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8 Aug, 2013 19:07

Moscow ‘rejects’ Saudi ‘offer’ to drop Assad for rich arms deal

Moscow ‘rejects’ Saudi ‘offer’ to drop Assad for rich arms deal

Moscow has said “no” to Saudi Arabia’s alleged proposal of a rich arms deal and protection of Russia’s gas interests in the Middle East in exchange for abandoning Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to Arab and European diplomats.

The proposal of $15 billion in weapons contracts was allegedly made during the July 31 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and influential intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Reuters reported.

Neither Moscow nor Riyadh has officially commented on the agenda of the talks, but a Thursday AFP report revealed new details of the negotiations.   

According to an undisclosed European diplomat, Prince Bandar proposed the deal and told Putin that "whatever regime comes after" Assad will be "completely" in Riyadh’s hands. The Prince reportedly stated that if the deal was accepted, Saudi Arabia would not sign any contracts damaging Russian interests by allowing Gulf countries to transport its gas across Syria to Europe.

The terms included Moscow dropping its support of President Bashar Assad, as well as not opposing any future Security Council resolutions on Syria.

"President Putin listened politely to his interlocutor and let him know that his country would not change its strategy," a separate Arab diplomat told AFP.

Bandar bin Sultan then told Russian officials that the only option left in Syria is a military one – and that they should forget about the Geneva-2 international peace conference because the opposition would not attend, the source said. Efforts to bring about the conference – which has been put forth by the US and Moscow – have so far been fruitless, mainly because of the absence of unity within the opposition ranks.

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the presidential palace in Damascus, on February 7, 2012 (AFP Photo)

Russia and Saudi Arabia - which traditionally buys its military hardware from the US  – have had a massive arms contract frozen since 2008. Back then, the sides agreed that Moscow would supply a huge assortment of equipment, including 150 T-90 tanks and more than 150 attack helicopters, to the Gulf state.

According to sources within Russian arms exporters, the status of the deal has not changed following the talks. The insider added that Russia has not received any offers to purchase weapons from Saudi Arabia.

"We know nothing about such intentions of the Saudi side," a senior source in military-technical cooperation told RIA Novosti news agency.

Some Russian experts say Saudi Arabia acted as a US proxy in the alleged proposal, as it has been doing for the past two years of the Syrian conflict.

“Any direct involvement in the region by either the US or any former European colonial powers is perceived as an affront. But with the given arrangement, any initiatives by the influential, authoritarian regional super power (and Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly that) are taken for granted,” political analyst Igor Khokhlov told RT.

“The situation is nothing new,” he added. “Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s were being sponsored by the USA and Saudi Arabia in equal shares. But the Saudi role allowed the US to present the conflict as a war of liberation – not as a clash of two superpowers in the farthest reaches of the world.”

Others believe the media reports of a Saudi offer is nothing more than a hoax aimed at highlighting Russia’s stance on Syria in a negative way, adding that such a method is no way to “conduct diplomacy.”

“Clearly, this is stove-piping,” director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Vitaly Naumkin, told Interfax news agency. “Its purpose is either to influence the position of the Syrian authorities or, more likely, to discredit Russia. To sow doubt on the fact that Moscow has a serious and reasoned position on Syria, and to create the impression that Russia may change its point of view in exchange for Saudi promises.”

Naumkin reminded that similar attempts were made previously. There were reports in 2009 of that Barack Obama told then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that Washington would change its position on Iran if Moscow ended the halting of a US missile shield program in Eastern Europe.

The meeting between Putin and Bandar came amid tension between the two states over the conflict in Syria, with Russia accusing the Saudis of "financing and arming terrorists and extremist groups" fighting against Assad.