When a big ship changes direction, it has to be over a wide arc. These are early days, but Russia is changing course on Syria. There were persisting rumors in the Middle Eastern grapevine in the recent weeks that Moscow is slowly disengaging from the Syrian regime.
Without doubt, President Vladimir Putin sprang a surprise on the visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem at their meeting in the Kremlin on Monday. Putin’s conversation had two templates.
The first one was absolutely predictable. Putin renewed the assurance Russia continued support to Syria “politically, economically and militarily,” as Moualem put it later at a press conference.
But the second part was an out-of-the-box suggestion to the Syrian leadership that “we (Russia) think that we can only fight terrorism and extremist radicalism effectively if all countries in the region unite their efforts.”
Prima facie, that is the right thing to say. But what takes the breath away was the manner in which Putin fleshed out the idea: “Russia has very good relations with all countries in the region without exception, and our contacts with these countries show that all of them are ready to make their contribution to fighting the evil that is the Islamic State. This is true of Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.”
Putin urged the Syrian government “to do everything possible to establish constructive dialogue between all countries that want to fight terrorism and, of course, continue developing constructive relations with everyone.”
He saw Syria’s tensions with its neighbors as “misunderstandings, friction and temporary problems (which) do frequently arise between neighbors.”
Moualem quickly understood that the ground beneath his feet was shifting. He cautioned Putin: “As you know, the main problem in Syria is that the countries that you mentioned (Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) are supporting terrorists operating in our country.”
Moualem drew an analogy with the “Soviet experience in the Great Patriotic War, when your people succeeded in its stand against the Nazi invaders. I am thinking particularly of the battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad. We (Syrian government) count on your (Russian) support and we are sure that the Syrian people, like the Soviet people, will stand firm against terrorism.”
However, Putin persisted and repeated the offer that Russia “will use our good relations with the countries in the region to at least make an attempt to build this coalition (between Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia).”
Later, at the press conference in Moscow, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov by his side, Moualem was devastating – “I know that Putin is a man who works miracles, but an alliance with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States would require a very big miracle.”
Indeed, we may be witnessing the fallouts of the recent visit by the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (son of King Salman) to Russia. The Saudi outreach to Russia has encouraged Moscow to move to the middle ground.
Saudi Arabia now becomes Russia’s partner in the struggle against the Islamic State.
The latest Russian mantra is that all other issues in Syria should be put on the backburner and a “new phase” should commence where the exclusive focus is on the threat of terrorism. Lavrov explained at the press conference:
“We are focused on practical policy, which requires that we should suspend as soon as possible everything that does not concern the anti-terrorist struggle and concentrate our common efforts on countering ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other similar groups. As I said, today we have a bit more objective conditions for this because all countries of the region – and not only them – realise the scale of the threat. ISIS is spilling into Afghanistan and looking at Central Asia. As many testimonies show, acts of terror in Europe are also directly linked with ISIS. Therefore, the common awareness of global danger should prevail over individual geopolitical schemes and unilateral goals.”
What explains this extraordinary shift in the Russian policy! Moualem is right that terrorism in Syria is the outcome of the interference by countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. There is documented evidence regarding the nexus between these countries and the al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. Wouldn’t Moscow know all that?
Quite obviously, Moscow has its own considerations. Russia does not view the Syrian conflict in zero sum terms. The support for President Bashar Al-Assad does not become an end in itself. At any rate, despite all American rhetoric, overthrowing Assad is not the US priority today.
Nonetheless, a big question mark falls on the clean certificate Putin gave to Saudi Arabia as a partner in the fight against extremist Islamists. The important thing is that Putin has staked his prestige and that could only have happened on the basis of some tangible Saudi assurances conveyed to the Russian president on behalf of King Salman.
It should not come as surprise if there is a sense of fatigue in Moscow over Syria. The Syrian regime, despite all Russian help, suffered major reverses lately on the ground. The country is tottering toward fragmentation and the ultimate victor could well be the Islamic State.
Of course, Russia’s self-interest lies in optimally developing the relations with Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. There is vast untapped potential for cooperation. For instance, all these three countries have proposed lucrative business deals worth billions of dollars for Russia’s nuclear power industry.
Above all, Putin is keen to partner with the West wherever he can. The recent economic summit in St- Petersburg was most encouraging. BP (Shell) is returning to the Sakhalin-2 LNG project, European companies are joining hands with Gazprom to lay two additional gas pipelines within the Nord Stream (one of which will connect Russian gas fields with Britain), and, most important, there was significant participation by American companies in the event in St. Petersburg, signaling that Washington is not averse to picking up the threads of business ties with Putin’s Russia.
Now, terrorism is an issue where the interests of Russia and the West overlap and there is a sense of urgency in the West. When Putin telephoned US President Barack Obama last week, the fight against the Islamic State and the Syrian conflict figured prominently in their conversation.
Putin and Obama reached a rare accord that Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry will hold discussions regarding Syria. Interestingly, Putin’s conversation with Moualem was on the eve of Lavrov’s meeting with Kerry in Vienna later today.
Putin understands that Obama feels frustrated that the US-led campaign against the IS is floundering. It is smart diplomacy on Russia’s part to push the fight against the IS as the pilot project of Russian-American regional cooperation in the Middle East, with Syria as the testing ground.
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