Russia, Saudi Arabia Remain Split Over Syria’s Assad, Back Talks

Russia and Saudi Arabia failed to bridge divisions over the future of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad even as they declared a readiness to back negotiations to end the conflict raging in his country.

“We believe that Bashar Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution to the Syrian crisis,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters after talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday. “We see no place for Assad in Syria’s future.”

Russia disagrees with Saudi Arabia on Assad and wants Syria’s future to be decided in discussions between the government and opposition groups, Lavrov said. The Syrian army is an essential force in the fight against Islamic State, which poses a threat to both Russia and Saudi Arabia, he said.

Russia and Iran, the main backers of Assad’s regime, are stepping up diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict that’s killed almost a quarter million people and left about 11 million as refugees or internally displaced. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, supports rebels seeking to bring down Assad.

The possible sale of Russian Iskander missiles to Saudi Arabia was discussed, al-Jubeir said. The Middle Eastern kingdom wants to buy the best weapons to ensure the safety of its people, he said.

Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed to encourage talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, Lavrov said. The crisis requires a political solution and opposition groups must unite around peace, al-Jubeir said.

Islamist Threat

All Syrian forces should be united to fight Islamic State, which will take power if Assad is removed by force, Lavrov said. Saudi Arabia won’t be part of any coalition against Islamic State if it includes the Syrian government, al-Jubeir said.

Preparations are being made for talks involving representatives of all Syrian political forces to try to resolve the four-year conflict, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Tuesday, according to the Tass news service. The main Syrian opposition, long distrustful of Russia because of its support for Assad, plans to visit Moscow on Thursday to meet Lavrov, Russia’s state-run Sputnik news service reported on Monday.

Russia’s push underscores conflicting strategies among global powers trying to confront Islamic State, whose expansion into swathes of Syria and Iraq has aggravated regional conflicts. The Kremlin is seeking a broad coalition to fight Islamic State, including Iraqi and Syrian government forces, and rejects continuing pressure from the U.S. and its allies for Assad’s ouster.