August 4, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Major Players Meet on Syria

• A trilateral meeting in Doha, Qatar follows other developments that suggest new movement on Syria

• Russia has been particularly keen to play a larger role, and has undertaken important initiatives

• Saudi Arabia has seen its own regional policy face unanticipated difficulties, while the internal threat from terrorism has grown

• Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States acting in concert may just be able to change the dynamic of the Syrian civil war.


Syria was the main topic of discussion at an unusual trilateral meeting in Doha yesterday between Secretary Kerry and his Russian and Saudi Arabian counterparts. Before the meeting, Kerry said that there was still no agreed plan for addressing the dangerously chaotic situation in Syria, but in fact the last weeks have witnessed several indications of change in international attitudes towards the conflict, and the Doha meeting gave all three participants the opportunity to explore possible new areas of common ground.

Much of the change flows from the conclusion of the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Russia has been strongly in favor of such a deal—for both economic and political reasons—as it sees Iran as a regional counter to the influence of Arab countries that are largely supportive of the United States. But paradoxically, the deal may pull Iran away from Russia and towards the West, prompting Russia to seek a more central role for itself in regional affairs. Until the start of the uprising in 2011, Syria had been Russia’s sole entry point to the politics of the Middle East, and as the Assad regime grew weaker, Russia faced the threat of becoming irrelevant. Iran and Russia currently share an interest in keeping at least some part of the Assad regime in place, but both countries are also searching for a plan B that would allow them to protect their national interests even if the regime completely collapses.

As a way to play a larger role in the region, President Putin persuaded Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his June visit to St. Petersburg to agree to meet an emissary from the Syrian government on a shared agenda of counterterrorism. He then persuaded the Assad regime to agree to the same, leading to a meeting between the Deputy Crown Prince and the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk, in Riyadh. Reports following the meeting suggest that Prince Mohammed demanded that Iranian influence be curbed and that Mamlouk questioned Saudi support for ‘terrorists’ in Syria. However, the fact that the meeting took place at all—and that Saudi Arabia and Syria felt the need to participate—highlights the strength of Russia’s influence and suggests that it had strings to pull.

With the campaign in Yemen showing no immediate signs of success, and Iran likely to become more active in regional politics now that the nuclear deal is agreed upon, Saudi Arabia is in need of fresh policy options, especially as the terrorist threat emanating from Iraq and Syria poses an ever greater challenge to its own security. The arrest last month of 431 suspected supporters of the so-called Islamic State illustrates a growing problem that even the Saudis cannot blame on Iran.

Against this background, the United States is also floundering in its attempt to isolate from the larger crisis in Syria the threats from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Last week’s kidnapping by Jabhat al-Nusra of U.S.-trained rebels in Syria signals the collapse of the U.S. ‘train and equip’ program. The new agreement with Turkey to use its airbase at Incirlik as a launch site for strikes against the Islamic State may also come under pressure if Turkey faces growing internal problems as a result of its onslaught against the Kurds.

All three participants in the Doha meeting therefore had an interest in looking beyond their differences to possible areas for collaboration. One area where Russia and the United States already appear to be moving closer on Syria is in the Security Council, where a draft resolution proposed some months ago by the U.S. as a first move towards stopping the regime using chlorine-filled barrel bombs, now looks more likely to pass without a Russian veto. The Syrian air force has been dropping about 30 barrel bombs a day on civilians in Zabadani, a town on on the Lebanese border that its forces—with a great deal of help from Hizballah—are trying to take from the rebels. Though the resolution is unlikely to have any immediate effect, it is a step closer towards a consensus in the Security Council on Syria, without which nothing much can be done to stop the war.

It will take a lot more time and effort to find a solution to the crisis in Syria, and there will be many twists and turns along the way. But if Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States can agree on joint action, other key players like Turkey and Iran may be easier to draw in.


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