August 19, 2016

Russia’s Regional Ties Grow at Saudi Expense

A Russian long range bomber flies during an airstrike over Aleppo, Syria on August 16. (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service photo via AP)

Saudi diplomacy has for several years attempted to induce Moscow to drop its support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as for Iran, through holding out the prospects of increased economic ties between Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Russia. A recent expression of Riyadh’s expectation that Moscow would accept such an offer was made in July by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir when he stated, “It would be reasonable for Russia to say that’s [i.e., Saudi Arabia and the GCC] where our relations will advance our interests, not with Assad.” He added that, “We are ready to give Russia a stake in the Middle East that will make Russia a force stronger than the Soviet Union.”

Saudi expectations that Moscow would accept this offer, however, were dealt a severe setback when Russian bombers began flying missions over Syria from Hamedan airbase in western Iran. Moscow had previously been sending its bombers from bases in southern Russia, which are much farther from their Syrian targets than Hamedan. But while the military significance of Russian bombers now flying from Iran may be incremental, the political significance of doing so is great in that it signals that Moscow is firmly allied with Tehran in supporting the Assad regime, and that Moscow does not intend to change course on this.

The recent Russian-Turkish rapprochement also has negative implications for Riyadh’s Russia hopes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in August called for “the departure of Bashar Assad” and said that al-Nusra Front (since renamed) “should not be considered as a terrorist organization” since it is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. However, there have been reports indicating that Ankara is prepared to work with Moscow and Tehran for a Syrian settlement in which Assad would stay in office if certain “reforms” are made, and if Moscow and Tehran would pressure Syria’s Kurds to retreat from the territory they have captured in northwestern Syria in return for Turkey halting support for anti-Assad opposition forces. However accurate such reports may be, the Turkish-Russian rapprochement appears to signal that ousting Assad has become far less important a priority for Erdogan than limiting the area in Syria controlled by Kurdish forces, which he sees as linked to the Kurdish opposition group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), inside Turkey.

With Russia increasing its military cooperation with Iran in Syria and Turkey apparently removing obstacles to the achievement of the Russian-Iranian aim of preserving the Assad regime and defeating its adversaries, it is apparent that Moscow does not see any need to distance itself from either Assad or Tehran in exchange for increased economic ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Russian media reports instead discuss the prospects for Saudi-Russian economic cooperation regarding oil pricing, Saudi atomic energy projects, and other fields without even mentioning how Russian support for Assad or cooperation with Iran might affect them. Indeed, there is a general sense in the Russian media that Saudi Arabia is losing out to Russia not just in Syria, but in the economic realm. A recent Pravda article claimed, “It appears that the Saudis are concerned against the backdrop of Vladimir Putin’s recent meetings with regional leaders from Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, where the officials addressed the issue of cooperation in the field of oil and natural gas. Apparently, the kingdom fears the establishment of new cartels that will be able to deprive Saudi Arabia of its monopoly on the market.”

Such reasoning, of course, appears to be quite flawed: It is highly unlikely that any Russian-centered oil cartel that did not include Saudi Arabia could succeed in raising oil prices (especially given Moscow’s steady refusal to limit Russian oil production to achieve this aim), and efforts (if they can be called that) to build a gas cartel have not succeeded. Whether this reasoning is flawed, however, is less important than whether Moscow believes and acts upon it. For if, despite all of Russia’s economic problems that have intensified as a result of Western sanctions, Moscow firmly believes that “Saudi Arabia needs Russia more than Russia needs Saudi Arabia,” then Moscow is not going to change its policies toward Syria and Iran in exchange for increased economic ties with the kingdom, which Moscow foresees that Riyadh will seek anyway.

What, under these circumstances, can Saudi Arabia do to change Russian policy? It can continue or even increase support for the Syrian opposition in order to increase the costs for Moscow for supporting Assad. Riyadh can also continue to pump high levels of oil in order to keep petroleum prices low in order to hurt both the Russian and Iranian economies. The kingdom can also mount a public relations campaign aimed at Sunnis in the Arab world and beyond about how Russia is siding with Iran and the Shia against them. Riyadh can also seek closer alliances with states that, even if they do not feel threatened so much by Iran, do feel threatened by Russia. Finally, there is the option of tacitly accepting that Russia and Iran have won in Syria and working with Russia on Moscow’s terms in the hope of incentivizing it to restrain Tehran. There may be other options still. But recent events make clear that the one option that is not available to Riyadh is getting Moscow to distance itself from Assad and Tehran in exchange for Saudi economic support.

Mark N. Katz is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, and a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.