The Failed Saudi-Russian Talks: Desperate Diplomacy as Syria Implodes

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief reportedly offered Russian President Vladimir Putin a multibillion-dollar arms deal to curb Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime

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Loubna Mrie / REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes up a shooting position at the Seif El Dawla front in Aleppo, Syria, on Aug. 4, 2013

Correction appended: Aug. 12, 2013, 2:05 a.m. E.T.

You could call it the Hail Mary pass of diplomatic relations. In a desperate attempt to find some solution to the ongoing Syria crisis, now in its third year with no end in sight, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan reportedly offered Russian President Vladimir Putin a multibillion-dollar arms deal to curb Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad when they met in Moscow last week. The deal was rebuffed; on Friday the Kremlin responded to news accounts about the proposal with a terse rebuttal, telling Reuters that no deal had been discussed in detail. Earlier news accounts, including the one from Reuters, quoted unnamed Arab and Western diplomats describing a deal in which Saudi Arabia would buy some $15 billion worth of Russian weapons in addition to offering assurances that Gulf countries wouldn’t threaten Russia’s dominance of the European gas market in exchange for a commitment that Moscow would not block future U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria. The threat of a Russian veto has been the major obstacle to any U.N. actions in Syria.

But the idea that Russia could be turned from supporting Assad in exchange for a couple of arms deals and gas-distribution guarantees is laughable. “This is not a situation in which the Saudis can simply buy their way,” says Yezid Sayigh, a Syria scholar and senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center based in Beirut. The Russians aren’t supporting Syria simply to maintain a market for their prolific arms industry, nor do they fear Gulf competition in Europe. Russia’s biggest fear, not unlike that of the U.S., is of the Syrian state falling and leaving a dangerous vacuum in its wake. And Moscow believes the integrity of Assad’s regime is still the greatest guarantor against such chaos. Surely much more was discussed in the four-hour conversation between Putin and Prince Bandar than the mooted arms deal. But the fact that it was brought up at all, even if only in passing, indicates how intractable the situation has become.

Russia’s direct material interests in Syria are modest — an ally with a warm water port on the Mediterranean, a foothold in the Middle East. Neither of those warrants the diplomatic cover Russia has extended to Syria so far. Russia felt betrayed after it backed the U.N. resolution against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, only to see NATO military intervention a few months later. Syria, as then President Dmitri Medvedev told Russia Today last year, became a chance to draw a line in the sand. Russia, for its own internal political reasons, is allergic to the idea of regime change imposed by outsiders.

Even if Russia, for some reason, did suspend support for the Assad regime, it’s not entirely certain that it would have much of an impact. Iran has far more influence over Syria, and even with the more moderate Hassan Rouhani as its new President, Iran’s strategic interests in Syria — which it sees as its bulwark in the Arab world — preclude any shifts in that relationship.

Despite the sometimes heated rhetoric against Assad’s regime, it is unlikely that the U.S. or European countries will take any significant steps to forcibly back the Syrian rebels, points out Sayigh of the Carnegie center. The risks of backlash are simply too high. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey illustrated well the U.S.’s reservations about getting too involved in Syria in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. “We have learned from the past 10 years … that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state,” Dempsey wrote. “Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

The irony is that for all the outside parties currently dabbling in the Syrian crisis, only Iran has enough of a stake in its outcome to invest more in it, says Sayigh. “Syria’s curse is that it’s not important for outsiders to do much more than what they have already done.” So for all the hand-wringing and far-fetched solutions, don’t expect to see the Syrian conflict come to an end anytime soon. Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker summed international options up best when he compared the situation in Syria to a massive forest fire in a recent interview: “You can’t put them out. All you can do is contain them … Let them burn themselves out. That’s kind of like Syria. We can’t stop that war. What we can do, or should do, is everything possible that we can to keep it from spreading.” That, and prepare for the consequences of a drawn-out civil war.

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a Senate committee. It is the Armed Services Committee, not the Armed Forces Committee.