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Russia Mediates Potential Saudi-Syria Detente, Sidelining US in West Asia

Written By: Shankhyaneel Sarkar


Last Updated: March 24, 2023, 10:54 IST

New Delhi

Russian President Putin has emerged as a key player in West Asia by helping Syria’s Assad and Saudi leader MBS bridge differences (Image: Reuters)

Russian President Putin has emerged as a key player in West Asia by helping Syria’s Assad and Saudi leader MBS bridge differences (Image: Reuters)

Russia emerges as a power broker by helping possible reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi and Syria, while the US remains uninvolved

West Asian nations Saudi Arabia and Syria could sign an agreement that will restore diplomatic ties and help reach détente between both nations whose ties have been strained since 2011 when Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Syria due to the Syrian civil war.

Saudi Arabia and Syria have been on the opposite sides of the conflict with the former supporting anti-Assad factions, leading to downgrading of ties since 2011.

The recent negotiations have been mediated by Russia, news agencies reported citing Saudi and Syrian officials familiar with the developments.

This development comes shortly after China brokered a peace deal between foes Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even Iran and Saudi Arabia were on the opposing sides of the civil war in Syria.

The Wall Street Journal in its report pointed out that negotiations were ongoing after multiple rounds of talks in Moscow and Riyadh in recent weeks. Should an agreement be reached, it would be a significant move towards reintegrating Syria and its leader Bashar al-Assad into the wider region following the decade-long civil war.

It also pointed out that if such a deal is reached, then the US would be on the sidelines amid another politically significant development in West Asia.

Officials from Damascus and Riyadh told the Wall Street Journal that both sides wish to conclude the deal when Saudi Arabia foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan visits Damascus after Eid al-Fitr in late April.

The Wall Street Journal citing Saudi state media said Damascus and Riyadh have begun negotiations to resume providing essential consular services for both nations.

Saudi and Syria have held talks on security concerns. Saudi wants help with detainees who joined jihadists in the Syrian civil war, Syria seeks Riyadh’s aid to cut off extremist funding and recruitment of factions fighting in Syria.

Syria is talking to several partners in the region aiming to end a decade of isolation. Oman, Jordan and even Iran have also backed the restoring of the relationship after a period of tension or conflict.

Sidelining the US in West Asia

The US views Saudi Arabia as a key ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia depends on the US for military support and security but the equation is changing as Saudi Arabia has sought to deepen economic and diplomatic ties with China through its Belt and Road Initiative.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman aka MBS, who runs Saudi Arabia as the West Asian nation’s Prime Minister for his ageing father, King Salman has grown close to Xi Jinping.

Following the war in Ukraine, he has also grown closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin. They have built a friendly relationship, centred on mutual economic and strategic benefits of late.

The Biden administration’s push to hold accountable those responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and to reassess US-Saudi relations angered MBS, who reset ties with US after the Democrats were voted to power in 2020.

It was not easy for Damascus and Riyadh to restore relations because Syria was ousted from the Arab League with the backing of Saudi Arabia who then went on to support anti-Assad forces for years.

The WSJ report said the Kremlin helped broker a preliminary agreement when Assad visited Moscow last week. Highly-placed Syrian officials also visited Saudi Arabia in recent weeks.

If a deal is reached then reconstruction of the Arab League and reintegration of Syria will be on the agenda of the next league summit in Saudi Arabia, the Wall Street Journal said.

The report also points out that the West Asian and North African countries who form the Arab world are setting aside deep divisions which arose in 2011 following the Arab Spring which led to toppling of several regimes.

The other factor that has emerged is that there is a general consensus in the Middle East on noninterference in domestic affairs, an expert told the WSJ while also pointing out common features between some oil exporters and authoritarian regimes.

However, it should be noted that Russia is cementing its position in the Arab world and challenging Western influence in the region.

It has already challenged Western influence in Arab countries in North Africa as well as in central and southern parts of the continent.

Russia is expanding in Africa via arms sales, resources extraction, and military ties. The country is increasing its influence in African politics by offering diplomatic backing to authoritarian rulers.

Moscow has replaced Paris as more African leaders turn towards Beijing and Moscow.

France’s diplomatic reputation in Africa has been tarnished due to instances of meddling in several African nations’ internal affairs and support for authoritarian rulers.

For instance, France’s military presence in the Sahel region has been criticised for human rights abuses, causing public outrage and protests. The legacy left behind by French colonialism has also affected ties between several African nations, who were once colonies and France.

Where Does US Stand

The US does not support the Assad regime in Syria. It is critical of the regime’s alleged human rights violations and its use of chemical weapons against civilians.

The US has supported opposition groups and has provided military aid to Kurdish forces in Syria fighting against ISIS. It should be noted that Washington faced criticism for its military presence in Syria and its lack of a clear strategy for resolving the conflict.

The Middle East has undergone a realignment in recent years. The Saudis patched up a diplomatic spat with Qatar.

Persian Gulf nations Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have begun setting aside long standing differences with Turkey, and conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria have largely cooled down.

American withdrawal from Afghanistan and its recent decision to remove its advanced aircrafts from West Asia and replace it with an ageing fleet has also led to powers that be to assume that Washington’s influence in the region is waning.

The US is trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Israel have gradually been normalising their relationship in recent years, based on shared concerns over Iran and growing commercial ties.

However, the process could be affected since Saudi and Iran have brokered a peace deal and Iranians, like Saudi Arabian citizens, remain vocal supporters of Palestinian causes.

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    first published:March 24, 2023, 10:51 IST
    last updated:March 24, 2023, 10:54 IST