Russia's efforts to assemble a negotiation over a post-al Assad government in Syria may be gaining traction. The Syrian negotiation was on the agenda during a June 19 meeting between Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Konstantin Palace outside St. Petersburg. Following that meeting, Stratfor sources have reported, Syrian National Security Bureau chief Gen. Ali Mamluk made a quiet visit to Riyadh sometime in July and allegedly met with bin Salman.
It appears that Putin and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who has been Putin's point man on the Syrian negotiation, have pitched the idea of forging an anti-Islamic State alliance that would include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. By using the anti-Islamic State platform, Moscow hopes to facilitate a dialogue between the regime and its Sunni adversaries about a power-sharing agreement in Damascus. As expected, in his meeting with Mamluk in Riyadh, the Saudi crown prince allegedly demanded a high price for cooperating with the Syrian regime: a cutoff of Syria's ties with Iran. Of course, the Alawite regime is not about to break ties with its only real ally in the region. But it is still highly notable that a dialogue between the Syrian regime and Riyadh is underway.
It is still unclear whether this dialogue will progress far enough to yield a viable power-sharing arrangement between Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Qatar on the one hand and Syria and Iran on the other. Saudi Arabia, with its deep misgivings about Tehran's intentions, is more in favor of counterbalancing Iran than of reaching an understanding with the Shiite power. Turkey, meanwhile, is deepening its involvement in northern Syria; it may be more compelled to allow the rebellion to play out and further weaken Syrian government forces before seriously considering any kind of negotiation. And even if all the rebel sponsors could come to an understanding amongst themselves, it is another question altogether whether they could compel enough rebels to come to the negotiating table and countenance sharing power with the Alawites.
At this stage of the crisis, Russia and the United States have their own reasons for supporting a negotiation. The United States is giving Turkey tacit approval to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria, but Washington needs the fight in Syria to stay focused on defeating the Islamic State — not on toppling the Assad government. Russia is trying to maintain leverage in Syria by shoring up its relations with the Sunni stakeholders in the conflict while also using its existing relationship with Damascus, but Moscow also wants to use the Syrian issue to bargain with the United States. This will be the topic of discussion when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Doha on Aug. 3. The question remains whether Russia's shuttle diplomacy will be enough to assemble a viable negotiation.