Three important developments bear out that the search for a Syrian peace process is steadily gaining ground. The most important of these, perhaps, has been the phone call by King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. The Kremlin readout underscores that Syria was the main topic of the conversation and the two sides took stock of the four-party talks (involving the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) in Vienna on October 23 “as well as subsequent contacts at various levels and in various formats”.
The reference could be to the conversations between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the one side with his US, Iranian and Egyptian counterparts on October 24, and the visit by the US Secretary of State John Kerry to Saudi Arabia on October 25.
This is the second time in six days that King Salman and Putin spoke with each other. (Putin had phoned the Saudi monarch on October 20 immediately after his meeting with the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Moscow.) At the very minimum, Riyadh and Moscow are manifestly keen to keep the line of communication open at the highest level and to exchange views, opinions and suggestions on the modalities of a Syrian peace process.
While the two sides are not on the same page, clearly, they are also not in an adversarial mood vis-à-vis each other. Indeed, the Russian diplomacy toward Saudi Arabia has been remarkably successful to reach this point. And the Saudi leadership is also signaling the importance of preserving the critical mass of mutual trust that seems to be developing in the relationship. Trust Putin to do everything he can to take King Salman with him on the odyssey ahead.
The Saudi side’s new comfort level with Russia might have got reflected in the somewhat mellowed remark by Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir on Sunday when he said, “Our solution is clear. We do not see a future for Syria with Bashar Al-Assad. We want a unified Syrian country that includes all sects. We also refuse any foreign intervention in Syria”. He added that “some progress” has been made towards ending the crisis in Syria, but “We still need more consultations… to reach this point”.
Significantly, a constant refrain in the recent Russian-Saudi exchanges has been the pointed reference to the Israel-Palestine relations. Notably, the Saudi side has been giving fulsome praise to Russia’s helpful role. During Monday’s conversation also, Putin and King Salman discussed the Middle East peace process.
The Kremlin readout said, “Both sides expressed concern over the continuing degradation in the situation between Israel and Palestine. The King of Saudi Arabia gave a high assessment to Russia’s traditionally active role in moving the peace process forward”.
A second development on Monday devolves upon the admission by the US state department spokesman on Monday that Washington’s top diplomat for the Middle East Anne Patterson traveled to Oman and held a number of meetings “including with representatives of the Houthis”. From Oman, Patterson traveled to Saudi Arabia. Patterson’s mission aimed to “reinforce our (US) view that there can only be a political solution to the conflict in Yemen and that all parties including the Houthi” should participate.
The US has gradually shifted toward playing a mediatory role in Yemen from one of being a belligerent participant in the Saudi-led military operations against the Houthis through the past several months. This shift might also find reflected in the fact that Yemen was “briefly discussed” at a meeting between Kerry and his Iranian counterpart in Geneva on Saturday (on the eve of Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia).
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is caught on the horns of a dilemma. A much bigger Saudi-Emirati military deployment will be needed to carry the fight into the Houthi heartland. The alternative is an unfriendly/hostile Houthi entity taking shape in north Yemen bordering Saudi Arabia. There seems little leeway to conceding the long-standing Houthi demand for an inclusive government in Yemen that also represents them, which of course will be a bitter pill for Riyadh to swallow. On the other hand, after all the bloodshed and horrific destruction caused by the Saudi-led military intervention, Riyadh cannot simply walk away from the debris, either.
It is too early to say whether – or, more appropriately, at what point – the crisis in Syria and the war in Yemen intersect in the Saudi regional policies. But the possibility of such a thing happening cannot be ruled out. It is symbolically important that Muscat was the venue for Patterson’s unpublicized meeting with the Houthis. It was Oman that Washington had hand-picked as the facilitator for the US’ direct talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, which began secretly in late 2013.
Indeed, Oman has been a neutral mediator between the GCC states and Iran. It never broke off the links with Iran even during the darkest period of the tensions between Iran and the Gulf monarchies. Which is why the arrival of the Foreign Minister of Oman Yusuf bin Alawi in Damascus on Monday and his meeting with President Assad cannot but raise eyebrows.
The Syrian news agency SANA reported that Assad and Alawi discussed “the ideas proposed at the regional and international levels to help resolve the crisis in Syria”. Without doubt, this development assumes significance against the backdrop of the last week’s intensifying diplomatic contacts relating to a Syrian peace process. What brief Alawi was carrying is not yet clear, but one fair possibility could be that he may have relayed some message from Washington to Assad.
When the US state department spokesman John Kirby was asked on Monday whether the Omani foreign minister carried any message from Washington to Assad, he refused to be drawn into a discussion and said evasively: “I’d leave this to the Omani government to speak to, and we don’t talk about the details of our diplomatic discussions”.
The Syrian foreign minister had visited Oman in August while the head of the Syrian opposition was known to have been to Muscat in early October. At the very least, Oman hopes to bridge the differences between Damascus and Tehran on one side and the GCC and the Syrian rebels on the other side. Being a friend of Iran while also a GCC member country (an Arab country with majority Ibadi Muslim population, which is one of the most tolerant sect toward both Sunnis and Shiites and other religions) and at the same time enjoying the confidence of the US, Oman’s entry into the Syrian crisis (and the Yemeni war) at this juncture cannot be merely coincidental.
The US state department spokesman Kirby said at the daily press briefing on Monday in Washington that further diplomatic discussions on ending the conflict in Syria could be expected as early as this Friday. He said that Kerry “believes that the momentum is moving in the right direction”, but Washington is keeping its fingers crossed whether Iran would participate in Friday’s meeting. Interestingly, Kirby described Iran as “a stakeholder in whatever process happens in the future (in Syria)” and, therefore, “at some point we know there’s going to have to be a dialogue with Iran about what happens in Syria”.
Having said that, reconciling the Saudi-Iranian rivalry presents itself as a formidable diplomatic challenge – as much as the divergent opinions regarding President Assad’s role in a Syria of the future. If the Saudis relent on Iran’s participation in the multi-party talks regarding Syria, an inflection point may have reached.