The full repercussions of Russia’s growing involvement in the Syria conflict in the form of overt military action have yet to be realized. Until now, Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s Baathist regime, in concert with on-going support furnished by Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraq, has proved critical to its survival in the face of an ever expansive insurgency.
While the debate surrounding Moscow’s strategic objectives in Syria remains subject to conjecture, there is little dispute over Russia’s potential to affect the conflict’s trajectory. At the same time, Russia’s elevated profile in Syria cannot be considered in a vacuum absent of the activities and pursuits of other foreign actors such as Saudi Arabia. Consequently, Russo-Saudi conflicting interests in Syria have emerged.
In light of the widely acknowledged deterioration in Saudi-Russo relations over Syria, a positive shift in bilateral relations can be observed between the long-time rivals only a few months prior to Moscow’s bombing of armed opposition groups in Syria. The circumstances surrounding the June 2015 meeting between Muhammed bin Salman and Putin are a case in point. Muhammed bin Salman, aged 30 when held the portfolios of second deputy prime minister and minister of defence, and Putin discussed a range of other issues in what both sides hailed as a friendly and overall positive climate. In a sign that both sides were committed to build upon the momentum from the June talks, bin Salman extended an invitation to Putin to visit the kingdom while Putin reciprocated with an invitation to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud to visit Russia.
The seemingly positive shift in relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia was explained by numerous factors. Among these included the diplomatic breakthrough surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. The impact of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) continues to reverberate strongly in Saudi Arabia.
Despite its strategic alliance with the US and assurances from Washington over its commitment to the preservation of close relations with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia worries that the emerging détente between Washington and Tehran portends an eventual rapprochement that will reshape the regional and international landscape at the kingdom’s expense. Even as it continues to tout its long-time position as a major swing producer and exporter of crude oil, the prospect that Iran, an energy powerhouse in its own right, will realize its full potential as a producer and exporter of both crude oil and natural gas represents another cause of deep concern in Riyadh.
Consequently, the logic that underlined Saudi Arabia’s apparent openness toward Russia was couched as an attempt on the part of Riyadh to diversify its portfolio of diplomatic relations to lessen its dependence on Washington. Likewise, Russia’s apparent willingness to more closely engage with Saudi Arabia is also worth viewing through the prism of the Iran nuclear agreement.
As a major producer of oil and natural gas, the economic sanctions against Iran have helped to protect Russia’s market share and favourable energy pricing schemes even given the prospects for Russian investment in the Iranian energy sector. The Iranian energy sector is poised to compete with Russian exporters in the vital European market.
Despite a genuine sense of shared concern over the circumstances surrounding the Iranian nuclear agreement, the gravity of the developments in Syria would outweigh any possibility of a transformational shift toward the positive in Saudi-Russo relations.
The Salafi Geopolitics in Syria
Saudi Arabia and Russia are among the conflict’s main protagonists. Saudi Arabia is one of the principal sources of political, military, and economic support for a number of armed opposition factions, including various radical Islamist currents, which have taken up arms against the Baathist regime.
Saudi Arabia views the conflict in Syria through the prism of geopolitics. As Iran’s most important ally, the uprising in Syria presented an opportunity to undermine Tehran’s influence in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. In doing so, the kingdom resorts to a sectarian invective characterized by an anti-Shiite discourse reflective of the hard-line Salafist and Wahhabist ideologies promoted by its religious establishment domestically and internationally. Saudi Arabia is joined most prominently by Qatar and Turkey and to different degrees other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Jordan.
While Saudi Arabia and other patrons of the opposition have formally declared war against Daesh, their streams of support readily make their way into the hands of Salafist and other armed Islamist extremists. Many of these factions maintain ideological and operational links to Al-Qaeda’s Syria-based affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra and have achieved other levels of cooperation under the auspices of umbrella insurgent coalitions such as Jaish Al-Fatah (Army of Conquest).
Saudi Arabia’s track record of encouraging the spread of Salafist and Wahabbist ideologies among Russian Muslims and others in the former Soviet Union remains a point of contention in Saudi-Russo ties. The central role played by Saudi Arabia in supporting the mujahedeen struggle against the Soviet Union after it had invaded Afghanistan continues to colour Russian perceptions of the kingdom.
Russia’s Approach to Syria
Russia, for its part, continues to provide the Baathist regime with a critical lifeline of support in the diplomatic, military, and economic realms. The latest displays of overt Russian military might in Syria are emblematic of Moscow’s determination to ensure that its interests in Syria are preserved. The recent displays of operational coordination between Russia and Iran in Syria and other theatres represent another critical facet of Russia’s involvement in Syria.
This reality leaves it irreconcilable with the objectives pursued by Saudi Arabia. On the diplomatic front, Russia has attempted to outmanoeuvre the efforts of Saudi Arabia and other opponents of the Baathist regime by hosting its own diplomatic initiatives.
Russia has maintained a modest naval refuelling station in Syria’s port city of Tartus since the end of the Cold War. In a region dominated by pro-US regimes, Syria represents a critical ally. But Russia’s continued support for Al-Assad in particular is also rooted in deeper worries about the perceived intentions of its NATO rivals.
In Russia’s view, the incremental expansion of NATO into its former sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union represents an affront to Russia’s sovereignty and a threat to its sphere of influence. Moscow’s intervention in Syria is reflective of Russia’s attempt to reassert its perceived status as a global power. The prominent radical Islamist current within the broader insurgency, which includes a sizeable cohort of Russian citizens and others from across the former Soviet Union, is another factor of concern.
Saudi Arabia has initiated a retaliatory policy against Russia. The kingdom, alongside other benefactors of the armed opposition, has strongly condemned Moscow’s decision to launch air strikes in Syria. While not a reflection of official policy, the call by over 50 Saudi clerics associated with the domestic Saudi opposition for Arabs and Muslims to take up arms against Russia, as well as Iran and other supporters of the Baathist regime, is likely to resonate widely with a sizeable percentage of the Saudi population that views the conflict through a hard-line sectarian framework analogous to what is advocated by Daesh and Al-Qaeda. The statement by the Russian Orthodox Church describing Russia’s actions in Syria as a “holy war” has also inflamed tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Saudi Arabia is also reported to have increased its material support for the armed opposition, specifically in the forms of facilitating the transfer of US-made BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank missiles provided by US intelligence to various armed factions. In operational terms, the introduction of the TOW systems helps to counter Syria’s largely Russian-origin heavy armour platforms and any future weapons systems supplied by Russia to the Baathist regime. Saudi Arabia has also been suspected of orchestrating numerous attacks targeting Russian interests across Syria, including operations launched by militants associated with Jaish Al-Fateh and Jaish Al-Islam (Army of Islam).
“In many respects, the factors that have helped shape Russia’s approach toward Syria represent a carryover of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and Syria enjoyed friendly ties that spanned the diplomatic, military, economic, ideological, and social domains.”