It is well documented the role Russia and Iran respectively played in protecting the Syrian regime diplomatically and militarily. Russia used its veto to great effect, contributing to the slow international response to the Syrian crisis.
For Russia, the matter was clear; NATO is not welcome on Russian borders and the US must not be allowed to install an ally in Syria. The vehemence with which Putin pursued this policy was clear when, in response to the EU forcing Ukraine to choose between remaining in the Russian sphere of influence or moving in with the EU via a loan package, Russia annexed Crimea despite international condemnation.
These Russian interests, amongst others, brought Iran and Russia into a mutually beneficial alliance that has ensured the survival of Assad’s regime despite the extreme pressure that it was placed under both domestically and internationally.
However the signing of the Iran Deal between the US and Iran has placed Russia in an awkward and very difficult position (the ‘P5 + 1’ term is misleading as sources revealed to the International Interest the relentless drive with which the US pursued the deal, much to the ire of the French).
Already under pressure from sanctions following the annexation of Crimea, Russia now faces a more severe threat from Iran which is now set to compete in markets that Russia sees as its own; namely Europe. Moreover, Iran has welcomed the opportunity to become a US ally and is set to benefit from this as USD 120 billion worth of assets become unfrozen, and as the US offers Iran a route to transport its resources to Europe via Egypt’s Suez Canal. This is the underlying reason for Russia’s continued interest in Egypt as it seeks to court the largest Arab nation and capitalise on Sisi’s frustration with the lack of open US support amid international criticism.
However Russian negotiations with the Arab states have stalled and become protracted. Indeed the frustration was clear from Sergei Lavrov’s off-the-mic blunder in which he described his Saudi counterparts as ‘morons’. Russia is aware that the Arabs quite simply do not trust them following the former’s persistent efforts to block all attempts to remove Assad from power. The anger of the Arabs towards Russia was clear in the last Arab League meeting in March when Marshall Sisi read out a letter from Putin addressed to the Arab nations, to which then-Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisel stated that Putin needed to address his own nation’s role in the conflict before addressing the Arabs.
Moreover, Russia is aware that the Arabs are holding out until the next US elections in the hope that a Republican government may well turn the tables on the changing status quo in the region return as a firm and staunch ally. The Gulf are unable to pursue an independent foreign policy without risking the vast assets that are concentrated in the West. Although Qatar has already begun diversifying its assets by investing in China, the other Gulf nations have been slow to follow suit. It follows therefore that displacing the US as the key ally carries more than simply political repercussions.
The crux of the matter is that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf simply do not trust the Russians. For all Obama’s faults as a president, there is a belief that the US remains a more reliable ally than the Russians ever will. This is reflected in King Salman’s absence from Russia’s MAKS-2015 air show last week which suggests that Saudi Arabia is keen not to provoke the US ahead of the King’s meeting with Obama today.
The problem for Putin is that even if talks between the US and Saudi Arabia breakdown, and even if a Republican is not voted into power in the next elections, the fault lines over Syria mean that even this ‘worst-case’ scenario will not guarantee the Arabs embracing Russia as an ally. In fact, many see gambling on US promises of protection as safer than relying on Putin. And having lost an ally in Iran which has welcomed the benefits a rapprochement with the US brings, Russia finds itself in an increasingly difficult position both politically and economically as it struggles to re-align its policy in the region and secure new allies.