Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

Saudi Arabia and Russia Clash over Syria

By Chris Zambelis
November 18, 2015

The full repercussions of Russia’s growing involvement in the Syria conflict in the form of overt military action have yet to be realized. Until now, Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime, in concert with ongoing support furnished by Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraq, has proved critical to its survival in the face of an ever expansive insurgency.

Despite its embattled disposition, the Ba’athist regime remains without question the most powerful actor in Syria’s civil war. The conflict has come to be typified by a muddle of armed opposition factions represented by competing radical Islamist currents led by Daesh (“Islamic State”) and al-Qaeda’s Syrian-based franchise Jabhat al-Nusra and a host of other hardline Islamist militants that straddle the ideological divide between both camps. The far less impactful yet nevertheless notable cohort of insurgents associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its multiple iterations continue to solicit and receive moral and military support from the U.S. and other Western nations and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The impact of Russia’s direct intervention in the form of air strikes and other kinetic military operations in support of the Ba’athist regime is profound. While the debate surrounding Moscow’s strategic objectives in Syria remains subject to conjecture, there is little dispute over Russia’s potential to affect the conflict’s trajectory. At the same time, Russia’s elevated profile in Syria cannot be considered in a vacuum absent of the activities and pursuits of other foreign actors, including Saudi Arabia.

The intersecting conflicts of communities, ideologies, and interests that underlie Syria’s civil war have become party to an equally convoluted, multilayered proxy struggle that transcends the Middle East. In this regard, charting Russia’s interface with Saudi Arabia, a driving force behind the armed opposition to the Ba’athist regime, is critical to unpacking at least one facet of the Syrian imbroglio. With the October meeting between Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman al-Saud and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Sochi,  Russia and a public declaration by Saudi clergy affiliated with the political opposition in the kingdom calling on Muslims to wage violent jihad against Russia as the backdrop, the Russo-Saudi clash over Syria merits further examination.

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