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Friday, November 20, 2015

Russia talking with Saudis over Syria

A visit to Russia by Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud is being worked on through diplomatic sources, according to the Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
The Saudis may attempt to work out a solution on Syria agreeable to the Russians. Saudi involvement in both Yemen and Syria are a strain on its resources and budget in a period of declining income due to low oil prices. The Saudis may feel there is no victory in sight for the Islamist groups it supports in Syria and that it makes sense to find a political solution if possible. The Saudi deficit this year alone is set to be 21.6 percent of GDP. While this will be easily covered by savings, those savings are dwindling quickly.The economic situation in Saudi Arabia is now such that the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency was forced to withdraw $70 billion from foreign investment fund assets to pay for items in the Saudi budget.
The Saudis aim to create better relationships with Russia in the hope that Russia in turn can put pressure on Iran, Assad, and indirectly the Houthis in Yemen as well, to come to a political solution to conflicts the Saudis would like to see ended. These conflicts are simply too great a cost to the kingdom, with little benefit in return. The Saudis' attitude to Russia has changed rapidly.
When Russia first launched its air-strikes in Syria, the Saudis were among the first to denounce them, along with the U.S. They were called "counter-productive' and "reactionary." However, the very fact that the Saudi King is to visit Moscow shows a change in attitude. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and intelligence chief, said that he was confident that Russia's strategy in Syria was more effective than that of the U.S. and that the Russian point of view demanded both attention and respect. Russia regards Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria and has maintained that position since the start of the conflict back in 2011. The Saudis have taken the position of the Islamist rebels they support, that Assad and his regime must go. However, the Saudis may be in the process of beginning to abandon those very groups.
An article by Salman Sheikh claims: Recently, Riyadh issued a ‘secret document’ to its embassies in the Middle East instructing them to stop ‘funding’ the so-called Syrian ‘rebels’. This indicates that the House of Saud is ‘no longer’ in a position to achieve its basic objective of overthrowing Assad’s regime.
Cutting off funds to rebels will certainly put pressure on them to come to a political solution or else face the prospect of defeat by Assad forces bolstered by Russian intervention. The U.S. seems to be concentrating on defeating the Islamic State rather than the overthrow of Assad. They are now supporting the Kurds who are more interested in autonomy for areas they control than in ousting Assad, who has not been attempting to take territory back from them.
Earlier, Saudi money was instrumental in funding many rebel groups but since King Salman took power there has been some change. Prince Bandar, the intelligence chief who was in charge of attempts to topple Assad, was fired by the new King Salman. The Saudi Arabia defence minister visited Russia this summer. Sheik believes that Saudis hope to diversify their economic linkages towards Russia and Asia: This ‘constructive engagement’ seems to have strong economic underpinnings as the Saudis seem to be very interested in participating and opening for themselves, as also for their regional allies, doors to the greatest global infrastructure in history — China’s One Belt, One Road port and rail Eurasian infrastructure development where Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union states are being fully integrated in an ‘economic union.’The One Belt, One Road initiative is a grand economic plan outlined by China in 2013. This would no doubt be a better investment than funding Islamic jihadists in Syria.
The Saudis are also interesting in discussing oil policy with Russia. Russian Energy Minister, Alexander Novak, announced after Sochi that talks were planned with his Saudi and Iranian counterparts this month. The Saudis are hit not just by the decline in oil prices but subsidized oil prices to its own consumers. The cost of these subsidies runs at about $86 billion a year.
Apparently, Putin and Salman have already exchanged views by phone according to Russian authorities. The call was said to be a Saudi initiative. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the two exchanged views about "all questions associated with resolving the Syria crisis..". Oman has been playing a useful mediating role in developments as it has been in relation to the Yemen conflict as well. The Omani foreign minister even met with Bashar al-Assad last month. The head of Syria's National Security Bureau met with Egyptian president el-Sisi.
Free Syrian Army delegates have apparently visited Moscow several times. With the onrush of refugees from Syria into Europe and now the Paris attacks by the Islamic State, many parties are anxious to end the war in Syria. However, it is not at all certain that the political actors representing the rebels will have much influence on those fighting on the ground. Cutting off funding to the rebels could force them to the bargaining table. Russia would need to agree to limit support for Assad in order that he not come to believe that he could gain a military victory. As shown in the appended video the Saudis have already signed a military agreement with Russia a move that can hardly please the U.S.
UPDATE: This recent article appears to conflict with the material in my article. The Saudi FM says that the Saudis will continue to support rebels unless Assad goes. Perhaps it is a bargaining position.


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