On August 3, 2015, a series of meetings took place in the Qatari capital Doha, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The meetings, which focused on the July 14, 2015 nuclear deal with Iran - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - and on the situations in Yemen and Libya, as well as on the Syria crisis and the status of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, culminated in a tripartite session with Lavrov, Kerry, and Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir. The discussions on the Syria crisis centered on the Russian initiative for a solution there.
In recent weeks, Russia has intensified its previously low-key efforts to arrive at a solution for the Syria crisis, drawing up an initiative whose main element is the establishment of a regional alliance to fight terrorism, that will include: the Syrian regime; its main rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; and Jordan. As part of Russia's efforts to promote this initiative, Russian President Vladimir Putin met, on June 20, 2015 in Russia, with Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who is third in line to the throne, and, on June 29, with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem. At a joint press conference with Al-Mu'allem, Putin said that he had received signals from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan that they would be willing to participate in the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS). Officials in the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have also repeatedly expressed willingness to cooperate with the Russian initiative.
It appears that the background to Russia's renewal and intensification of its efforts to form a regional alliance for fighting terrorism in Syria at this time is connected to international developments: the Russia-U.S. power struggle; the Iranian nuclear talks, which concluded with the JCPOA; and Saudi Arabia's rapprochement with Russia because of the Saudi disappointment with the Obama administration's foreign policy. To these factors are added developments on the ground, including ISIS's increasing danger to the countries in the region and to Russia itself, and the Syrian opposition's advance on the Syrian regime's stronghold on the Syrian coast along with the Kurdish advance in northwestern Syria - both of which endanger the Syrian regime.
In effect, the Russian initiative is another link in the chain of Russia's political efforts to rescue the Assad regime and to legitimize it in the eyes of the international community by claiming that it guarantees the elimination of ISIS - in this way, Russia, is effectively beating back regime opponents' demands that Assad be removed. Russia has used this tactic before; at the January 2014 Geneva II conference, it took the position of the Assad regime and called for prioritizing the fight against terrorism and for leaving the issue of Assad's fate for a later date.
Arab media outlets, both those close to the Assad regime and those close to Saudi Arabia, expressed high hopes for the tripartite Russian, U.S., and Saudi meeting, calling it "crucial" to the Syria crisis and to Assad's fate. This optimism came against a backdrop of numerous reports in the various Arab media, often conflicting, regarding the increasing proximity of the Saudi and Russian positions with regard to the Assad regime, and regarding growing Saudi flexibility on the issue. Thus, for example, the Saudi Al-Arabiya channel reported, citing "Russian diplomatic sources," that the Russian initiative had garnered Saudi and U.S. support, as well as support from the Assad regime, and that therefore the meeting would put into action the Russian initiative for establishing a regional anti-terror alliance that included the Syrian regime. The Lebanese Al-Akhbar daily, which is affiliated with the Syrian regime, reported that at Putin's June 20 meeting with Saudi Prince bin Salman in Russia, bin Salman was won over, "even if against his will," by Putin's claim that there was no option but to cooperate with the Syrian regime in fighting the terrorism that threatened Saudi Arabia as well. This understanding led to a recent Russia-brokered meeting in Riyadh between Syrian National Security Bureau director 'Ali Mamlouk and Saudi Prince bin Salman. While that meeting produced no results, as indicated by the reports, it was significant for having taken place at all. Another report, on a Syrian opposition website, stated that at the Putin-bin Salman meeting, Putin agreed that Assad would not run in the presidential election that would follow the interim period set by the 2012 Geneva I conference, but stressed that Assad would remain in power during that period and that the idea of the regional anti-ISIS alliance would be implemented. The U.K.-based UAE daily Al-Arab reported that the Russian-Saudi rapprochement was coming in light of Russia's disappointment in Iran for what it said was its destruction of the Syrian state institutions that Russia had attempted to preserve, and in light of Russia's understanding that the Gulf states were the only ones capable of guaranteeing Russia's interests in Syria in the future.
However, these hopes were dashed. The statements of the foreign ministers and the activity of the various elements during the Doha meetings showed no progress on the issue of the Syria crisis, and showed also that both sides were still adhering to their positions. The lack of a joint concluding statement at the end of the tripartite meeting also indicates the profound disagreement among the sides. Thus, the statement that the U.S. had issued several hours prior to the tripartite meeting, that the U.S. would defend the U.S.-trained Syrian opposition fighters against all elements, including the Syrian regime, was understood by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov as thwarting the war against the terrorists. With regard to Assad's fate, it was noted in the Joint Statement released by the U.S.-GCC foreign ministers meeting that "President Assad has lost all legitimacy" and "stressed the necessity of a new Syrian government that reflects the aspirations of the Syrian people, also seems to contradict the proposed Russian initiative.
At a joint press conference with his Qatari counterpart, Lavrov declared that the Geneva I conference had not stated that there must be regime change in Syria, but that the participants in the talks had at that time agreed that an interim period be declared, whose aspects would be determined by both the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition. He added that his country "is providing military and technical aid to the Syrian government in the struggle against the [ISIS] threat, and we have reason to believe that without this aid, the territory controlled by the terrorist entity would have been much greater."
Until recently, official Saudi elements, and the Saudi media, have refrained from expressing any position on, or even from mentioning, the Russian initiative. However, in recent days the Saudi press has published articles that could indicate the kingdom's policy on the matter. These articles have maintained that a political solution to the Syria crisis takes precedence over fighting ISIS - which contradicts the Russian initiative discussed at Doha.
The following are excerpts from articles in the Saudi press on the issue:
Saudi Al-Watan Daily To Russia: Agreement Can Be Reached On Removal Of Assad, Status Of The Regime In Syria's Future
The official Saudi daily Al-Watan wrote in an editorial: "... A solution to the Syrian crisis is the hub to solving the terror crisis. It is necessary to end the crisis in any way whatsoever in order to stop the bloodshed in Syria and restore security to the [country's] districts and cities. Possibly the best way is to return to the Geneva I agreement, that stipulates the necessity of establishing an agreed-upon transition government that will lead the country to secure shores.
"Although the Geneva I agreement did not explicitly determine that Bashar Al-Assad must be removed from power, this can be agreed upon, given the changes and circumstances, if the powers are interested in helping solve the problem - particularly Russia, that has more than once used its veto [power] in the [UN] Security Council in order to defend the Syrian regimeÔÇª
"As for the regime's status in Syria's future, this is another topic that must be agreed upon, either by modifying its structure or by its immediate or gradual removal. However, the most important thing is that the state should not be left without an internal leadership capable of managing things, preventing chaos, and cooperating in order to eradicate the terror organizations."
'Al-Riyadh' Daily: The Assad Regime's Continued Existence Will Make Waging War On ISIS More Difficult
In his August 3 editorial for the official Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, Ayman Al-Hamad wrote, under the title "Alliance Against ISIS - Or To Rescue Assad?": "In the past, Russia had thrown a lifeline to the Syrian regime, in the form of [Syria's] conceding its chemical weapons stockpile in order to prevent an American attack. Today, however, it is trying to prevent [the Syrian regime] from collapsing with a lifeline that actually cannot save it from falling and drowning - [even though] the regime has acknowledged its losses and the reduction of its influence in Syria.
"Russia is gradually joining the war on ISIS. A few weeks ago, Moscow, which to date has monitored from close up the international [anti-terrorism] coalition's operations that have been underway for the past two years against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, proposed an initiative whose actualization, according to the [Syrian] regime's foreign minister, Walid Al-Mu'allem, would be a miracle - [even though] he is almost always wrong.
"[In this initiative] Russia spoke about a coalition for a war on ISIS of which the Syrian regime would be part. We do not know what Russia is basing this initiative on, because ISIS is the Assad regime's pampered child. Indeed, the Syrian army and its militias are incessantly shelling cities where Syrian opposition forces are entrenched, and they do not flinch from killing civilians - while the ISIS areas are safe from attacks by the Syrian regime, with their explosive barrel [bombs]. We have rarely seen battles between the army of the [Syrian] regime and the ISIS terrorist organization.
"What Russia must do is find a diplomatic exit from the Syria crisis - even though the [June 30, 2012] Geneva I [Action Group for Syria Final Communiqu├® dealing with a political solution], that Moscow welcomed and that it had sponsored from the beginning, is today not accepted by the Syrian regime itself, which has decided to fight terrorism before anything [else] - and, according to Assad's definition, [this] 'terrorism' is the Syrian opposition forces... Therefore, it is better for Moscow to pressure the [Syrian] regime to carry out a political transition that will guarantee stability of what remains of the Syrian institutions, so they will serve as the foundation [for the next stage], thus preventing a governmental vacuum.
"Currently, it is not logical that we would hear from Russia about its intention to discuss forming an anti-ISIS coalition, because the countries of the region, and of the world, have vomited out the Syrian regime; there is no possibility of turning back the clock, after the sacrifices made by the Syrians and the rivers of blood shed with the barbarity that pained the conscience of the world. What can usefully be done now is to seek an urgent exit from the Syria crisis, by means of Geneva I, and to not bring this crisis into new mazes and [lengthy] corridors that will lead only to [the shedding of] more Syrian blood, and to the strengthening of ISIS and the extremist organizations - which themselves are a product of the foot-dragging and hesitation of the Americans and the international [community] since the crisis began, on the pretext of 'letting history run its course.'
"In light of today's developments, with Turkey's and the U.S.'s forceful entry into the war on ISIS, it should be said that the Syrian regime's continued existence will make the efforts [against] and the [ultimate] triumph over ISIS lacking. The continuation of the Syria crisis means the continuation of ISIS's existence..."
Former 'Al-Sharq Al-Awsat' Editor: Resolving Syrian Crisis - The Key To Resolving The Problem Of ISIS
Tariq Al-Homayed, former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that the Syria issue was the test of how serious Russia is about turning over a new leaf in its relations with the Gulf states: "The Russian foreign minister will hold a tripartite meeting with his Saudi and American counterparts in Qatar... today [August 3]. The meeting will discuss peace efforts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the anti-ISIS coalition, and Gulf stability. The most striking aspect of the Russian [foreign ministry] statement [that referred to the Qatar talks]is that it does not mention the nuclear agreement with Iran...
"The knottiest and most important problem in our region today - the Syria crisis - is [also] the key to a solution in the battle against ISIS, in ending Iran's influence in the region, and, above all, in stopping Assad's crimes. As long as the Syrian crisis is not dealt with, the problem of ISIS [will not be resolved], and the struggle against terrorism will not succeed - it will be just a waste of time, effort, and lives, and after ISIS, more groups [like] ISIS, but worse, will emerge.
"If Russia wants to turn over a new leaf [in its relations with] the Gulf, and play a more active role, the starting point, and the test of Russia's seriousness, must be Syria. The real solution for the struggle against terrorism, ending Iranian expansionism, and restoring the balance in Iraq lies in Syria, and nowhere else."
Senior Saudi Diplomat Turki Al-Faisal: The Political Solution In Syria Takes Precedence Over War On Terror
On July 30, 2015, the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published an article coauthored by former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the U.S. Turki Al-Faisal, former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League chairman 'Amr Moussa, former Jordanian foreign minister Abdulilah Khatib, and former Kuwaiti foreign minister Muhammad Al-Salem Al-Sabbah. The article, titled "Let the Syrians [Themselves] Decide Their Future," presents a new initiative for resolving the Syria crisis, the gist of which is holding a national Syrian conference in which all political streams and forces, from both the regime and the opposition, will participate, in order to reach understandings about Syria's future and on the form its future regime will take.
The article states: "The Syrian people... is rooted deep within human civilization. Its history, which goes back thousands of years, is rich with cultural achievements and achievements in governance, and, if we allow it to do so, it will find its own way to save itself. Modern Syrian history includes an example [of this] in which the Syrians take pride and which they consider an honorable chapter of their political history: the 1919-1920 Syrian National Congress following the liberation of Syria during World War I. [At that time,] the Syrians themselves, with no intervention, decided to convene the congress in order to formulate the shape of the state that they wanted, and the regime it would have. Though their plan did not succeed, because France occupied their country... this [congress] is nevertheless a model to be emulated in building a new and promising future for Syria.
"We, the coauthors of this article, sincerely believe that convening an inclusive national Syrian conference, in which representatives of all the political forces, parties, and social elements in Syria will participate - [including] representatives of civil society and of cities, villages and tribes [across the country], both regime loyalists and regime opponents, however many they are - will ensure that the Syrians arrive at an understanding on the form of government and constitution that they want and that will meet their aspirations. [This will be possible] as long as they are provided with the conditions necessary for success."
The authors go on to stress that foreign countries and elements must have no hand in the conference, neither in selecting participants nor in directing it, setting its agenda, running its sessions, or influencing its decisions. Once the Syrians reach an understanding regarding the future of their state, they said, it will be easier to wage the fight against the extremist terrorist organizations: "The propaganda that is being spread constantly by the Syrian regime [notes] the option of holding such a constituent conference, [but of doing so only] after it has successfully eliminated what it calls terrorism. But Syria could sink and disintegrate even more, and even disappear as a single united country, if the regime insists, impossibly, on turning back the clock - and it will never manage to do this. Therefore, if the regime [truly] wants what is good for Syria, it must agree to the option of the conference, in order to save the state and its people.
"It might be difficult to think about a proposal like this under the current conditions, and under the shadow of the ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra presence in large areas of Syria. But this could be the only way to [separate] the Syrian crisis from [the issue of] terrorism and the fight against it. This is because when the Syrians agree on the solution to their problem, the distinction [between the political crisis and the war on terror] will be clear to all the forces in the Syrian arena, both making it easier to combat terrorism and legitimizing [the war on terror] among all the forces in the region..."
'Al-Hayat' Editor: Diplomatic Compromise Is The Only Way Out Of The Current Hell
Against the backdrop of the previous articles, an article by Ghassan Charbel, editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, stood out in contrast. Charbel argued that any future diplomatic solution attained in Syria would have no victor or vanquished. All the parties involved in the Syrian fighting, he wrote, including the countries that had supported them, would have to make painful compromises and "drink from the poisoned chalice," because ISIS and the other terrorist organizations represented a greater danger to the countries supporting the Syrian opposition than to the Assad regime. He wrote:
"As of now, no one can claim victory in this difficult war [in Syria]. The maximum that each party can claim is half a victory and half a defeat. The cruelest thing is that no solution in Syria can provide any party with gains or guarantees that can balance out the losses that it incurred. No party will obtain in negotiations the maximum that it failed to obtain in the battle arena. It is possible that for this reason some prefer the disasters involved in the continuation of the war to the disappointments that will be involved in a diplomatic solution - even despite the knowledge that this is the only way out of the current hell.
"The Syrian opposition cannot claim victory. Obviously it has managed to undermine the regime that has ruled in the country for over five decades with tough security control, and compelled it to retreat from part of the Syrian lands. But it has not managed to completely uproot it. Additionally, at the start of the protests, the opposition demanded a united and democratic Syria - but the areas [that it has conquered], and which should presumably be under its control, are ruled by anti-democratic and anti-pluralist elements that are opposed by a wide range of Syrians, as well as by regional and international parties.
"[Likewise], the regime cannot claim victory. [It is true that] it boasted repeatedly [of its victory,] but it later retreated and withdrew into an area representing 20% of Syrian soil... The regime can view its very survival as half a victory, but it is undeniable that its weakening constitutes half a defeat.
"The states that supported the [Syrian] regime cannot claim victory [simply] because they prevented its removal. They can speak of half a victory, that guarantees the [regime's] representatives a seat around the [diplomatic] solution table, and guarantees their places in the framework of efforts to attain the solution. Nevertheless, these countries cannot deny that they [have suffered] half a defeat, manifested in their fighting against the majority [of the Syrian people] and by the fact that their ally [Assad] is [now] situated on only a fraction of the Syrian map. Neither can the elements that supported the opposition complete victory, because the regime that they dreamed of removing still exists, even if it is weakened and defeated. They cannot deny that ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and their ilk pose a greater danger to them than the Assad regime and its alliance with Iran...
"Any diplomatic solution in Syria will make each of the sides, inside and outside Syria, drink not insignificantly from the poisoned chalice. There is no solution in Syria that will give all the parties something to counterbalance the loss in life and other damage caused them. This is true for both the Sunnis and the 'Alawites... There is no solution that will give Iran a status similar to what it enjoyed before the outbreak of the fighting...
"I know that the expression 'half a victory and half a defeat' is very painful to someone who lost dear ones to the barrel [bombs] and other weapons, to those scattered in wretched refugee camps, to those waiting a long time in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and to those suffering the horror of the sunken [refugee] death ships. But this is the reality. No one won by a knockout. The one certain thing is that Syria itself was killed in the war - it is the biggest fatality."
Al-Watan (Syria), June 30, 2015.
 Dp-news.com, July 22-23, 2015.
 Elaph.com, August 2, 2015.
 Alarabiya.net, August 1, 2015
Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 31, 2015.
 Orient-news.net, August 3, 2015.
 Alarab.co.uk, August 1, 2015.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 4, 2015; State.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/08/245619.htm, August 3, 2015.
 Mid.ru, August 3, 2015.
 Al-Watan, (Saudi Arabia), August 4, 2015.
Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), August 3, 2015.
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 3, 2015.
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 30, 2015.
 Al-Hayat (London), August 3, 2015.