Saudi Arabia cautions Russia, steps up support for Syrian rebels
RIYADH - Saudi Arabia has cautioned Moscow over its military backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and stepped up support for moderate rebels embroiled in a war now in its fifth year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the deputy crown prince, on the sidelines of the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.
Despite showing a unified front and statements emphasising cooperation on military technology and counterterrorism, the countries failed to reach agreement or compromise on the issue of Syria and a future role for Assad in particular.
During a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the kingdom’s position on Syria remains unchanged, insisting Assad has no future in Syria. He described the meeting between Salman and Putin as positive, constructive and frank.
Russia has been bombing both the Islamic State (ISIS) and more moderate groups opposed to the Assad regime. This has led the United States and the European Union to call on Moscow to stop targeting moderate rebels and avoid extending the war.
The Russian military escalation came as a surprise to members of the official Syrian opposition, who travelled to Moscow in September to meet Russian officials over a possible political solution to the Syrian crisis. Hisham Marwah, the vice-president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), told The Arab Weekly that during meetings with Kremlin officials the opposition group was told one thing and then saw the opposite with the Russian military escalation.
“The Russian stance is now clear. They are not fighting terrorism but are in fact working to preserve the Assad regime,” Marwah said.
When asked how the international community, and Saudi Arabia in particular, can convince Russia to stop its support for Assad, Marwah stressed that Riyadh had documented evidence that shows why Assad has no place in Syria currently or in the future.
“Saudi Arabia has all this evidence and the details and it’s above and beyond what the news stations carry and it can present that on the negotiation table to the Russians,” he said.
Concerning Moscow’s proposal of a political solution that includes Assad, Marwah linked it to the situation in Yemen. “If that happens, you will get a similar scenario to what is happening in Yemen with Ali Abdullah Saleh. These oppressors should not be there in any transitional period because of their tendency to act like spoilers,” he added.
Following the meeting between Putin and Salman, a Saudi official told Reuters that Saudi Arabia would continue to strengthen and support the moderate opposition in Syria. “The recent escalation will contribute in attracting extremists and jihadists to the war in Syria,” the source said, adding that the Kremlin’s actions would alienate Sunni Muslims around the world.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation had warmed recently. The countries signed six agreements in June, including one on nuclear cooperation, while Saudi Arabia pledged to invest $10 billion in Russia’s Direct Investment Fund. However, the issue of Syria remains a sticking point.
“The Saudis have no doubt built better bridges with Russia,” Michael Stephens, director of RUSI Qatar, a think-tank, said. “They are not inherently hostile against Russia, but they are continually frustrated with their continued support for Assad.”
Stephens emphasised the Saudis have communicated to Moscow that the Russian action in Syria is dangerous and will cause more instability and that they do not support it.
“It was Mohammed bin Salman who went to Sochi, so, in effect, this is coming from the king,” Stephens said. “If you want to work together and get the oil prices back up, you are going to need to talk to us and we are willing to talk about these issues if you stop being so obstructive in Syria,” he said characterising the Saudi message to Russia.
After the start of Russian air strikes, Saudi Arabia stepped up its support of the Syrian rebels by providing the moderate anti-Assad fighters with supplies of weaponry, according to the BBC.
Supplies of modern, high-powered weaponry, including guided anti-tank weapons, would be increased to three rebel groups fighting the Assad regime and its allies, but that terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra Front would not benefit from that support, the reports said.