After Abu Dhabi, Riyadh signals intent to pursue rapprochement with Syria

Saudi-UAE coordination sends coded message to Washington: Our rapprochement with Damascus against yours with Tehran.
Thursday 11/03/2021
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh on March 10, 2021. (AFP)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh on March 10, 2021. (AFP)

RIYADH--Beyond the expected talk about strengthening bilateral cooperation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s talks in Saudi Arabia sent signals to Washington about Gulf countries’ recalibrated stances on regional issues.

There was hence agreement expressed on the need for dialogue to stop the war in Yemen. Concerning Syria, the Saudis seemed to nudge closer to Russia’s position on reaching a political solution that would end Syrians’ suffering.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said in a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart that the Syrian settlement requires a comprehensive political solution, reiterating his country’s desire for an end to this crisis.

“We are keen to coordinate with all parties, including Russia, to find a solution to the Syrian crisis,” he added.

On the eve of Lavrov’s visit to Riyadh, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz met with the Russian president’s special envoy for Syrian settlement affairs Alexander Lavrentiev, and discussed with him the latest developments in Syria, confirming official Saudi interest in the Syrian issue.

Gulf analysts said that the Saudi focus on the Syrian issue, only one day after it was discussed by Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, carries a coded message to the Americans.

The substance of this message is that if you want to nudge closer to Iran and allow it to resume nuclear weapon development without clear checks on its regional ambitions, then we will push for a solution to the Syrian file and that will take into account our interests and the interests of the region, even if they conflict with Washington’s calculations.

The analysts added that Saudi Arabia is pushing for a resolution of the Syrian problem due to various considerations. Some are security-related, especially that war has lasted for ten years and has become a major security concern for the countries of the region as a whole. The Syrian battleground provides fertile ground to nurture extremism among the region’s youth, as radical groups are able to use social media as a way to play on the religious sentiment of the new generations.

The kingdom wants to promote an international solution in Syria that would deprive Iran of a key card since Tehran has become a major player in Syria at the same time as Russia and Turkey.

Tehran has succeeded in setting up influence networks that enable it to plan a long-term presence in Syria, which could serve a as a launch-pad for Iranian activities in the rest of the region, especially in Lebanon.

The Saudis and the Emiratis are looking at the matter from a pragmatic perspective. They particularly see a political solution as ending justifications for Iran’s presence in Syria. Such a solution could be an additional factor pressuring Tehran to withdraw from other files such as Yemen’s.

This comes amid emerging international momentum  in favour of a final settlement in Yemen. This would relieve Saudi Arabia of the security and financial burden of the war and push Iran to stop its intervention in Yemen and support for the Houthi rebels. Such an outcome, if it materialises, will vindicate the Saudis’ intervention in Yemen.

Arab Gulf nations have found in the inauguration of a new US administration an opportunity to present different views that serve their regional interests, including pushing for a solution in Syria and the return of Damascus to the Arab fold. This would end the use of Syria as a battlefield for conflicting regional and international agendas and as an arena for testing weapons and training militias.

The US State Department responded to the Emirati foreign minister’s statements on Tuesday regarding the effects of the US “Caesar Act” on the lives of Syrians and considered that this law has nothing to do with the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and blamed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for that.

A US State Department spokesman said that, “stability in Syria and the wider region can only be achieved through a political process that represents the will of all Syrians.”

The Emirati foreign minister had declared in the presence of his Russian counterpart that “the return of Syria to its environment is inevitable, and is in the interest of Syria and the region as a whole, and the biggest challenge facing coordination and joint work with Syria is the Caesar Act.”

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan bestowed the “Order of the Union” on the Russian foreign minister while Lavriov’s deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov, was presented with the “Order of Zayed II,” illustrating the visit’s significance for bilateral relations.

Gulf analysts consider that the Russian-Gulf rapprochement does not stop at the issue of Syria, extending to the important domain of tripartite coordination (between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia) on the issue of oil within the framework of OPEC + and the pursuit of market equilibrium.

The Saudi foreign minister said during his joint press conference with his Russian counterpart that cooperation between Riyadh and Moscow within OPEC+ has “contributed to the stability of energy markets during the difficult past period in 2020, which was affected by the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, and the results of this cooperation have contributed to protecting the global economic system.”

Saudi Arabia was also keen during Lavrov’s visit to demonstrate its serious desire to reach a solution in Yemen, while adhering to its right to defend its national security and thwart Iranian-backed Houthi attacks.

Prince Farhan said after his meeting with Lavrov, “We renewed our support to a political solution to the crisis in Yemen. The implementation of the Riyadh Agreement and the formation of the new Yemeni government are an important step in opening the way for an integrated political solution to the crisis, and we affirm our support for the efforts of the UN envoy towards achieving a comprehensive ceasefire and starting an inclusive political process.”

He pledged that his country would take “the necessary and deterrent measures to protect its national capabilities and assets in order to preserve global energy security and stop terrorist attacks, ensure the stability of energy supplies, the security of petroleum exports, and guarantee maritime traffic and global trade.”

Lavrov, for his part, considered that “the conflict in Yemen must end (…) and that the warring parties should sit at the negotiating table.”

During his visit to Riyadh, Lavrov met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said that during the meeting, they both reviewed bilateral relations and ways to enhance them in various fields so as to serve the countries’ common interests.

During the meeting, developments in the regional and international situations were discussed and efforts deployed to enhance security and stability.