Judging from recent events, Russia and the Middle Eastern powers have managed to go from being at odds to finding common ground over Syria.
Arab participants in the 2015 MAKS air show at the Moscow suburban town of Zhukovsky., August 25, 2015.Photo: RIA Novosti
Russia’s MAKS Air Show, where defense officials from all over the world come to shop for the latest weaponry every two years, opened with pomp in Moscow on August 25. This year’s show is notable primarily for the number of Middle Eastern government delegations that are attending the event.
As a showcase of friendly relations in the Middle East, Vladimir Putin showed Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the King of Jordan, Abdullah II bin al-Hussein, around the exhibitions at the show on the opening day. Invited to MAKS also was President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as well as Iran’s Vice-President for Technology Sorena Sattari.
It is not a coincidence that most of the high-profile guests who attended the show were from the Middle East – it can be viewed as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signal to the West that Russia’s policy in the region is getting more traction and its influence is growing.
Since the MAKS air show did not result in any major arms agreements with the Middle Eastern states, the goal of this gathering was likely to discuss Syria. While the spotlight was on the officials who were exploring Russia’s latest weapons, Moscow also quietly hosted Syria’s Minister for National Reconciliation Affairs Ali Haidar. This would seem to reiterate the point that the air show was only a cover for Putin’s covert diplomacy.
The Russian media rushed to label the gathering in Moscow “an Arab summit,” essentially demonstrating that Putin has managed to become a central figure in Middle Eastern affairs and in negotiating a new plan for Syria in particular. While it’s unlikely that the Syrian minister was scheduled to meet with any of the said officials, his presence in Moscow shows that Russia is the power that feels comfortable talking to both sides in the Syrian conflict.
The two rounds of intra-Syrian talks that were held in Moscow earlier this year brought together the Assad government and the tolerated domestic opposition, yet the Syrian National Coalition, a major external opposition force, was missing. A number of high-profile meetings involving Russian diplomats were also held in multiple locations, including in Kazakhstan and Oman, and they seem to have played into Russia’s hand.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and veteran Syrian exiled opposition figure, Haitham Manna, shake hands during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. Photo: AP
Less than two weeks ago, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition Khaled Al Khoja visited Moscow for consultations with Russian officials, which marked a major breakthrough in Russia’s diplomatic attempts to help mediate the crisis. Following his much discussed trip to Moscow Al Khoja said that Russia is not “clinging to Assad,” which may be true. In fact it seems that all sides have slightly changed their position towards Syria's President Bashar Al Assad’s role.
According to some sources, a deal that Putin is now negotiating in Moscow will see Assad stay in power during a political transition period. Some of Assad’s powers may be ceded to incumbent Vice-President Farouk Al Sharaa, a figure accepted by most opposition groups as well as the government, while his security advisor Ali Mamlouk will have to resign.
Russia’s key conditions for the deal appear to center around security guarantees for the Shia sect of Alawites, who must not be persecuted by the new authorities. A certain number of top government posts should also be allocated to Alawites, including that of the Army Chief. And of course Moscow also conditioned its support for any new plan for Syria on Assad’s safe exit from the presidency.
Syria talks always stall over the debate about Assad’s future, which is why Russia wants the new talks to make a major push towards forming a broad anti-Islamic State coalition that would involve Al Assad. Putin likely delivered this message to Middle Eastern officials that visited Moscow. While there was no Saudi delegation in Russia this week, there are hopes that the Emirati delegation will be able to transmit the message to Riyadh.
Moscow believes that Saudi Arabia has been using oil as a lever against the Russian economy, trying to pressure Putin into giving up on Assad. Now that the circumstances have changed and the oil crisis has taken a toll on Saudi Arabia’s economy, Moscow is certain that Riyadh’s position towards Assad may soften and it may accept his presidency in the transitional period.
Judging by a series of meetings between Russian and Saudi officials recently, the two sides managed to overcome some of their differences. Indeed, a meeting between Putin and King Salman may be on its way.
Quite noticeably, the debate into which Moscow tries to engage Middle Eastern powers almost completely ignores Turkey. By not inviting Turkish officials to Moscow, Russia implicitly demonstrates that the country plays a secondary logistical role in the ongoing crisis by allowing the U.S. to use its military bases to access Syrian territory.
The meetings that took place in Moscow this week are largely symbolic and they won’t immediately lead to an agreement on Syria. Yet they show that Russia and the Middle Eastern powers have managed to go from being at odds to finding common ground over Syria. “The Moscow platform” for Syria no longer looks useless and may now get some high-profile backing in the Middle East.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.