Against the backdrop of the eruption of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran over the execution of the Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the attack by protesters on the Saudi diplomatic premises in Iran, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a significant overture to Moscow on Monday which merits attention.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir

Al-Jubeir told the CNBC in an interview: “Russia  is a great power, Russia has 20 million Muslims living in it, Russia can play a positive role and we wanted to engage with Russia, we wanted to improve our relationship with Russia not at the expense of our relationship with any other country but for the sake of having better ties with Russia.

“So we began a process of reaching out and began a process of encouraging trade, encouraging scientific exchanges, encouraging investment and we will continue to do that and on the areas where we may have disagreements, we will agree that we will talk about them and try to resolve them and if there are areas which cannot be resolved, we will just wait until the opportune time comes to be able to resolve those.”

He was indirectly signalling, perhaps, Riyadh’s appreciation of the stance taken by the Russian Foreign Ministry on the Saudi-Iran rift. Moscow has taken a very correct stance absolutely in the middle ground, but with a discernible ‘tilt’ at close look in favour of Riyadh.

The Foreign Ministry statement neatly avoided passing comment on the Saudi act of executing the dissident cleric but on the other hand it viewed the matter as a diplomatic spat, coming down hard on the attack on the Saudi diplomatic premises in Tehran and Mashhad and pointedly taking note that it is the “duty” of the host country “to ensure the comprehensive security of accredited embassies and consulates in accordance with the relevant international conventions.”

Unsurprisingly, Moscow is eager to maintain a good climate in Russian-Saudi relations at the present juncture when the Syrian peace process is about to take off and Russian diplomacy is working at various levels.

Russia has joined hands with the United States and the European Union in the recent weeks to work on the Saudis to soften up their seemingly irreconcilable stance on the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad by encouraging Riyadh to unite the so-called ‘moderate’, non-Islamist Syrian rebel groups under a single leadership and bring it over to the negotiating table as the interlocutor for the Syrian government representatives.

Al-Jubeir’s remarks to the CNBC did not contain any overt shift in the Saudi stance on Assad. But then, Al-Jubeir simply said his piece and moved on, there was no real fire in the belly, so to speak:

“Well, we (Saudi Arabia) support the resolution of the conflict in Syria based on the principles of Geneva 1 and the discussions in Vienna and New York. A settlement that would lead to the establishment of a governing council that would take power from the Bashar government and that will then write a constitution and prepare for elections in order to move to a new Syria, a Syria in which Bashar has no role. We’ve always supported this. We’ve always said that we prefer a political solution to a military solution. But we’ve also said that the Syrian people have a right to defend themselves against this tyrant, and we support that right in every way we can and we will continue to. And so this is our position”.

The significant thing is that there was no reference to a timeline for Assad’s exit in al-Jubeir’s remarks, no bottom line that Assad cannot stand in any future election, no precondition as such. It can be taken as a sign that Riyadh does not visualize the Saudi-Iran tensions to stand in the way of the commencement of peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition later this month. (The United Nations has set a target date of January 25 for the talks.)

Following the CNBC interview, al-Jubeir said explicitly on Tuesday in another interview with the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA), “The recent tensions (with Iran) that impacted the region negatively will not affect … the operations that the United Nations carries out alongside the international community to achieve a political solution in Geneva soon.”

Interestingly, al-Jubeir made the above remark after holding a meeting in Riyadh with the visiting UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. The latter later assessed that in the conversations with him, the Saudi side showed a ‘clear determination’ that Riyadh’s tensions with Tehran will not have any negative impact on the momentum of the talks between the Syrian government and the opposition or the continuation of the political process in Geneva.

Viewed from another angle, one could also arrive at the same conclusion. Thus, while the official US document leaked by the Associated Press on Wednesday, which sets a best-case scenario of Assad relinquishing his position as president only in March next year, may be only in the nature of a ‘working paper’ – a “staff-level think piece” that is “preliminary and pre-decisional” and neither “an official position” nor “an accurate projection of plans by the international community to effect a political transition in Syria” – at the very least it would reflect a thinking that is realistic and broadly agreeable to the US’ coalition partners.

The AP notes, “many of the milestones mentioned in the document comport with the basics of the U.N.-endorsed plan. Other officials said they accurately reflected the administration’s thinking. One official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private document, said the goal for Assad to leave in March 2017 might slip even further”.

Meanwhile, Moscow is also keeping close consultation with Tehran with a view to ensure that the emergent peace plan on Syria is preserved. Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, spoke to his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir Abdollahian on Wednesday to underscore the commitment of the two countries to the peace plan, while recalling Iran’s significant role in ensuring that the political process on Syria gained traction.

Indeed, all this does not mean that the Syrian transition can now expect to have smooth sailing. A long and winding road lies ahead to reach the designated destination of free and fair democratic elections in Syria 18 months from now.

The salience that offers hope, nonetheless, is that although the International Syria Support Group’s discussions in Vienna witnessed heated Saudi-Iranian exchanges, in the end consensus was indeed reached on a peace plan.

Looking ahead, therefore, no one is expecting a Saudi-Iran bilateral consensus on Syria; nor is there a need, perhaps, to unduly agonize over it. What is important is that both Riyadh and Tehran should remain committed – independently and for their own reasons – to the agreed UN peace plan.

Put differently, the crux of the matter is that they should not actively torpedo the peace plan. On the other hand, so long as the US, EU and Russia – and the UN – would have shared interest in steering the Syrian peace talks through, which seems to be the case at the moment, they can also be trusted to sequester the peace process from being buffeted by the spurt in Saudi-Iran tensions.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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