DAMASCUS, SYRIA (12:00 PM) – Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, has on Sunday met with Saudi officials for official negotiations, as the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
The Russian Foreign Minister met with the Saudi King Salman in the royal Summer Palace in Jeddah, before meeting with the King’s son and heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince is seen as a rising star in the Saudi political system, and currently holds the position of Defence Minister in the kingdom.
According to SPA reports, Lavrov and the prince negotiated at length about the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, as well as the future of the diplomatic crisis surrounding the State of Qatar. The Russian diplomatic visit marks the second such meeting this year, after Mohammed bin Salman visited Russia in May for similar purposes.
Russia and Saudi Arabia are supporting rivaling factions in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, with Saudi Arabia supporting Salafist armed groups in the nation, while Russia is one of the main state supporters of the Syrian Arab Republic and armed forces. Recently however, talk is that Saudi Arabia is considering dropping its long-term goal of removing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power.
While the Saudi foreign minister Abd al-Jubeir still claimed last month that the goal remained “a future for Syria without Bashar al-Assad”, a summit of Syrian rebel groups in Riyadh on August 22 saw the Saudi government pushing hard for a complete unification of all such groups into one united organisation. This move was seen as surprising, since this unification would include several moderate groups, some of which don’t have the immediate removal of Assad from power in their agenda.
According to Mustafa Alani, head of the defence and security department in the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, “The Saudis now realize that the Russians could be the only party that can settle the Syria conflict. They don’t have a problem with the idea that the regime can stay.” Recent developments in Syria, including the lifting of the three-year long siege of the major eastern city of Deir ez-Zor by the Syrian army, seem to have made support to the Syrian rebels ever more problematic for Saudi Arabia.
The main issue for both Saudi Arabia, and by extension Israel, seems to be the increasing influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. “The regime is no longer an issue, even the president is no longer an issue (…) the Russians should work to end the presence of Iran in Syria.”, according to Alani.
The reports on the recent meeting between Lavrov and Prince bin Salman so far do not indicate any talks on the influence of Iran, however.
In a press release on Sunday, Sergey Lavrov praised the Saudis this effort to unite all rebel groups for the sake of negotiations. The Russian Federation has made considerable efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria, and believes a united organisation of the Syrian opposition would be beneficial to achieve this goal.
The Russian visit to the Saudi kingdom comes as another step in a rapprochement between Moscow and Riyadh. Recently, both nations, being the two biggest producers of oil in the world, have agreed to curb their output of petroleum in order to raise oil prices. This move goes directly counter to earlier Saudi attempts to target competing oil economies by boosting their own petroleum output and thus decreasing the overall price.
The potential Saudi turn regarding Syria’s future follows a decision by several nations to cease support for Syrian rebel groups. Earlier this year, US president Donald Trump ended a programme for military support to so-called moderate rebels. Turkey, formerly also a main backer of anti-Assad armed groups, has similarly ceased such support while improving relations with Russia.