Handling the conflict in Syria would be simpler if it was between warring Syrian forces. However, there are outside, non-Syrian powers pulling the strings and controlling the action.
Multiple world powers and wannabe powers have insinuated themselves into the conflict. Chief among those powers are Iran and Russia on one side of the conflict and Saudi Arabia on the other. They are the master puppeteers, and the people of Syria are their unwitting marionettes.
Dozens of factions are fighting on the ground in Syria. Some support Assad, and others want him ousted—or dead. Still others are fighting in acts of self-preservation to protect their clans, families and property. Most people in this segment of the fighting population have no political or military point of view; they are motivated by fear and largely don’t have a stake in who governs Syria—as long as their basic needs of food and safety are met.
This week, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia Adel al Jubeir met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
Their meeting was more significant than any peace summit and more relevant than any single battle or scrimmage in Syria. Russia and Saudi Arabia are the de facto representatives of the forces fighting. They are the money behind every bullet that is fired and every bomb that is detonated.
The foreign ministers addressed the press at the conclusion of their meeting. The difference in their presentations and points of view was tremendous.
Jubeir began by saying that Assad has no place in Syria and will play no role in the solution. In response, Lavrov said that he agreed to disagree. He said, “We know Saudi Arabia’s stance, and it is clear that our approaches to this are not identical—to put it mildly. But we are unanimous that a settlement of the Syrian crisis requires the involvement of all Syrian parties without any exceptions and of all foreign actors that can exercise influence on the internal parties.”
Lavrov responded, “As far as the presence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria is concerned, you know well we do not consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.” He added, “We proceed from the understanding that both, just as Russia’s aerospace group, are in Syria at the invitation of the country’s legitimate government.”
Jubeir made it very clear that Assad must be held accountable for the use of poisonous gas against his citizenry. He also insisted that Russia was responsible for constantly violating the ceasefires.
Jubeir said, “[T]he Syrian regime must pay the price of the chemical attack and must prove that it has no chemical weapons.” He then lambasted Hezbollah and Iran saying, “We are working to put an end to Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in the region.” Making sure that no one misunderstood the Saudi point of view, Jubeir concluded,”Bashar al-Assad has no place in Syria’s future, and Hezbollah has no place anywhere in the world.”
If this was their tone during the press conference, imagine the tensions during their private meeting.
Both sides know the extent of their influence. They also know the power of money, military and moral support.
The complex relationship between Riyadh and Moscow dates to back to before the Syrian conflict. Their relationship is, in great part, colored by OPEC. Saudi Arabia is a member of OPEC; Russia is not. However, OPEC not only often informs the Russians of their intentions, but solicits their input. OPEC even asks Russia to cooperate with their decisions about output.
Russia is one of the top three producers of oil in the world—depending on the moment and how one counts—and OPEC wants their cooperation. In fact, OPEC went to far as to schedule their meeting in Moscow to discuss production outputs in the days immediately following the Saudi-Russia dialogue about Syria.
OPEC wants Russian involvement, and Saudi Arabia is the loudest voice in OPEC. Saudi Arabia desires to box out Iran not only in regards to Syria, but also in OPEC. This is, in part, why OPEC and Saudi Arabia are so friendly with Russia.
Saudi Arabia is taking notice of how cozy Russia and Iran are getting, especially when it comes to Syria. If that relationship were to trickle over into other issues—such as expanded arms trade and technology—Iran could emerge more powerful than ever before.
That would impact Syria, Assad and the entire Middle East is decidedly not in the interest of the United States.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator, author the “The Micah Report,” online and host of the weekly TV show “Thinking Out Loud w Micah Halpern.” follow him on twitter: @MicahHalpern