Although they are on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war, Russia and Saudi Arabia find themselves in similar positions. Both are presenting themselves as trying in earnest to rein in their proxies. Russia, wanting to again be considered a great power, has forced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to come to the negotiating table and perhaps can force him to make important compromises. The Saudis, wanting to be seen as reliable and essential U.S. allies in the region, claim to have organized the fragmented Syrian opposition into a moderate, cohesive body.
Moscow and Riyadh may indeed have enough leverage to rein in the warring parties, but neither has truly done so yet. Russia continues to support Assad and his offensives throughout Syria, and Saudi Arabia and its partners continue to back so-called moderate rebels that are fighting alongside extremist groups, including the Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate. Both countries are feigning restraint, yet neither is willing to put conditions on their support to their proxies. As long as this is the case, Assad and the opposition will never feel pressure to negotiate.
Russia’s narrative that it is best positioned to control Assad may indeed be true. It did pressure Assad to accept February’s cease-fire, which, though only partial, resulted in a real reduction of violence in parts of the country, and the regime’s participation in the Geneva talks in February was likely only made possible by Russian influence. Russia encouraged this narrative further when it announced the withdrawal of its troops from Syria in March 2016, just as Assad was making crucial gains in the northwest. Western diplomats and other observers saw this as an attempt by Moscow to put more pressure on the regime. Although Assad still relies on Iranian ground support, he is far more dependent on Russian air power, which gives Moscow tremendous leverage.