The regional political scene was recently marked by several events of significance, linked to the conflict in Syria and the continuing war against ISIS. These events culminated on Aug. 3 with the trilateral meeting in Doha, Qatar, between Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and his American and Russian counterparts, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov.
Before the Qatar meeting, a series of unusual developments took place in various areas of the Middle East. First, Turkey and the United States agreed to cooperate in the fight against ISIS by allowing American aircraft to make use of Turkey’s Incirlik airbase. Turkey also announced the creation of a safe zone in Syria, dubbed by the Americans as an ISIS-free zone.
There was another interesting turn of events at the end of July, when President Bashar Assad publicly admitted that his armed forces was suffering from manpower shortages and battlefield losses. It was a rare moment of candor from the Syrian leader. A few days later, the Lebanese pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar reported that the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Ali Mamlouk, had met with the Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman in Riyadh. The information was later confirmed by Saudi sources, though the daily Al-Hayat noted that the meeting had taken place in Jeddah. While seemingly unrelated, these events underlined a change of attitudes toward the Syrian dossier, which has been in limbo for four years.
Two dynamics appear to have spurred this chain of events, namely the nuclear deal with Iran and the growing threat of ISIS to countries outside its immediate area of control.
The nuclear deal has bridged differences between the U.S. and Iran, while sidelining Russia – ironically a supporter of the deal – and the Gulf countries, who were left to find a common cause between themselves. Russia has intensified its efforts at finding a solution to the Syria crisis, drawing up an initiative aimed at establishing a regional alliance to fight terrorism, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan. It is believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin persuaded Prince Mohammad bin Salman, during his visit to Saint Petersburg last June, to meet with Mamlouk. While Saudi sources reported that the meeting had gone “very badly,” the fact that the two sides met at all indicated growing awareness that a military solution is no longer realistic in the current Syrian context.
Fighting the expansion of ISIS has been a common concern of Russia and the Gulf countries. The terrorist threat emanating from Iraq and Syria is putting increasing pressure on Gulf security, more particularly that of Saudi Arabia. In recent weeks the kingdom’s intelligence services have arrested 431 suspects believed to be supporting the terrorist organization.
Like Saudi Arabia, Russia sees the expansion of ISIS as a threat to its domestic security. The country has a long history of fighting extremism, its main areas of concern being Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, which have large Muslim populations.
In addition, the United States appears incapable of isolating itself from the mounting danger of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The recent kidnapping by Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate the Nusra Front of U.S.-trained rebels in Syria signaled the failure of the U.S. program to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels. The agreement with Turkey may, partly, have been a consequence of a realization that the American strategy is not working.
These different dynamics may also have explained the recent Doha meeting between the Saudi, American and Russian foreign ministers. Russia may be even more intent on brokering a deal on Syria, as fragmentation of the country that gives free reign to ISIS will only exacerbate its fears of increased terror activity. Its strategic interest may diverge from that of its effective ally in Syria, Iran, whose main concern is preserving “Syria’s vital areas,” stretching from the coastal regions where the Alawite community is concentrated, down to Damascus, even at the cost of dividing the country. Iran’s plan is to secure the main supply lines from Syria to its proxy Hezbollah, even if this means allowing ISIS to thrive in eastern Syria.
While the Doha meeting showed no progress on the Syria crisis, it highlighted a greater willingness of the participants to engage, something that a year ago would not have been possible. Concurrently, Hussein Amir Abdel Lahyam, an assistant to Iran’s foreign minister, announced last week that his country was working on restoring relations with the Gulf countries.
It will take a lot more than statements to find a solution to what is taking place in Syria. However, the current maneuvering of the various stakeholders underlines their growing awareness that hard-line positions have so far led nowhere and that compromise is very much needed on all sides.