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Saudis Are Turning to Russia As Assad's Foes Lose Heart
By Henry Meyer and Glen Carey

Saudi Arabia may be the latest country to give up on regime change in Syria and fall in line with Russia's successful campaign to shore up President Bashar al-Assad.

There are signs that the nations, long at odds over Syria, are now cooperating over a settlement that would leave Assad in place for the time being. The Saudis hosted a meeting of Syrian opposition factions last month, pushing for an accord between hardline anti-Assad groups and others less insistent on his immediate departure. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is headed to Riyadh tomorrow for more talks, before an expected visit to Moscow by King Salman.

A Saudi shift would mark a fresh blow for Syrian rebels who have seen Assad regain control of much of the country in the past two years, backed by Russian air power. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump's administration ended a military aid program for the rebels, saying the chief U.S. goal in Syria is defeating Islamic State. Turkey, another key backer of the opposition, has also come round to working with the Russians.

"The Saudis now realize that the Russians could be the only party that can settle the Syria conflict," said Mustafa Alani, head of the defense and security department at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "They don't have a problem with the idea that the regime can stay."

'Vicious Campaign'

The Saudi Foreign Ministry said last month that the longer-term goal remains "a new future for Syria without Bashar al-Assad." But the Aug. 22 talks in Riyadh saw a push for a united front between the main opposition group that the Saudis have traditionally backed, the High Negotiations Committee, and two other blocs closer to Moscow.

Another round is scheduled in the Saudi capital next month, aimed at merging the three branches into a unified opposition delegation that would take part in United Nations-led peace talks in Geneva.

Participants in that process say there's been a change. "I see a shift in Riyadh's position," Qadri Jamil, a former Syrian deputy prime minister who heads the Russian-backed opposition bloc, said an interview. The chances of a deal are "very big."

Meanwhile Yahya al-Aridi, a senior figure in the main anti-Assad group, said his faction is "worried" that its erstwhile Saudi backers will reach an accommodation with Russia. "There's a vicious campaign to rehabilitate the Assad regime," he said.

Iranian Problem

Military realities increasingly favor Assad and the Russians. This week, Syrian government forces broke an Islamic State blockade of the strategic eastern city of Deir Ezzor that had lasted for almost three years. Elsewhere in the country, other factions fighting Assad -- both jihadist and moderate -- have been pegged back into ever-smaller enclaves.

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia have improved on other fronts too. The two biggest oil producers put aside differences to agree on output cuts under an OPEC deal aimed at bolstering prices.

One motivation for rapprochement with Russia is the Saudi desire to counter the rise of Assad's other main backer, Iran. Iranian-backed fighters, including the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, have played a major role in the Syrian president's comeback. As the prospect of removing Assad recedes, his enemies are switching focus.

For the Saudis, "the regime is no longer an issue, even the president is no longer an issue," Alani said. "The problem is the question of the Iranians on the ground." The U.S. and Israel are also now arguing that "the Russians should work to end the presence of Iran in Syria," Alani said.

'Calling the Shots'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Aug. 28 that Iran is producing precision missiles at factories in Syria and Lebanon. Yesterday, Assad's government blamed Israel for an airstrike on a military position in northwest Syria.

Russia sees Iran as a strategic ally in the Middle East, whereas for the Saudis it's a mortal foe. Still, their interests could overlap, according to Yury Barmin, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based research group set up by the Kremlin.

"The hard power on the ground in Syria is Russia and it's calling the shots," he said. "But the Russians are working to contain Iran's influence, and this issue is something they could talk about" with the Saudis.

Russia is seeking to gain international legitimacy for its Syrian campaign and avoid an open-ended military conflict by encouraging Assad to strike a deal with his opponents in Geneva. Those negotiations have been effectively stalled for years.

Lavrov was in the Gulf last week for a tour that included a stop in Qatar, another major backer of the Syrian rebels. He said that while differences remain, there's overall interest in ending the war.

The U.S. and its European allies, as well as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have had to shift their stance on Assad. They now largely accept that he'll remain during a transitional phase, said two Western diplomats familiar with the matter. The envoys spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are confidential.

Unity among the rival opposition groups is "inevitable," Lavrov said in Abu Dhabi on Aug. 29. And that "will enable us to start substantive talks on the future of Syria."


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