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What Russia's Syria shift means for Moscow-Riyadh ties

Russia’s likely gradual and partial military withdrawal from Syria may minimize one of the irritants in the Russian-Saudi relationship, but it won’t address their fundamental differences.
Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoy attends a briefing in Moscow, Russia, March 18, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin - RTSB317

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s abrupt announcement that Moscow has achieved its principal military objectives in Syria and will begin to withdraw the “main part” of its forces raises many important questions about Russia’s future role in Syria and in the Middle East. One of the most significant is whether Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria could facilitate efforts to repair Moscow’s frayed relations with Saudi Arabia, a key regional power.

Of course, differences over Syria were not the first problem in Russian-Saudi relations. Moscow’s problems with Riyadh extend back to Saudi Arabia’s Cold War support for anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. Russia’s leaders suspected similar Saudi support for Chechnya’s separatist rebels, who became increasingly Islamist during the course of the first war in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. As a result, Moscow continues to view much of Saudi Arabia’s foreign assistance — whether official or private — with considerable skepticism.

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