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Alliances shift in the Middle East as all roads lead to Moscow

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ANALYSIS / By Firas Al-Atraqchi

As US media continues to speculate on the motives behind the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas and the press in the UK critique Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest policy speech, there have been significant changes in Middle Eastern alliances.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud arrived in Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in what some media posited as a visit to strengthen energy ties, particularly in the face of persistently low oil prices.

While it is true that the Russians and the Saudis – once at stark odds over oil and gas markets – have in the past three years coordinated on OPEC-plus agreements to cut output to boost prices, the two countries have much more at geopolitical stake in the Middle East.

For one, Russia is a strong backer of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, someone the Saudis had once firmly opposed and had taken great lengths to unseat.

“I can say that our relations are keynoted by the similarity of views on many regional and international problems. Bilateral coordination is continuing on everything that promotes stronger security and the prosperity of our countries,” King Salman said in statements carried by the TASS news agency.

Translation: How to agree on Syria (and Iran).

King Salman told Putin that Riyadh wants to resolve the Syrian civil war diplomatically – a position that is at stark odds with that of other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, chiefly Qatar.

The Saudis – along with the Bahrainis, Egyptians, and Emiratis – would love to see a regime change in Doha and the reshaping (or closure, even) of the Al Jazeera news network.

Qatar also happens to sit on one of the biggest gas reserves in the world, is a significant gas supplier on global markets and at one point threatened Russia over Putin’s support of Assad.


But Qatar may be a small fry compared to the Persian elephant in the room.

The Saudis fear Iran’s growing influence in Syria – both directly and through their militant proxy Hezbollah, which has fought side by side with the Syrian Army against Islamist rebel groups believed to have been armed by both Riyadh and Doha.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday said the Saudis were working to create a unified Syrian opposition (minus ISIL and Al Qaeda affiliates) that would be represented in eventual final peace talks according to the tenets of the Astana agreements.

This would mark a significant turnaround in regional efforts to end the Syrian crisis as the Saudis appear more in sync with the Russian point of view than ever before.

The Saudis also look at the Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan and see a new power alliance forming between Iran, Russia and Turkey.

Putin concluded a visit to Turkey last week where the two former enemies-cum-allies finalized a deal to arm Ankara with advanced Russian anti-missile air defense systems.

It seems the Saudis want a piece of the action, too. On Friday, the Saudi press reported that Riyadh signed initial agreements to purchase the S-400 air defense system, as well as other advanced weaponry.

This comes just a few months after President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia and highlighted the tens of billions of US arms sales to the Kingdom.

The Saudi press described King Salman’s visit to Russia as the beginning of a “new friendship”.

It is noteworthy that Iran just two weeks ago successfully tested a new ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 kms and capable of multiple warheads. CNN at the time said that the missile was capable of reaching Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iran + Iraq + Turkey

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday met with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in Tehran to discuss measures to counter the Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq.

Erdogan said that his country was forming a coordinated effort with Iran and Iraq to unravel the Kurdish independence drive.

While their meeting and concentrated efforts may be due to shared convenience, it is no small feat that the strongest Sunni power meets with the strongest Shia power in the Middle East.

And both are allies of the Russians.

Do the Saudis feel they may have missed the train?

Saudi Arabia is facing many internal challenges – most socio-economic – and it fears the rise of Islamic extremism, which it may have shaped in some way in the past.

But it also recognizes that for all intents and purposes, the war is lost in Syria as Assad’s forces and Hezbollah retake major regions once occupied by the Islamic State or other Islamic extremists.

It also understands that Europe will not renege on the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran despite all the arm-waving banter coming from Washington threatening to withdraw from the agreement or increase sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

And Riyadh sees that with Trump playing a lesser role in Syria as he continues to withdraw from international and multilateral treaties, all roads now lead to Moscow, a major broker of the above two developments.

In order to counter Iran, as it has done so ferociously in recent years – the Syria theater being the war of proxies between the two, Saudi Arabia is going to lean on Moscow to limit Tehran’s influence in Damascus.

Putin is unlikely to do much in that regard. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who raised the alarm on what he alleged where Iranian military bases in Syria, has visited Moscow four times in the past two years to urge Russia – unsuccessfully – to rein in Iran.

Source: The BRICS Post

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