Far from abandoning its support for the Assad regime, Moscow appears to be doubling down. According to numerous reports, Russia is establishing a base at an airfield near an Assad stronghold on the Mediterranean coast and has filed military overflight requests with neighboring countries. Analysts believe Russia may be preparing to deploy 1,000 or more military personnel to Syria and to carry out air operations in support of Assad forces. Syrian rebels already have reported seeing Russian aircraft over territory they control.
King Salman and his son have made some aggressive diplomatic initiatives. They’ve opened a broad dialogue with Russia, sending a large delegation (including several cabinet ministers) to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June. And Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met his Russian and U.S. counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and John F. Kerry, in early August in Doha, Qatar, for trilateral discussions on Syria.
Mohammed bin Salman’s most intriguing move on Syria was a meeting in Riyadh in late July with Ali Mamlouk, the top intelligence adviser to President Bashar al-Assad. At that meeting, apparently brokered by Russia, the young Saudi defense minister “floated the idea that Assad could stay in power if Iran would go,” according to an administration official. Any such offer to allow Assad’s survival in power would mark a sharp change in official Saudi policy, and a sign of the price Riyadh would pay to reduce Iranian influence in Damascus.
Having invited Russia to assist a Syrian political transition, the Saudis must now reckon with the consequences. Russia began moving military supplies into northern Syria last week, probably to prepare a base from which Russian planes could fly missions against the Islamic State and perhaps other extremist groups that oppose Assad. Russia has also been meeting quietly with some members of the Syrian opposition.