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Assad knot cripples Saudi-Iranian-Russian diplomatic blitz

Yasser Seddiq , Wednesday 19 Aug 2015
Syria
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (Reuters)
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The diplomatic flurry to find a way out of the Syrian crisis, and the overcoming of many obstacles through high-level meetings that had previously been considered red lines, has created a glimpse of hope that the suffering of the Syrian people might be alleviated.

Ever since the outbreak of Syria's civil war in March 2011, more than a quarter of a million people have been killed and around four million have been forced to leave their homeland and become refugees, according to the UN. The conflict has also left untold sufferings, growing sectarian extremism, and a country in ruins.

After meeting embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced from the Russian capital that Moscow and Tehran share the same point of view about the Syrian crisis.

"The Syrians must themselves decide their fate, their future, while the foreign states should only make this easier," Zarif said.

The Saudi foreign minister and his Russian counterpart also held a meeting in Moscow last week and discussed the conflict in Syria, as well as the fight against the Islamic State group.

The fate of Al-Assad was a key point of dispute between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

“Our position has not changed... there is no place for Al-Assad in the future of Syria,” Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said at a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow last week.

“We think that Bashar Al-Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Al-Jubeir has reiterated the kingdom's commitment to the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, confirming that they will not cooperate with the regime in Damascus.

"The Saudi position is built on a political solution in accordance with Geneva 1 declaration, that Al-Assad has no role in Syria's future," Al-Jubeir explained, stressing the urgent need to preserve the government and military institutions in Syria, as well as the country's sovereignty and integrity.

Lavrov said the fate of Al-Assad is one of the points of contention with Saudi Arabia, but said that the two sides have agreed to continue negotiations over the steps that need to be taken to resume dialogue between the Damascus regime and the opposition parties.

Russia has been a staunch ally of the Syrian regime since the civil war broke out four years ago.

Analysts, political experts and high-ranking officials have unanimously agreed that Russia, Iran, and the US are the most influential powers and, if they decided to do so, could help forge a settlement to the Syrian war. A tripartite meeting has already taken place earlier this month.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in an interview with Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat that Iran is a significant and influential player, along with Russia, in Syria.

"In reality the best way to get traction in Syria will be to persuade Russia and Iran that they have to work with other players in the region to reach a compromise solution. It won’t be the solution that perhaps we or the US would propose, maybe not the solution that Saudi Arabia would have proposed. A solution that we can all recognise would be a better outcome for the Syrian people," Hammond said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that his country's nuclear deal with the world powers would create better prospects for faster solutions in Syria and Yemen, two of the Middle East's still-open conflict zones. "The final solution in both Yemen and Syria are political," he said. "The agreement will create a new atmosphere. The climate will be easier."

Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, director of Beirut Center for Middle East Studies explained to Ahram Online that after almost five years of the Syrian crisis, the situation is becoming worse, although "there is a chance for a political solution following Iran's deal with the US and the other members of P5+1."

"We heard recently that the Saudi minister of defence, Muhammad Bin Salman, has received the intelligence chief of Syria's National Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk, due to Russian mediation, and Damascus announced that they have direct talks with American officials," the Lebanese expert said.

Iran has repeatedly announced that it will never relinquish its duties towards its Shia ally Bashar Al-Assad.

"Iran has announced a new political initiative to solve the Syrian crisis, but it does not seem that the Iranians and the Russians will accept a solution without Al-Assad. The embattled president will continue his seven-year mandate and will lead the transition period following the political compromise, if it happens," Mouzahem argued.

Other political analysts are more sceptical about the possibility of reaching a political solution in the near future.

Dr. Rex J. Brynen, professor of political science at McGill University, believes that there is little prospect of a rapid end to the war.

"Moscow and Tehran are more attached to the regime than to Al-Assad. However, at this point there is little chance they would agree to a settlement that excludes him, and even less possibility that Al-Assad would agree to such a deal. Furthermore, there is no obvious alternative within the regime, and many regime loyalists fear that if Assad goes the regime would collapse amid internal power struggles,” the expert in Middle East politics told Ahram Online.

Saudi Arabia supports the Sunnis against Shia Alawites, the sect to which Al-Assad and much of his army officer elite belong. The hostile relationship with Iran and the uncomfortable shape of its foreign policy with the US could possibly prompt Saudi Arabia to reconsider its handling of the Syrian crisis, according to Dr. Mohamed Kashkoush, a retired Egyptian general and also a visiting professor of national security at Nasser Higher Military Academy.

"Saudi Arabia strongly supports Sunni fighters inside Syrian territory," Kashkoush told Ahram Online.

Saudi Arabia has launched an initiative suggesting that the kingdom stops backing the armed opposition in exchange for Lebanese Hezbollah militias and Shia Iranian elements withdrawing from Syria, a move Riyadh hopes could possibly bring all sides to the negotiating table.

If Iran-backed Hezbollah and all non-Syrian parties left Syrian territories, Kashkoush argues, the remaining forces will be the Syrian army and its opponents, such as the Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups such as Al-Nusra Front, Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) and the Islamic State group, which consists mostly of foreign fighters.

"So, if they [the Saudis] are convinced that the solution should be Syrian-Syrian, this conception is impossible to be achieved on the ground because there are strangers who do not affiliate with Saudi Arabia or Iran. Syrian Kurds in Hasaka are also a part of the equation as they are keeping their eyes on establishing a Kurdish state," said Kashkoush.

When asked by Ahram Online if a change has occurred to the Saudi foreign policy towards Syria, the retired general replied: "Of course, yes."

"In order for the Saudi initiative to be a success, there is a need for other key players to help the Saudis' push for their drive. In fact, there are no direct channels between Saudi Arabia and these active parties in the Syrian equation," Kashkoush added.

Here, perhaps, we can find a proper explanation for the Saudi rapprochement towards Russia, which has thrown its weight behind the Al-Assad regime.

Syria is of a strategic importance to Moscow because its port of Tartus is considered Russia's sole window on the Mediterranean .Russia has a naval supply facility in Tartus which dates back to Soviet times. The supply station has been used for the maintenance and resupply of Russian warships in the Mediterranean.

Ultimately, the solution sought by Saudi Arabia to resolve the crisis should primarily pass through Moscow and Tehran. “Saudi turning towards Russia is much easier than heading to Iran because the dispute with Tehran is an ideological one,” Kashkoush said.

Meanwhile, both Turkey and the United States are focusing primarily on fighting the Islamic State group.

Brynen argues Saudi Arabia and Turkey still seem to prefer an opposition victory rather than compromise.

“The US certainly favours a negotiated settlement, but I think there is very little chance of meaningful negotiations any time soon. Both the regime and the opposition would rather fight than talk.” 

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