With the crunch time approaching in the Syrian conflict, it’s only Iran that Russia can count on as an ally.

This is despite the complexities of the Russo-Iranian relationship historically, and the strong undercurrents of Iran’s integration with the western world notwithstanding. Russia and Iran seem to have no alternative but to hold each other’s hands. Each in its own way is facing “regional isolation.”

King Salman and Vladimir Putin

The West is relentlessly berating Moscow for its military intervention in Syria and the rhetoric has lately become more strident. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the Russian air strikes “appalling” and “horrific.” In a weekend remark, US Secretary of State hinted that Russia is committing “war crimes.”

Moscow asks for evidence to substantiate such allegations but to no avail. Nonetheless, the unsubstantiated allegations continue to appear. An orchestrated campaign is possibly afoot, which may well help to justify at some point the need for “humanitarian intervention” by the international community in the Syrian conflict.

However, Russia’s immediate problem lies somewhere else. The Sunni Arab states, which have been America’s traditional allies, have begun distancing themselves from Moscow.

Russian diplomacy did exceedingly well in the recent period to build bridges with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, etc. President Vladimir Putin himself played a big role in cultivating the leaderships of these Sunni countries.

Moscow’s strategy aimed at intensively networking with these Sunni nations, which would help prevent its intervention in Syria as being perceived in the Muslim world as an alignment with the Iran-led “Shi’ite crescent” in the region.

Equally, Russia is extremely wary of a replay of the Cold War syndrome when the Soviet Union found itself pitted against Islam.

However, the war in Syria and the Russian operations tilting the balance on the ground in favor of the Assad regime are beginning to take a toll. In particular, Saudi Arabia has begun noticeably marking its distance from Russia.

The Saudis are virtually notifying Moscow that their relationship, which was slowly but surely warming over the past year or so, may suffer a setback due to irreconcilable differences over Syria’s future.

King Salman’s Russian visit in doubt

On Sunday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry pointedly rebutted an earlier reported statement by a top Kremlin foreign-policy aide to President Putin to the effect that King Salman is due to visit Russia in mid-March.

If the Kremlin official strove to generate an aura of Russian-Saudi bonhomie at the highest level of leadership despite the two countries’ sharp differences over Syria, Riyadh apparently felt it necessary and advisable to undercut such an impression.

Indeed, it would have been very odd if King Salman were to enjoy Moscow’s hospitality at the present juncture when Saudi Arabia and Turkey have formed an axis to counter Russian operations in Syria. At any rate, the Saudi Foreign Ministry went out of its way to clarify that there is no “timetable confirmed as yet” for the Saudi King to visit Russia.

Equally, on Sunday, in a sharp remark, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir rebuked the Kremlin for its policies in Syria. Jubeir said that Russia’s efforts to save Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad are doomed to fail and he urged Moscow to “end its air operations against the moderate Syrian opposition.”

The Saudi calculus is not difficult to understand. For one thing, Saudi Arabia aims to erode, in league with Turkey, Russia’s monopoly over military operations in Syria. At the present juncture, therefore, it doesn’t help Riyadh’s image to be seen as having underhand dealings with Moscow.

Second, Saudi Arabia estimates that Moscow is desperately keen to maintain ties with Riyadh within the ambit of a regional strategy that aims at expanding Russian influence in the Middle East at the expense of the US. On the contrary, the Saudis don’t see themselves as losers without Moscow’s friendship.

Third, Saudi strategists no longer entertain the fond hope that Russian intervention in Syria might incrementally reduce Iran’s role in that country. Some among them had even entertained the notion that Riyadh could push a wedge between Russia and Iran by having an overarching relationship with Moscow.

Tilt back to US?

Most important, Saudi Arabia’s comfort level with the US could be rising. Jubeir’s critical remarks about Russia followed his visit to Washington and the meeting between the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter last Thursday in Brussels.

Indeed, it must have dawned on Riyadh, finally, that the US-Iranian engagement is not about to blossom into a regional partnership of pivotal importance to Washington’s regional strategies, as the Saudis had earlier feared.

Meanwhile, Riyadh has announced on Sunday a large-scale military exercise with the participation of 20 countries that have pledged support to the so-called Saudi-led “Islamic Alliance.” Riyadh also plans to host a meeting of the new “anti-terrorism” coalition next month.

The Saudi expectation seems to be that at least some of Riyadh’s anti-terrorism coalition partners could be persuaded to deploy troops in Syria. To what extent the US may have encouraged a move on this track remains unclear. But such a possibility exists. Carter said in Brussels that NATO too might join the US-led coalition.

If the Saudi effort bears fruition even partially, Russia and Iran could find themselves facing a serious predicament, pitted against interventionist forces drawn from the Muslim world arrayed on the other side of the Syrian divide whom they cannot possibly confront militarily.

In turn, the “Islamic alliance” will be just the sort of rubric that Turkey needs at this point to press ahead with its intervention and to advance its master plan to create a buffer zone in northern Syria. It is, perhaps, a gamble, but then, it may work as well. A war of attrition suits Turkey and Saudi Arabia alright, whereas, Russia would dread it.

Moscow cannot but feel uneasy that the Saudis are so very ostentatiously beginning to mark their distance from a pragmatic relationship that seemed promising until very recently.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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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