From March 8 to 12, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. During his trip, Lavrov was expected to focus on preserving the Russian- and Saudi-led OPEC+ agreement, promoting Russia’s collective security vision in the Gulf, and expanding Russia’s economic cooperation with Gulf governments. Despite these expectations, Syria surprisingly emerged as the focal point of Lavrov’s Gulf tour. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan called for Syria’s return to the Arab League and criticized the United States’ Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act sanctions. A historic Russia-Qatar-Turkey trilateral meeting on Syria was also held in Doha, which resulted in all three countries signing a joint statement on the need for a political solution to the Syrian civil war.
The diplomatic breakthroughs that Lavrov presided over during his visit to the region were the culmination of five years of Russian shuttle diplomacy with Gulf Arab countries on Syria. Even though every Gulf state, except Oman, supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow, each country pursued distinct, and at times conflicting, policies on Syria. Russia’s military intervention on Assad’s behalf, which began in September 2015, exacerbated these polarizations. Saudi Arabia and Qatar decried Assad, accusing him of lacking legitimacy, and reportedly stepped up their military assistance to different Syrian rebel groups. The UAE viewed Russia’s strikes in Syria against militant groups tied to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as military actions against a “common enemy.” Bahrain offered words of praise for Russia’s actions in Syria. Kuwait held talks with Russia on conflict resolution in Syria and sharpened its focus on humanitarian issues, such as the status of Syrian refugees. And Oman expanded its diplomatic engagement with Assad’s regime.
Russia exploited these divisions over its military intervention in Syria by regularly engaging with the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain on the Syrian conflict. The Kremlin hoped that the moderating influence of these states and Assad’s military successes would prompt Saudi Arabia and Qatar to suspend support for opposition movements in Syria. Russia also framed itself as a potential long-term bulwark against Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria; however, there were weaknesses in its strategy regarding Turkey as Ankara’s influence in Syria has grown in significant ways since Russia’s intervention. Nonetheless, Russia’s efforts largely paid off: The UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus in December 2018, and Kuwait pledged to reopen its embassy in Damascus if Syria was readmitted to the Arab League. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have drastically reduced their military and financial support for Syrian opposition movements. These policy shifts have opened the space for Russia to constructively engage with the Gulf Arab countries on Syria.
The expansion of Russia-Gulf consultations on Syria forwards Moscow’s interests in several ways. In the short term, Russia can more effectively engage Arab countries on its peace plans in Syria. The Astana peace process, which includes Russia, Iran, and Turkey as co-guarantors, has stalled over Syrian constitutional debates, fueled by Syrian regime reluctance to engage meaningfully. Russia has included Iraq and Lebanon as observers in the Astana talks but has failed to engage other potential allies, such as Egypt or the UAE, in these negotiations. The growth of Russia-UAE dialogue on Syria and the Russia-Qatar-Turkey format could bolster Russia’s standing as an arbiter in the Arab world, regardless of how much some U.S. officials try to dismiss the credibility of that Russian role. In the long term, Russia hopes that engaging Gulf Arab countries could encourage their investments in Syria’s reconstruction process and facilitate Syria’s return to the Arab League.
Russia has also developed more targeted strategies for engagement with Gulf countries on the Syrian crisis. The Russia-UAE relationship in Syria is especially deep, as it has both ideational and geostrategic foundations. In keeping with Russian narratives on Syria, in April 2018, then-UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash described the Syrian conflict as one between Assad and “the opposition, which was joined by jihadists and even many terrorist elements.” This aligns with Russia and the UAE’s negative perspectives on the Arab Spring’s legacy and fears that a successful popular revolution in Syria would empower Muslim Brotherhood-aligned elements of the Syrian opposition. Russia’s facilitation of a tactical alliance between Assad and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces against Turkey during Ankara’s October 2019 Operation Peace Spring offensive in northern Syria dovetailed with the UAE’s synchronous calls for Arab solidarity with Syria against Turkey. Similarly, the participation of Emirati companies at the August 2019 Damascus International Trade Fair, which was strenuously criticized by the United States, aligned somewhat with Russia’s enthusiastic support for capital provisions to an Assad-led Syrian reconstruction process.
Beyond their convergence of views, security cooperation between Russia and the UAE in Syria is also growing. In January 2019, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev discussed information exchanges on terrorist groups in Syria with the UAE’s national security advisor, Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The alignment between Libyan National Army chieftain General Khalifa Hifter and Assad against the “Turkish threat,” which was announced in March 2020, has added a new dimension to Russia-UAE cooperation on Syria. The interdependence among Russian Wagner Group private military contractors in Libya (which are reportedly financed by the UAE), Assad-aligned Syrian mercenaries (who have been recruited by the Wagner Group), and UAE-aligned Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries (who fight for the Libyan National Army) has grown significantly since early 2020. This nascent interdependence will allow Russia and the UAE to enhance cooperation in a synchronized fashion on Libya and Syria, if the two governments commit to such an effort.
The ongoing disagreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia over the degree of Assad’s legitimacy constrains the scope of Moscow-Riyadh cooperation on Syria. Nevertheless, some space does remain for engagement. In contrast to his frequent claims that Iran is an impediment to peace in Syria, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan emphasized the importance of coordinating with Russia on the Syrian peace process during Lavrov’s March 10 visit to Riyadh. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who reportedly greenlighted Russia’s military intervention in Syria, consistently supports engagement with Russia and met with Russia’s special envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, on March 9.
While Russia’s engagement with the UAE on Syria is based on common ideas, and dialogue with Saudi Arabia is tied to Moscow’s regional status aspirations, the drivers of Russia-Qatar cooperation on Syria are more ambiguous. Qatar’s support for Syria’s continued exclusion from the Arab League and scathing criticisms of Assad’s human rights abuses at a U.N. General Assembly meeting on Syria on March 3 underscore its continued divergence with Russia on Syria. However, Russia and Qatar still see dialogue on Syria as mutually beneficial. As Qatar provided extensive financial and military aid to Syrian rebel forces, Russia’s engagement with Doha after moments of escalation, such as following chemical attacks in April 2017, was likely driven by threat mitigation. More recently, Russia-Qatar cooperation on Syria has been linked with their broader diplomatic aspirations. Qatar saw its participation in a trilateral platform on Syria with Russia and Turkey as proof of its status as an arbiter, while Russia viewed Qatar’s involvement in these talks as a gateway to cooperation on Afghanistan.
Russia’s cooperation with Kuwait and Oman on Syria is more limited. Kuwait has served as a venue for Russia-Gulf dialogue on Syria and signed on to Russia’s agriculture sector development deals with Syria. In the U.N. Security Council, however, Russia vetoed a December 2019 draft resolution, which Kuwait co-sponsored, that would have allowed cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries at two points along the Turkey-Syria border. (The Security Council ultimately agreed to one such crossing.) Russia-Oman relations on Syria have been more consistently cooperative. In a February 2019 meeting with his Omani counterpart, Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, Lavrov claimed that Russia and Oman have a “common stand on Syria,” and Muscat supports Russia’s plans to repatriate Syrian refugees from neighboring countries.
As Russia seeks to capitalize on growing concerns among the Gulf states about U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, Russia-Gulf cooperation on Syria will likely continue to complement the Astana peace process. Russia’s drive to jumpstart diplomatic normalization for the Assad regime and launch a meaningful reconstruction process could open the spigot for billions of dollars in deals, contracts, and assistance for Syria. This will certainly lead Russia to press for even tighter cooperation with Gulf countries on Syria. Whether that cooperation bears the desired fruit is likely dependent not just on the level of Russia-Gulf efforts but on whether U.S. policymakers change course and stop blocking such developments.