscow are committed to the regime’s survival.
What was already an untenable, if largely unrecognized, contradiction that has been developing in Russia’s policies regarding Syria and the rest of the Middle East became openly unmanageable following the Russian intervention in Syria that began in late September. Almost all of the Gulf states denounced the Russian escalation, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar immediately vowed to intensify their support for the rebels. These two Gulf countries have been working very closely with Turkey to fulfill this promise, and Internet videos and other evidence, along with opposition group statements, suggest that new and large shipments of TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missiles have had a major impact on the fighting on the ground and strengthened rebel forces in a number of recent confrontations with Syrian government troops.
These missiles have reportedly acquired the nickname of “Assad tamer,” because of their alleged effectiveness against the Syrian regime’s military forces. Indeed, several analysts have suggested that the effectiveness of the TOW missiles was a major factor in weakening the government’s military position and prompting the Russian and Iranian intervention. Beginning in 2013, the United States and Saudi Arabia launched a covert program that included transferring BGM-71 TOW missiles to the Free Syrian Army. The sudden prominence of these TOW missiles and the Russian intervention in Syria have led some observers to somewhat hyperbolically deem the Syrian conflict a Russo-U.S. “proxy war.”
In the first week of October, unnamed Saudi government sources reportedly confirmed the delivery of 500 more TOW missiles to rebel forces. Saudi Arabia and others have long proposed supplying man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) to the Syrian rebels, but the United States strongly opposes the idea based on its experiences in Afghanistan and other conflicts. The concern is that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands, thereby threatening civilian aircraft or Western warplanes, and that recovering them after a conflict is extremely difficult and expensive. On the other hand, withholding these weapons means that the Assad dictatorship and the Russians have unchallenged air supremacy over the Syrian skies.
Despite their misgivings, the evidence strongly suggests that, so far at least, the key backers of the Syrian rebels – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar – are respecting this U.S. red line. As the conflict continues to intensify, and especially if pressure on the regime mounts, Assad may feel compelled to resort to more intensive firepower and air operations in order to reverse losses to the rebels, who cannot match or counter such high-powered weapons and systems. If that transpires, there will be a strong temptation for Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha to seriously consider supplying the rebels with MANPADs. U.S. opposition to such a step may then rest on providing an alternative, such as a no-fly zone (which the U.S. military is loath to consider), rather than simply reiterate a blanket objection to the transfer of what would then be seen as increasingly indispensable weapons to the rebels.
As usual, the Arab world is not united in its response to these major developments. Thus far, the Arab League has been silent regarding the Russian escalation, reflecting the growing sense in the Egyptian government that Assad might actually be the lesser of two evils when compared with ISIL, the ambivalence of Jordan on the same question, and additional uncertainty among some other Arab states. Even within the GCC there are diverging positions, with the UAE welcoming the idea of Russia bombing ISIL targets in Syria. But the Saudis, Qataris, and others remain adamant in categorically opposing Russia’s intervention.
MBS recently led another Saudi delegation to Russia, this time meeting with Putin in Sochi on October 11, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conferred with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Unsurprisingly, these meetings did not produce any announcements of major weapons or other trade deals, or even warm expressions of enduring trust. The frosty public atmosphere surrounding the talks may well have only hinted at the real level of tension that has developed in the relationship as a result of the Russian intervention in Syria.
Nonetheless, neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia wants a complete break over Syria if that is avoidable, even though Moscow’s intervention has put serious strains on the relationship. Both sides appear to be looking for ways of salvaging their bilateral relationship even as they intensify their support for their clients in Syria. Russia, for example, has taken the surprising step of suggesting it is willing to discuss oil pricing with OPEC – a major concession on its part, since it has traditionally refused to discuss anything through the cartel. Saudi Arabia has not publicly backed away from its promise in July to inject $10 billion from its sovereign wealth fund into the Russian economy or to purchase 950 Russian BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles and other weapons systems.
Salvaging the Russian-Saudi relationship is not only important for Moscow and Riyadh. It might eventually hold the key to a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. These are, after all, the principal backers of the two main sides in the war. If Russia is willing to forgo Assad personally, and Saudi Arabia is willing to countenance the survival of some elements of the current power structure and its political constituency, the seeds of a settlement might be detected – assuming that they can persuade their Syrian clients and allies to be similarly open to such an agreement.
Some reports suggest that the Putin-MBS Sochi meeting was tense enough to be deemed “confrontational.” But perhaps the fact that the meeting went ahead, despite the Russian escalation and the Saudi/Qatari-led response in Syria, is more significant than the atmosphere in, and surrounding, the conversation itself. The bilateral relationship between Riyadh and Moscow is surviving the proxy conflict in Syria between Saudi Arabia and Russia. That means that both sides understand that they will need each other when the endgame in Syria finally takes shape, whether through agreed or imposed and de facto realities, or, most likely, a combination of both.