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Posts Tagged ‘Saudi Arabia’

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

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The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an article by me on Thursday, August 13, 2015.  I wrote the article in English, and “Shargh” translated it into Farsi.  I am posting here the English text that I sent to them:

There is general agreement that the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) will have momentous implications.  There is general disagreement, however, on just what those implications are.  Several see it as having very positive implications.  These include the Obama and Rouhani administrations, China, as well as most Western and other governments.  Others see it as having very negative implications.  These include conservative politicians in both America and Iran as well as the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states (except Oman, which favors the agreement).

And then there is Russia.  Russia supports the agreement and worked toward its achievement.  But Moscow is nervous about what it means for Russia.  Moscow foresees that as economic sanctions against Iran are lifted, much more Iranian oil and gas will come onto the world market.  This will have the effect of lowering petroleum prices—something petroleum importers welcome, but other petroleum exporters like Russia do not.  Moscow is also nervous about the prospects of Iranian relations with the West improving at a time when Russian relations with it are poor and may well grow worse.

At the same time, Moscow sees that Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (except Oman) are also nervous about the prospect of improved Iranian-American relations.  Riyadh sees the hand of Iran opposing the Kingdom in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen.  Riyadh fears that the Obama Administration’s agreeing to the nuclear accord will lead to such improved Iranian-American ties that Washington will leave Saudi Arabia and the GCC to face Iran all alone.

This fear, of course, is unrealistic.  Neither Washington nor Tehran sees the nuclear accord as leading to a full-fledged Iranian-American alliance.  But the reaction of both Moscow and Riyadh to the prospect of improved Iranian-American ties has been to improve Saudi-Russian ties.  And so we have recently seen more contact between Saudi and Russian officials to talk about joint cooperation in various fields.  Moscow especially hopes that Saudi annoyance with America will lead to Riyadh buying weapons, nuclear reactors, and more from Russia.

By itself, increased Saudi-Russian cooperation is not necessarily a bad thing.  Increased trade between them really does not threaten anyone else.  Further, not just Saudi Arabia and Russia, but also Iran and America have a common interest in preventing ISIS from seizing power in Syria and anywhere else.  Indeed, it may take cooperation on the part of all four countries—and others still—to prevent this.  Improved Saudi-Russian ties may be as important as improved Iranian-American ties for bringing this about.

The idea, though, that even somewhat improved Iranian-American relations is going to lead to significantly improved Saudi-Russian relations is far-fetched.  For no matter how unhappy Riyadh is about the prospect (whether realistic or not) of improved Iranian-American relations, the Saudis are hardly likely to expect much support against Iran from a country, such as Russia, that has much closer ties to Tehran than America has or is likely to have any time soon.  For Riyadh, then, the primary utility of being seen to move closer to Russia may be to awaken fears in Washington that it had better “do something for Riyadh” so as not to “lose Saudi Arabia” to Moscow.

Moscow, of course, does want improved relations with Riyadh, and will gladly sell to Riyadh arms or whatever else it is willing to buy from Russia.  On the other hand, Russia does not want to give up anything it now has or hopes to acquire in terms of relations with Iran in order to improve ties with Saudi Arabia.  Moscow wants to have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and the GCC on the one hand and Iran on the other, even if they do not get along with each other.  Moscow does not want to have to choose between the two sides, and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so.

What all of this means is that the Iranian nuclear accord is not likely to lead to any dramatic changes in alliance patterns.  Iranian-American relations will hopefully improve, but the U.S. will remain allied to Saudi Arabia and the GCC (as well as Israel).  Moscow’s ties to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states (and also to Israel) may improve, but Russia is likely to remain more closely linked to Tehran as well as Damascus (as long as Assad remains in power there).

Yet despite whatever benefits might result from the Iranian nuclear accord, the Gulf region will remain tense so long as Saudi-Iranian relations remain confrontational.  And they will remain confrontational so long as they are on opposite sides in the region’s ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.  Indeed, if these conflicts persist or grow worse, the region could see an all-consuming Shi’a-Sunni war—similar, perhaps, to the Catholic-Protestant wars that plagued Europe a few centuries ago.

Progress on the nuclear issue alone will not prevent this tragedy from occurring.  What is needed for doing this are regional conflict resolution efforts involving Iran, the P5 + 1, Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and all other governments and opposition movements involved.  The common threat from ISIS should be sufficient motive for everyone else to work together against it.  Just like the nuclear negotiations, these regional conflict talks will not be easy.  But if Iran and the P5 + 1 could succeed at something as complicated as the nuclear accord, I feel confident that they along with others could also succeed at regional conflict resolution too.

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Prince Sa’ud Al Faysal, who served as Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for forty years, passed away on July 9, 2015.  On April 18, 1984, he met with me—a young scholar who had not yet turned thirty—in his office in Riyadh.  In remembrance of him, I am posting an adaptation from my travel narrative, Middle Eastern Sketches (1997), describing my meeting with him as well as how prophetic what he said to me then turned out to be.

Prince Sa’ud greeted me as I entered. He was a very tall man who spoke English perfectly. He, his assistant Khalid Jindan, and I were the only ones in the room.

Just recently, the new Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar, had had dinner with the Soviet ambassador, Anatoliy Dobrynin. There was much speculation that this presaged the imminent resumption of Saudi-Soviet diplomatic relations (there had been ties between them in the 1920s and 1930s, but not since then). I asked Prince Sa’ud if this was about to occur.

He shook his head and said, “We will only recognize Moscow if it meets certain conditions:

“First,” he began, “they must completely withdraw their armed forces from Afghanistan.” The Soviets had invaded that country in 1979 to prop up a Marxist regime there against its Muslim opponents.

“Second, they must end all hostile propaganda against Saudi Arabia.”

“Third, they must withdraw from Ethiopia and South Yemen.” Ethiopia was just across the Red Sea while South Yemen directly bordered on Saudi Arabia. Both had Marxist regimes and a large Soviet military presence.

“Fourth, there must be freedom for Muslims to practice their religion in the USSR.”

“But even if they meet all our conditions,” the prince added, “relations will not be restored automatically. There must also be the right psychological conditions. ”

When the prince said this in April 1984, it seemed as if he was setting conditions which he knew the Soviets would never meet. Saudi-Soviet relations, then, would never be re-established.

In September 1990, though, Prince Sa’ud went to Moscow and met with Eduard Shevardnadze (then the Soviet foreign minister). Saudi-Soviet relations were formally re-established.

By the time this happened, all the conditions which the prince told me that Moscow must meet either had been met or were just about to be. Moscow had long since ended its hostile propaganda against the kingdom. Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989. Moscow made no move to halt the self-liquidation of the Marxist regime in South Yemen and its merger under the leadership of non-Marxist North Yemen in May 1990. Moscow had considerably reduced its assistance to Marxist Ethiopia and would end it completely by January 1991 (the regime would be driven out of power a few months later).

In addition, by the time Prince Sa’ ud went to Moscow, Muslims were free to practice their religion in what was still the USSR. Much to Saudi dismay, Muslims in the USSR had become so free that a little later many of them would vigorously protest Soviet support for the American-led, UN-sponsored coalition formed to protect the kingdom and expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

And last but not least, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait apparently created the right “psychological conditions:” Riyadh was finally willing to restore diplomatic ties with the USSR in order to make sure Moscow voted its way on UN Security Council resolutions aimed at Iraq–which Moscow did.

Although it seemed impossible in 1984, the Soviets had fulfilled all the Saudi conditions for resuming relations by 1990.

After he listed these conditions back in 1984, I asked the prince whether he thought the Soviets would ever fulfill them.

He smiled and said, “It is in the hands of God.”

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I recently attended another conference in the Gulf:  the inaugural Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which took place October 19-20, 2014 in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The Debate was sponsored by the Emirates Policy Council with the support of the UAE Foreign Ministry.  I do not intend to give a detailed summary of what occurred (especially since this information can be found at http://www.epc.ae/?q=epcevents/22/eventdetails ), but to discuss how the organization of the Debate reveals what is especially important at present to the UAE—a small, but enormously wealthy oil exporting nation located in a highly turbulent neighborhood.

The Debate began the morning of October 19 with a speech by Dr. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Dr. Gargash set the tone for the conference, in my view, when he stated, “Over the past few years, the UAE has repeatedly warned about the growing threat that extremist actors and ideologies pose to our region.  While some of our allies thought that we were being too alarmist, the rise of Daesh [ISIS] confirms the magnitude of the threat.  Instead of becoming moderated through engagement, so-called ‘moderate Islamists’ are increasingly being drafted into the ranks of radical groups.  This demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ forms of ideological extremism.  Make no mistake:  many of these movements that are described as ‘moderate’ in some lexicons, provide the environment for greater radicalization and the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh.  Therefore, countering the threat posed by these groups requires a clear-sighted and comprehensive strategy.”

The bulk of the conference consisted of nine debate panels in which different themes were discussed.  In the conference program, the “Premises of the Debate” stated that the UAE and other GCC states “are not recipients of regional and international powers’ impact only, but are regional and international actors as well.”  Despite this, the first three debate panels were devoted to a discussion of the policies toward the Gulf of the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia (the first session also included the Deputy Secretary General of NATO).  In much of the first session, though, the speakers from the West and from Russia argued about Ukraine—something that is of only secondary interest to the Gulf states.

Panel 4 focused on Iran (which most Gulf Arab states view quite negatively), Panel 5 on Turkey (whose “Islamist” foreign policy is viewed uneasily), Panel 6 on Egypt (where the UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed the ouster of the elected president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military), Panel 7 on Iraq (where the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad is seen as being heavily influenced, if not completely controlled by, Iran), Panel 8 on Syria (where the need to oust the Alawite minority Assad regime as well as combat ISIS was emphasized), and Panel 9 on both Yemen and Libya (where America and the West are not seen as being sufficiently concerned about restoring order in these increasingly chaotic countries).

While the choice of subjects to discuss in the nine debate panels was a good indicator of what is currently of concern to the UAE, the choice of subjects not to discuss was also revealing.  Most noteworthy, there was no panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, this was barely mentioned by any of the speakers except by one each from Russia and China in Panel 2.  These two went on at length about the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.  Indeed, the Chinese speaker became quite emotional.  The Arab participants I spoke to during and after the panel, though, were not impressed.  They know full well that Russia and China both have strong ties to Israel, and that neither will do anything in support of the Palestinians that would risk their relations with the Jewish state.  What not having a panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at this conference suggested to me was that the rise of ISIS, the threat from Iran, the situation in Egypt, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are all far more important to the UAE.

Other subjects that were not discussed include unrest in Bahrain (where relations are tense between the Shi’a majority and the Sunni monarchy which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE), uncertainty in Oman (where the long-reigning monarch, Sultan Qaboos, is rumored to be seriously ill and where his successor has not been named), the situation in Saudi Arabia (regarding both succession to the throne and Shi’a restiveness in the Eastern Province—where much of Saudi oil is), and the foreign policy of Qatar (which, as a result of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and efforts to engage moderate—and even not so moderate—Islamists, is very much out of step with Saudi and UAE foreign policies in particular).

I surmise that there were no debate panels on these topics not because the UAE isn’t interested in them, but because they were deemed as being too sensitive to discuss openly.  I have no doubt, though, that they are all being discussed privately throughout the Gulf.  Hopefully, though, the realm of what can be discussed openly will increase in future Abu Dhabi Strategic Debates.  Indeed, if some of the problems that were not discussed this time get bad enough, they will need to be.

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I attended the “Arabian Gulf and Regional Challenges” conference that took place September 16-17, 2014, in Riyadh.  The conference was sponsored by the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Diplomatic Studies, and co-organized by the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.  I am not going to summarize all the presentations that were made (many are already available on the web), but highlight what I saw as the principal points being conveyed by the Saudi and other Gulf speakers.  These were:

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not the only threat that the region faces.  There are several others, including the threat from Iran, the actions of the Assad regime in Syria, Shi’a extremism in Iraq and elsewhere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the deteriorating situation in Yemen.  The importance of these last two was underlined in presentations by Dr. Saeb Erekat (Palestinian Chief Negotiator), and Jamal Al Salal (Yemeni Foreign Minister).

While the West focuses on Sunni extremists (such as ISIS), Shi’a extremism is also a major threat.  Shi’a extremists whom Saudi and Gulf speakers regard as especially threatening include the Shi’a militias in Iraq, elements within Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government, the Assad regime in Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Standing behind them all, Saudi and other Gulf speakers emphasized, is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Effectively battling ISIS requires an understanding of the root causes of its current strength.  This, in the view of the Saudi and other Gulf speakers, resulted from 1) the American-led invasion of Iraq; 2) the American withdrawal from Iraq; and 3) the failure of the Obama Administration to follow through on its declared intention of launching an attack on the Assad regime in Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons against its own people.  Since this last development in particular, Damascus has focused on targeting the more moderate Syrian opposition and not ISIS.  As American actions (or non-actions) are primarily responsible for allowing ISIS to grow strong, it is America that is primarily responsible for combating it.

Military means alone will not defeat ISIS and other jihadist movements.  Too many Sunnis have become convinced that ISIS is either their champion or is less worse than its Shi’a opponents.  They need to be persuaded that jihadism is not the right way to solve their problems.  America and the West cannot do this effectively.  This battle for Sunni hearts and minds must be undertaken by Sunnis themselves, including Muslim authorities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Iran cannot be considered a true partner in the battle against ISIS.  This is because although Tehran genuinely fears ISIS, it wants to combat it through strengthening the Assad regime in Syria and Shi’a forces in Iraq—whose aim is to suppress the Sunnis in general in these two countries.  Fear was expressed that the Obama Administration, through prioritizing negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue, is overlooking the ongoing Iranian and Shi’a threat to Sunnis, and Sunni governments, in the region.  On the sidelines of the conference, there were Saudis and others from the Gulf who even expressed fear of the rise of an Iranian lobby in Washington.

The rise of ISIS and other regional challenges underlines the importance of pressing ahead with the “Gulf Union” project.  At this conference, the proposal was supported not just by Saudi speakers, but also by the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and Kuwait’s former Minister of Information Saad bin Tefla Al Ajmi.  It was emphasized that the Gulf Union would not involve the loss of sovereignty of the six projected members (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman), but would have a federal structure instead.  The Gulf Union, though, would establish common foreign and defense policies for the six members.

In addition to the above points which were made by Saudi and other Gulf speakers, there were several specific statements made during the conference that were noteworthy:

In the second session (on Gulf Security and the Impact of Regional Political Transformations), Prof. Mostafa Elwi of Egypt indicated that he saw Syria’s Assad regime as a partner in the coalition fighting ISIS.  This seems to be the position of the Egyptian government also, but is not that of the Saudi, UAE, or Kuwaiti governments.

In the sixth session (on Gulf Security and the Role of Rising Powers), Ambassador Rajiv Sikri made what I thought was an especially interesting proposal.  ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) sponsors a regional forum that includes ASEAN members, neighboring states, and external actors with an interest in the region.  Indeed, the ASEAN Regional Forum includes governments that are hostile to one another:  North Korea on the one hand and the U.S. and South Korea on the other.  Just as the ASEAN Regional Forum gives these governments an opportunity to talk to each other, a Gulf regional forum that included all states in the region as well as external actors active in it would provide an opportunity for discussions among Arab governments, Iran, and Israel.

Also in the sixth session, the Chinese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Li Chengwen, gave a speech—in Arabic—on Chinese policy toward the region.  In the Q&A session afterward, a Saudi female journalist was highly critical of China.  While China claims to be a rising power, she noted, it does not play much of a role in the region.  While China is also threatened by the rise of ISIS, China has just been a “free rider” while others act to combat it.  She also raised the question of the status of Muslims in China—an obvious reference to Beijing’s policy of suppressing Muslims in Xinjiang.

In the seventh session (on Future Perspectives), Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz of the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources gave a highly detailed speech challenging the increasingly popular view that the “shale revolution” in North America will reduce the economic and security importance of the Gulf to the West.  He questioned whether the shale revolution will really allow the U.S. to satisfy its own energy needs.  Even if it does, he argued, many other countries (including those allied to the U.S.) will remain dependent on Gulf oil, and that the ability of the Gulf to continue supplying oil to the world market will have a major impact on petroleum prices everywhere.  Gulf security, then, should remain a priority for American foreign policy even if the U.S. imports no oil itself from the region.

This conference was especially interesting due both to the high quality of the presentations and to the spirited Q&A sessions afterwards.  Especially noteworthy was the vigorous participation of women from the Gulf region in these Q&A sessions.  This, in my view, was a highly positive development in a region where there are all too many negative ones.

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While still firmly opposed to any form of Western military intervention in Syria, there have recently been signs that Moscow is trying to dissociate itself from the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Although Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated on November 6 in Amman, Jordan that, “we have no plans to change” Russian foreign policy toward Syria, three days later an unnamed “high-level” Russian diplomatic source told the Russian daily newspaper Izvestia that “Assad’s departure” was one possible outcome of the ongoing conflict.

During Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia on November 15, he insisted that, “Russia does not defend Assad.”  He also stated that the Syrian internal opposition should be involved in the settlement process in Syria.  In his press conference in Riyadh, he noted that, “We…advocate the unification of the Syrian opposition and we are meeting with all its representatives—of the internal and external opposition.”

Lavrov further stated on November 28 in Moscow that, “Russia’s involvement in the armed conflict is just out of the question.”

It has not just been the Russian foreign minister who has made statements such as these.  In his December 3 visit to Turkey, President Vladimir Putin noted that Russia and Turkey have differences over Syria, but insisted that, “We [the Russians] are not attorneys of Syria’s current government.”

Statements such as these from Russia’s top leadership can hardly be welcome to the Assad regime and its supporters in Syria.  Even less so was the statement reported by The Moscow Times by Russian Middle East expert Alexander Shumilin that, “Putin likely traveled to Istanbul with a serious proposal, possibly including the evacuation of Syrian President Bashar Assad to Russia.”

What explains this increasing Russian diffidence toward the Assad regime?  There are several possible factors.  One is an increasing sense in Moscow that the Assad regime is going to collapse at some point in the near future.  While Moscow may not welcome this, it will want to try to establish good working relations with a new Syrian government in order to retain Russia’s naval facilities at Tartus, arms contracts, petroleum investments and other interests in Syria.

Another factor is that the Obama Administration (I was told by a senior Defense Department official) has launched a quiet diplomatic campaign to persuade Moscow that Washington is willing to allow Russia to retain its military and economic interests in Syria after the downfall of Assad.  While such assurances are not binding on a new Syrian government, Moscow does not have to fear that the U.S. will actively attempt to exploit the downfall of Assad to expel Russia from Syria.

In addition, Moscow has grown increasingly concerned (as Russian observers have noted) about the highly negative impact that the Kremlin’s support for Assad has had on Russia’s image in Arab and other Muslim countries.  Lavrov’s November visits to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in particular appear aimed at restoring the cooperative relations that Moscow had built up with these two governments before the Syrian uprising.  Similarly, the hope expressed by Putin and Turkish President Erdogan that Russian-Turkish bilateral trade would grow from an already large $32 billion last year to an ambitious “$100 billion in a year” is an indication that they have no intention of allowing differences over Syria to undermine this profitable prospect.

These changes in the Russian approach toward Syria do not mean that Moscow is about to repudiate Assad and join with America and others in actively seeking his ouster.  What they do suggest, though, is that Moscow is now more realistically assessing the prospects for the survival of the Assad regime, and is more pragmatically preparing to pursue Russian interests in both in Syria and the broader region in the increasingly likely event that Assad does fall.

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