April 3, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 820

Rising Tensions between Saudi Arabia, Russia on Backdrop of Syrian Crisis

April 3, 2012 | By H. Varulkar*
Syria, Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 820


Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia have increased in recent months over the events in Syria, with the two countries taking opposite sides in the conflict. Saudi Arabia, alongside Qatar, has led the camp calling to oust the Assad regime and arm the Syrian opposition, whereas Russia, alongside China, has led the camp opposing any Arab or international attempt to condemn the Syrian regime, call for Assad's ouster, or initiate an intervention in the crisis. Russia claims that the crisis that must be resolved through internal dialogue between the Syrian regime and opposition, without any foreign interference. It should be noted that the Saudi-Russian clash is all the more conspicuous for the absence of the U.S. as a significant player in responding to the Syrian crisis.

Russian-Saudi tensions were heightened further by Russia and China's February 4, 2012 veto of a UN Security Council resolution calling for Assad to transfer power to his deputy and for the establishment of a national unity government. On February 22, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev telephoned Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, only to be told that Russia should have coordinated its moves with the Arabs before casting its veto in the Security Council, and that there was no longer any use in dialog between the two countries over the events in Syria.[1]

Another factor that increased the strain between the countries was a March 2 communiqué issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry accusing Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism in Syria,[2] following Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal's call, at the February 24 Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia, to arm the Syrian opposition.[3] A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry went so far as to announce his country's intent to refer the matter to the UN institutions responsible for combating terror. In response, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued an announcement harshly condemning Russia's claims that the kingdom supports terrorism, and countering that the Russian veto had "given Assad leave to continue his crimes against his people... and only history [will judge] who the terrorists are and who stands behind them."[4]

On March 10, a meeting of Arab foreign ministers was held at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo to discuss the crisis in Syria, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in attendance. Reports had it that the atmosphere at the meeting was very tense, and that the Saudi foreign minister assailed Russia, accusing it of giving the Syrian regime clearance to continue in its brutality against the Syrian people. It was also reported that Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem Aal Thani attacked Lavrov for his country's positions.[5] Nevertheless, the meeting concluded with bin Jassem and Lavrov announcing a five-point Arab-Russian agreement to deal with the Syrian crisis.[6]

The agreement initially seemed to mark a slight change in Saudi Arabia's position vis-à-vis Russia. Articles in the Saudi press expressed optimism, projecting that Russia would soon change its position on Syria.[7] It also seemed as though Lavrov were attempting, at least to some extent, to limit Russia's support for Assad and alter perceptions of Russia as his greatest defender. The Russian foreign minister began voicing reserved criticism of the Syrian regime, explaining that Assad had failed to implement reforms and follow Russia's advice in a timely fashion.[8] Several days later, Lavrov even said that Russia did not support the Syrian government and disagreed with many of its decisions.[9] He went on to say that the Syrian leadership had made "great mistakes that exacerbated the situation in the country." However, he clarified that Russia had not changed its position and did not accept Assad's resignation as a precondition to resolving the crisis.[10]

Rage in Saudi Arabia over Lavrov's Warnings against Establishment of Sunni Regime in Syria

On March 20, 2012, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Russia resurfaced following media reports that special Russian counterterrorism forces had arrived at the Syrian port of Tarsus.[11] These reports provoked suspicion and anger in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world at large.[12] Russia's Defense Ministry and foreign minister denied that the vessel was a battleship, and said that it carried fuel and that the troops aboard were only there to secure the vessel.[13]

Tensions between the countries peaked following a March 21 interview by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on Russian radio in which he expressed concern over "the strong pressure by some of the region's countries to establish a Sunni regime in Syria" after Assad's ouster.[14] These statements provoked fierce reactions in the Saudi press, with Saudi editors and columnists saying Lavrov had sided with the devil, and accusing him of defending and parroting the Assad regime, exacerbating sectarian tensions in the Middle East, siding with the Shi'ites, and joining the Iran-Syria-Iraq-Hizbullah camp against the region's Sunnis, while ignoring the fact that the latter were a majority in Syria.

On March 23, the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published an extensive article claiming that "Russia shoves its nose into the domestic and ethnic affairs of the region." The article cited denunciations of Lavrov's statements by senior officials from all the Arab countries.[15]

The Qatari press, it should be noted, also ran articles condemning Lavrov.[16] Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General 'Abd Al-Latif Al-Zayani likewise censured the statements.[17]

Following is an overview of the criticism of Russia that appeared in the Saudi press in the wake of Lavrov's statements:

I. Russia Has Joined the Iranian-Shi'ite Camp

One of the prominent claims leveled by Saudi editors and columnists against Russia following Lavrov's statements was that the country had joined the Shi'ite camp led by Iran, espoused the discourse of the Syrian regime, and taken a stance against the region's Sunnis.

Editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: There Is No Difference between Mullah Lavrov and the Iranian Mullahs

Tariq Alhomayed, editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, was among the first to attack Lavrov for his statements warning against the establishment of a Sunni regime in Syria. On March 22, 2012, in a scathingly critical article titled "Mullah Lavrov!", Alhomayed accused the Russian foreign minister of adopting the discourse of the Shi'ite camp and exacerbating sectarian tensions in the region. He claimed that there was no difference between a mullah in red, i.e., Lavrov, and the black-garbed Iranian mullah. The following are excerpts from his article, as published in the English edition of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat:[18]

"It is very strange that a foreign minister would issue such a statement, particularly the Russian foreign minister. This statement, or gaffe, was not made by Hassan Nasrallah or Nouri Al-Maliki or Muqtada Al-Sadr or even Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi or Bashar Al-Assad himself. Rather, it was made by a secular state that is not known for falling into sectarian quicksand. Particularly [shocking was] the language that 'Mullah' Lavrov used (and when we say 'Mullah' here, we mean one of the mullahs of Khomeinist Tehran)!...

"Over the past days, the Russian foreign minister has issued an excessive number of statements about the situation in Syria. However, these statements have been contradictory, with one criticizing Bashar Al-Assad and holding him accountable for inflaming the situation by reacting wrongly to [what] the Syrian people were doing, [and] another revealing that Russia wants to cooperate with the UN Security Council and other [forces in] the international community, and finally the latest statement, or gaffe... Issuing a statement [to the effect] that some countries in the region want to establish Sunni rule in Syria is not just dangerous, [it also reveals a] lack of the diplomatic judgment we would expect from a Russian foreign minister. Therefore, Lavrov's statements about Sunni rule is evidence of Russia's frustration with the Gulf Cooperation Council states – and particularly with Saudi Arabia – ignoring Lavrov's contradictory statements...

"Even if the Gulf States – in particular Saudi Arabia – have failed to sit down with Russia [to discuss the Syrian crisis], this does not explain this shameful statement about Sunni rule in Syria. This statement serves to fuel sectarianism, in an unprecedented manner, [and] it will also be difficult to erase this statement from the region's memory, on all levels, even if Moscow [eventually] secures Al-Assad's departure from Syria. In this case, what is the difference today between what [Syrian and Assad oppositionist] Sheikh ['Adnan] Al-'Arour is saying about the Al-Assad regime, and what Lavrov said about the Sunnis? Is Moscow paying attention to this?

"What is certain is that, even if Russia [has] become aware of this, the damage – which is significant – has already been done, because it has become clear that there is no difference between the mullah dressed in red [in Russia, i.e., Lavrov] and the mullah dressed in black in Iran... [Both] are pouring oil on fire in a region that is surrounded by dynamite! Unfortunately, this is precisely what Mullah Lavrov has done."[19]

Saudi Columnist: Lavrov Has Pitted Russia against the Sunni Muslim World

Mashari Al-Dhaidi, columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote similarly: "It is clear that Lavrov has fully adopted the version of [Bashar Al-]Assad and the Mullahs of Tehran... and has put his country in conflict with the Islamic world and its Sunni majority. He fell [precisely] into the trap he wished to avoid, [namely] into the trenches of sectarian incitement... Will Bashar [Al-Assad] be the one to spread sectarian moderateness, or is he the one who has nurtured [sectarianism] in his despicable way, along with the Mullahs of Iran?!... Russia's perception of the Syrian crisis raises questions regarding the superficiality of its policy, and regarding the feebleness of the West, which is aligning itself with the Russians...[20]

II. Russia Is Ignoring Syria's Sunni Majority

Another claim raised in the Saudi articles was that Lavrov, and by extension Russia, had ignored the fact that the Sunnis constitute a demographic majority in Syria.

Lavrov Has Adopted Assad's Narrative

Writing in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, 'Abdallah bin Bijad Al-'Otaibi said: "Russia is still demonstrating an increasingly bullish stance in its defense of the organized killing machine in Syria. It is still maintaining the same policy it adopted at the outset of the crisis: limitless diplomatic support for Assad and his regime in all international circles, alongside logistic support on the ground, including arming and training the regime's [troops] and military and security staff. The novelty in Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's discourse is what he said about the sectarianism in Syria, and the fact that has adopted the discourse of the Assad regime [itself], which is still trying to prove that it is [serving as] a defense barrier against sectarian violence between all the strata of the Syrian people. And all the while, Lavrov is ignoring the fact that, each day, the Assad regime kills dozens of its opponents from different sects...

"[Lavrov] lost his neutrality when... he expressed concern over the establishment of a Sunni regime in Syria while forgetting that the Sunnis... form the majority in Syria, and that they are ruled by an Alawite minority working to garner support of one sect [i.e., for the Alawites] against all the others...

"Lavrov's sectarian [statements] are in line with the policy of the Assad regime, which, from the outset of the crisis and to this day, has tried to turn the crisis into a destructive sectarian conflict. When Lavrov says that some countries in the region are supporting the Sunnis in Syria, he forgets... that the blood spilled in Syria is [the blood of] all the sects..."[21]

Al-Riyadh Editor: Syria's Sunni Majority Peacefully Coexists with the Other Sects

Similarly, Yousuf Al-Kuwailit, editor of the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, asked whether Lavrov was even aware that Sunnis were the majority in Syria, and claimed that he had sided with the devil: "Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov wants to play the devil's advocate in the conflict between the Syrian government and people. [In seeking] a resolution [to the Syrian crisis], he spoke [only] of dialogue [between the Regime and the opposition], and rejected any Security Council [resolution] calling for Assad's resignation...

"The Russian minister [expressed concern] that a regime change [in Syria] would bring the Sunnis to power and endanger the Christians and the other minorities. We don't know if he is aware of Syria's demographic makeup, of the [fact that] the Sunnis are the majority, and that they live in peace with the [other] ethnic and national groups – even after the [demise] of French colonialism, which adopted a policy of separating Lebanon, with its Christian majority, [from Syria] and encouraged the 'Alawites to establish their country in the north. The Sunnis were a [shining] example of moderation and coexistence, until [Hafez Al-]Assad came to power with the famous [Ba'th] coup, changing the character of the army and of the influential powers in Syria by restricting them to [members of] his sect alone [i.e., the 'Alawites].

"Marginalizing the [Sunni] Islamic stream, which constitutes a majority [in Syria], and frightening [others] about it, is [just] what Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hizbullah promote. These countries, and [other] elements that relay on them for their strength, fear that the Sunnis in Syria will play a significant role and also [influence] Lebanon and Iraq...

"[Syria's] revolution let loose the emotions of the Syrian people – and neither Russia nor the elements which share its aims will determine the fate of [this revolution]. It was 40 years of suffering under the regime of the ['Alawite] sect that led all the [Syrian] sects to explode in fury against the regime. The word-games and declarations [of the Russian officials], and their belief that they are defending freedom and honoring international law, have all collapsed in the face of the many [incidents] in which they violated [international] law, including in Syria: murdering the freedom of an entire people for the sake of a few thousand, whom they are arming and assisting, and even taking part in their war..."[22]

III. Russian Minority Rule in Chechnya akin to 'Alawite Minority Rule over a Sunni Majority

Some writes claimed that it was no surprise that Russia supported Assad's 'Alawite minority rule over a Sunni majority, considering that Russia itself rules over and oppresses a Muslim majority in Chechnya and the Caucasus. Some also claimed that Russia employed the same tactics as Assad in oppressing and murdering the minorities under its rule.

Jasser 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Jasser, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, wrote: "...Lavrov has adopted the mentality of a spy or a gangster. He is denying 80% of the Syrian people the right to rule over their own land, and claiming that 'a Sunni regime in Syria will support terrorism in the region.' These are the same claims the Russians made in supporting the Serbian rule in Yugoslavia and in justifying the murder of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which only ended with NATO's military intervention. The Russians do not want the Muslims to rule their own countries and to break free of the minority governments that sustain themselves through killing and oppression – as the Russians themselves do in Chechnya and the Caucasus, where the Muslim majority is subject to a Russian minority that rules it with fire and the force of arms..."[23]

Salman Al-Dosari wrote similarly in the Saudi daily Al-Iqtisadiyya: "The Russian foreign minister recently uncovered the [reason] behind his country's stance on the Syrian revolution by publicly announcing [this reason]... Without shame, the Russian bear declared that sectarianism was the primary factor motivating Russia's unprecedented stance, [manifest] in its alliance with the Assad regime. [Russia's] ultimate goal is to preserve the 'Alawite regime [and to prevent] the rise of a Sunni regime, even if the price is the death of over 10,000 Syrians thus far – and that number may double in the coming days. Sergey Lavrov cannot have forgotten how Moscow oppressed the religious minorities in Chechnya and the Caucasus, [where] it killed and exiled hundreds of thousands [of people] over several decades. And now he comes to lecture [us] on his concern [for] Syria's minorities..."[24]

IV. Russia's Stance Will Ultimately Do It Harm

Some writers cautioned that that Russia's stance, which exacerbates sectarian tensions in the region, would ultimately do it harm and undermine its status. They warned Russia against a firm Arab reaction to its position, and a few even threatened that the fire of the Syrian crisis would reach Russia's own doorstep.

Saudi Al-Watan: Lavrov's Statements May Be the Straw that Breaks Russia's Back

An editorial in the Saudi government daily Al-Watan stated: "[Lavrov's] statements exposed Russia's stance vis-à-vis Syria and its cooperation with Iran, [and suggested that it] is adopting a position in support of the Shi'ite countries. This is a serious development in the sphere of international policy... Russia should know that the Arabs' position in such circumstances will be firm and resolute, because the conflict [in the region] is political, not religious...

"Russia's purpose in these statements is to turn the matter into a sectarian conflict, like [the conflict] in Iraq, so as to win points in the international political game. [But] the lives of the Syrian people who are being killed daily should not be used as [bargaining chips] in a political dispute. Russia's declarations [may turn out to be] the straw that breaks its back in the region, and the back of all its [allies]."[25]

Qatari Columnist: Russia Is Helping Assad Stoke a Fire that Will Soon Reach Its Own Gates

Samir Al-Hajawi, columnist for the Qatari daily Al-Sharq, warned Russia that that flames it was stoking would ultimately spread to its own doorstep: "The Russian leadership always allies itself with [paragons of] political foolishness and inability to read the political map. This [Russian] leadership is addicted to alliances with the losers of the Arab world. It does not understand the first thing about the popular movements in the Arab [world]... The foolish Russian leadership... does not seem to know the rules of the game. This is the same foolishness that got it entangled in Afghanistan [and caused it] to lose its Soviet empire... just as it lost in Libya when it supported Al-Qadhafi... to the very end.

"Without a doubt, Russia will [also] lose in Syria, because it refuses to understand that the Assad regime, which it considers a 'red line,' will surely collapse if the Syrian people is determined to topple it. Russia has gained nothing in its support for [this regime] except the hatred of the Syrians, Arabs and Muslims, and the satisfaction of the Assad regime and of Iran, Hizbullah and the militias ruling Iraq. The Assad regime and Russia are playing the explosive card of sectarianism. Moscow, which has warned against the rule of the Sunni Arab majority in Syria, refuses to see that it is helping Assad stoke a fire that will surely reach its own gates – for it is not so distant from the source of the flames that spread from Afghanistan to Syria and [ultimately] to Chechnya..."[26]

V. Russia Fears that the Plague of Popular Revolutions Might Reach It

Al-Jazirah columnist Muhammad 'Abd Al-Latif Al-Sheikh wrote: "Russia's support for [the Assad] regime cannot be explained except by [concluding] that it fears the plague of popular revolutions. [It fears that this plague] might reach its own peoples, or the peoples in some of the neighboring countries that are allied with it, which have a Muslim majority and whose [regimes] are a copy – perhaps a slightly improved copy – of the Assad regime. Russia wanted Syria to be the front line of defense against the [wave of] revolutions that is advancing towards it at lightning speed..."[27]

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Iqtisadiyya (Saudi Arabia), February 22, 2012. Following the Russian veto, calls were heard in Saudi Arabia for a boycott of all Russian goods. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.794, "Following Russian-Chinese Veto in Security Council, Increasing Calls in Arab World to Boycott Russian, Chinese Goods," February 7, 2012, Following Russian-Chinese Veto in Security Council, Increasing Calls in Arab World to Boycott Russian, Chinese Goods.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 8, 2012;, March 14, 2012.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 25, 2012.

[4], March 14, 2012; Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 8, 2012. Similar statements were made by Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal at a joint press conference with his German counterpart, held in Riyadh on March 11. In addition, numerous articles in the Saudi government press claimed that it was Russia and not Saudi Arabia that had a history of supporting terrorism. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 12, 2012; Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), March 8-9, 2012; Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), March 9, 2012.

[5] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia); Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 11, 2012.

[6] The five agreed-upon points were: stopping all violence in Syria, regardless of its source; establishing a neutral oversight apparatus; opposing foreign intervention; allowing the immediate provision of humanitarian aid to all Syrians, and supporting UN special envoy Kofi Annan's mission to initiate dialogue between the regime and the opposition in accordance with the outline jointly approved by the UN and the Arab League. Al-Hayat (London), March 11, 2012.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 19, 11, 2012; Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 11, 2012.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 14, 2012.

[9] SANA (Syria), March 18, 2012.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 21, 2012.

[11], March 19, 2012; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 20, 2012.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 20, 2012; Al-Jarida (Kuwait), March 21, 2012; Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), March 26, 2012.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 20, 2012;, March 19, 2012.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 22, 2012.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 23, 2012. The Saudi English-language daily Saudi Gazette likewise published an article in which Saudi politicians and foreign policy experts condemned Lavrov's statements., March 25, 2012.

[16] For example Al-Sharq (Qatar), March 25-26, 2012.

[17] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), March 24, 2012.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 22, 2012. The original English translation has been lightly edited for clarity.

[19] On March 24, Alhomayed wrote another article attacking Lavrov, in which he called on Syria's minorities to ignore the "delusions" that the Russian foreign minister was selling them and to rally against the Assad regime. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 24, 2012. 'Ali Hussein Bakir, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Sharq, wrote in a similar vein in an article titled "Supreme Leader Ayatollah Lavrov!". He wrote that Lavrov's statements sounded like they came from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), March 29, 2012.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 23, 2012.

[21] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 24, 2012.

[22] Al-Riyadh (Syria), March 23, 2012.

[23] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), March 24, 2012.

[24] Al-Iqtisadiyya (Saudi Arabia), March 24, 2012.

[25] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 25, 2012.

[26] Al-Sharq (Qatar), March 25, 2012.

[27] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), March 27, 2012.

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