06.06.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Is the House of Saud Coming Round to Russia in Syria?

234234234With the so-called “civil war” in Syria reaching almost its sixth year, a big pile of evidence now exists that proves the otherwise “proxy war” character of the war and the way it has been orchestrated and master-minded by those who desperately want a ‘minus-Assad’ Syria and, thereby a gate-way to politico-economic dominance of the Middle East. While the war is still raging in Syria, the other ‘war’ being fought among the diplomats in Vienna and elsewhere seems to have produced some significant results that may just turn out to be the important turning point all the actors, state and non-state, involved in it have been looking for. We are talking about the “walk out” of Jaysh al-Islam’s Mohammed Alloush from the High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

Jaysh al-Islam, which is presumably a Saudi-funded outfit and was included as “Syrian opposition” in the Committee as such, has been operating in Syria as an al-Qaeda affiliate on most of the fronts (read: the Jaysh al-Islam opposition group is designated as a terrorist organization in Syria and Russia. Its leader, Mohammed Alloush, was appointed as chief negotiator for the Saudi-formed opposition delegation at the Syrian proximity talks). Its leader’s “walk out” or, as some have described it, a potential “ouster” by its mentors does signify that Saudia Arabia is willing to change its course of action ‘under the circumstances.’ This is due to the highly positive developments taking place between the U.S. and Russia with regard to resolution of the conflict.

The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf have started to believe that a (hypothetical) deal between Russia and the U.S. may work against their interests and, as such, the only way to avoid it is to switch sides. They are already disappointed with the way the U.S. has dealt with the Syrian crisis and they are aware that the U.S. is unlikely to change its policy at this stage. The U.S.’ partial willingness to co-ordinate strikes with Russia in Syria has only reinforced this ‘fear.’

Therefore, this ouster of Mohammed Alloush does mark a significant “positive” gesture from Saudi Arabia and has opened up a new window for it to approach Russia anew. Russian officials, on their part, did describe it as a positive development and a healthy contribution to the international peace-building efforts.

The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir was in Moscow on May 26 when after the talks with him, Russian Foreign Minister complimented him personally for having “done so much to form a fairly representative delegation of the opposition that is, on a par with a couple of other groups, a key negotiator at the Geneva talks with the Syrian Government.”

Alloush was “ousted” three days later on May 29. Within hours, the Russian presidential envoy for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdavov welcomed Alloush’s “ouster” in these terms, “It will have a positive influence on progress in the intra-Syrian talks. Those people were taking an absolutely unconstructive approach and apparently they had no intention of negotiating anything good for their country and their people. Those professing such extremist approaches should stay away from the negotiating process.”

While the “ouster” of such funded-hardliners does indicate that the Saudis are moving cautiously as far as their attempts at re-defining their relations with Russia are concerned (read: the recently held Gulf-Russia summit), Russia, too, is moving in a measured manner to secure the gains it has made within one year of its direct involvement in the Syrian crisis.

Therefore, when asked if Russia would now target Jaysh al-Islam, Russian official’s response was well-couched within its overall approach to Syria and did not indicate its “resolve”—an approach that the Western media has been deliberately imposing on Russia since its military campaign—to look for a military solution of the war. “Moscow considers as legitimate only the targets that were agreed on within the Syria Support Group and with our US partners”, said Mikhail Bogdavov.

While the “ouster” of a jihadist is itself a positive development, equally important to ponder upon is his replacement. If the Saudis are eager to raise their level of bargain vis-à-vis both the U.S. and Russia, the replacement should be someone qualified in the field of diplomacy and international law rather than a trained jihadi fighter and someone unwilling to ‘negotiate’ the way true, meaningful and result-oriented negotiations can take place.

It was already a well-known fact that the presence the leader of Jaysh al-Islam had, since the beginning, been one of the major sticking points in the indirect talks between the opposition and the government in Syria. Head of the Syrian government delegation Bashar Jaafari had also said earlier, referring to Alloush, that he would not engage in any discussions with the opposition as long as it includes people calling to ‘kill President Bashar Assad.’

In this context, his “ouster” does make a lot of sense and seems to be aimed at “convincing” the U.S. and Russia of the need to protect the Saudi interests when it comes to drafting and putting the probable constituion of Syria to popular referendum.

While we are yet to see how Iran and Syria would react to this reported constitution, the Saudi decision to send home a trained jihadi does indicate that it does want to stay relevant in the peace process and, it is for this very reason that the Saudis are now grooming the HNC into a potential interlocutor for serious negotiations regarding a transition in Syria.

Russian response to this particular development does strongly show that the peace process can only benefit out of Alloush’s ouster. To be sure, what we have got here is a nascent Russian-Saudi congruence over Syria peace talks. These are early days but the Saudi Arabia may no longer be rejecting the peace process out of hand. The “ouster” indicates Saudi intentions quite clearly. We shall have an even clearer picture as soon as his replacement is announced.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.