The meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin took Sunday at Sochi on the sidelines of the Russian Grand Prix with the powerful Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud (son of King Salman) signifies a dramatic shift of the templates in the geopolitics of the Syrian question.

Vladimir Putin (R) and Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud at their meeting in Sochi Sunday
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud in Sochi Sunday

The very fact that Mohammed bin Salman travelled to Russia for a second time this year already (ostensibly to watch the Formula 1, but intentionally to meet up with Putin) becomes hugely symbolic against the backdrop of the Russian military operations in Syria.

The bottom line is that Saudi Arabia has far from shifted into a hostile mood vis-à-vis Russia following the latter’s commencement of military operations in Syria.

The scant details available so far make out that Syria figured in Mohammed bin Salman’s talks with Putin, with the visiting Saudi prince maintaining that Riyadh backs a solution to the crisis in Syria, which would result in the formation of a transitional government and the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Now, is there a vague sign of a softening in the Saudi stance? Possibly so. At least, Mohammed bin Salman did not make Assad’s removal a precondition for the transition itself.

According to the Russian account, Mohammed bin Salman said Saudi Arabia desires improvement of ties with Russia and reportedly discussed cooperation in military technology (Russian code for arms deals.)

The most interesting part could be that Mohammed bin Salman flagged the Saudi interest in increased cooperation with Russia in fighting terrorism. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow sought to assuage Riyadh’s concerns on Syria and both sides shared the objective of preventing a “terrorist caliphate” from taking root in Syria.

Earlier Sunday, Putin also held a meeting in Sochi with the UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan in which, again, Syria figured.

Conceivably, there would have been some degree of back-to-back consultations between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi prior to Monday’s dramatic diplomatic engagements in Sochi.

Ironically, as recently as Thursday, BBC had quoted a “well-placed Saudi government official” to the effect that Riyadh is set to increase supplies of “lethal’” weaponry to the extremist rebel groups fighting the Syrian government forces to make up for the losses they might be suffering from the Russian air strikes. The recipient groups mentioned were Jaish al-Fatah, Free Syrian Army and the Southern Front.

Equally, the Jerusalem Post newspaper followed up Saturday with an analysis entitled ‘Gulf states boost aid to Syrian rebels’, arguing that the “Sunni world is revving up for an explosive counterattack to have powerful intervention in Syria”.

The visits by Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Zayed to Russia would point in an opposite direction. It seems there could be a whole lot of highly motivated assessments floating around lately on the geopolitics of the Syrian question that border on disinformation or propaganda and are out of touch with the reality.

One key point to be noted is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two key GCC powers, have opened a direct line to the Kremlin within no time after the US President Barack Obama summarily decided that the $500 million program to train a Syrian rebel force is being terminated.

Of course, without the US involvement, Washington’s regional allies – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey in particular – are forced to do some quick rethink. After all, they are sensible enough to know their limits in confronting the Russian military might on own steam.

Secondly, most analysts assessing the Gulf states’ attitude to the Russian build-up in Syria have overlooked that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are seriously overstretched in Yemen. The Saudi-Emirati intervention in Yemen was always a high-risk gambit and a classic dilemma faces them today after over six months into the war – wade deeper into the river of blood by taking the war to the Houthi heartland in the north (which would require deployment of much larger forces) or to cut free by accepting some form of Houthi self-rule in the north.

But then, the specter that is haunting Saudi Arabia and the UAE is also of Yemen undergoing a north-south split as two entities (as they used to be in the Cold War era.) However, acquiescing with a break-up of Yemen would mean that Riyadh will be not only presiding over the split of a fellow Arab state on sectarian lines (which would be precedent-setting and highly damaging to the Saudi prestige) but also demands that Saudi Arabia would have to learn to live with a de facto Houthi state on its southern border which is certain to be hostile.

On the other hand, if the Saudis plunge deeper into the Houthi heartland, they would be taking on a battle-hardened and highly capable guerilla army on its native turf, which also happens to be an extremely difficult terrain. (Indeed, the risks for Saudi Arabia’s finances if it plunges deeper into the Yemeni morass are self-evident, too.)

Suffice it so say, Yemen needs to be brought up before the UN Security Council where, needless to say, Russia would have a decisive role to play in helping the Saudis and the Emiratis to make a decent face-saving exit from the war.

Now, annoying Russia or confronting Russia would be the last thing on the Saudi mind today. Russia has a great tradition in diplomacy and without doubt, Putin’s confidence that the improvement of the security situation in Syria will open the door for negotiations leading to a political settlement is well-founded, contrary to the apocalyptic visions being disseminated by the US media reports.

Conceivably, Obama understands Putin’s game plan but is unable to say so openly. (And in any case, America’s political class and intelligentsia is not a mood to listen to Obama, either.)

Thus, Washington’s move Friday to start removing the Patriot batteries from Turkey; the Pentagon announcement Friday regarding the termination of the covert operation to build a rebel Syrian army to overthrow the Assad government; the US decision to shift its own military operations to northeastern regions of Syria (away from the theatre of the Russian air strikes); Obama’s categorical statement ruling out a proxy war in Syria against Russia (even while estimating that Moscow is risking a quagmire in Syria); Obama’s pledge that the only war US intends to fight in Syria is the war against the Islamic State – all these need to be seen in perspective.

Put differently, the visit by the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince to meet Putin underscores that the prospects for a Moscow-led diplomatic track opening on Syria in a foreseeable future might have significantly improved. To be sure, Obama has no reason to view the Russian-Saudi proximity in zero sum terms. (By the way, Putin disclosed in a TV interview Sunday that the “first steps in the establishment of contacts [with the US] have been made already”.)

The horrific terrorist strike in Ankara on Saturday killing over 95 people would only have brought the Saudis and the other GCC states (and Washington) closer than ever before to Putin’s thinking that fighting the Islamic State is a common cause and should be the top priority today in Syria.

Turkey has pointed the finger at the Islamic State militants for Saturday’s terrorist attacks. Putin has been quoted as saying that his talks with Sheikh Zayed were particularly important “in the light of the recent terrorist acts in Turkey”. It is possible that cooperation with the Russian intelligence has become vital at a practical level too for the Gulf states in the best interests of their national security.

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