Russia woos sceptical Gulf Arab states over Syria intervention

Moscow’s desire for the UAE and others to join its alliance with Iran in Syria seems beyond the realm of possibilities. But that won't stop Russia from trying to make it happen.
Sheikh Mohammed, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, receives the then newly accredited Russian ambassador, Alexander Efimov, at Al Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi, on August 7, 2013. Wam
Sheikh Mohammed, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, receives the then newly accredited Russian ambassador, Alexander Efimov, at Al Mushrif Palace in Abu Dhabi, on August 7, 2013. Wam

In the wake of Moscow’s intervention in Syria, Russian diplomats in the Arabian Gulf have begun working to convince sceptical officials that rather than rescuing an enemy on the brink of defeat, the move will ultimately help to stabilise the region.

Many officials will not see the logic – after all, they will likely ask, won’t strengthening the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad only prolong the fighting, provide oxygen to ISIL and empower Iran?

At the Russian embassy in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, ambassador Alexander Efimov explained his government’s position, framing it not as a bid to prop up its last remaining regional ally, but as a proactive step to defeat ISIL where the US-led coalition has failed.

“We are not hiding the truth that about 2,000 people from Russia are fighting on the side of ISIL – if these people come back home what will happen?” said the ambassador, a veteran diplomat who previously served in Syria, Libya and Iraq – all Cold War allies of Moscow.

“Russia is obviously not the only country facing this issue. We have [a] common enemy and we should be [working] together, even if we have some different positions on some subjects.”

Russia’s desire for Gulf Arab countries to join its alliance with Iran in Syria seems beyond the realm of possibilities. But Mr Efimov insisted that Moscow was pushing Tehran to “play a positive role”, as well as urging Gulf Arab countries to unite with Russia in the fight against a common enemy.

Saudi Arabian officials in particular have said they believe ISIL can only be defeated if Mr Al Assad steps down, paving the way for a political transition and an end to war. Only then can the sides unite to fight ISIL.

Mr Efimov, meanwhile, said Russia’s position was the exact reverse – a position Western countries appear to be moving toward as the prospect of a collapse of state institutions in Syria drives fears that ISIL would fill the vacuum.

“Nowadays more and more countries are accepting the idea that Assad could stay at least for the transitional period and then it is the Syrian people who should decide their own future, for example through general elections,” the ambassador said.

“Anyway there should be peace and stability in the country first of all to commence any serious reforms.”

As such, unless Russia can move beyond framing the conflict as one between the regime and ISIL and put real pressure on Mr Al Assad to step down, its calls for Gulf Arab countries to support its own coalition will likely go unheeded.

tkhan@thenational.ae

Published: October 8, 2015 04:00 AM

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