Newspaper article International New York Times

Saudis Press Putin to Abandon Assad ; Kingdom Uses Oil as Lever to Influence Russia's Economy and Diplomacy

Newspaper article International New York Times

Saudis Press Putin to Abandon Assad ; Kingdom Uses Oil as Lever to Influence Russia's Economy and Diplomacy

Article excerpt

Talks have centered on persuading Moscow to stop backing the Syrian president in return for moves to raise oil prices, which could help Russia's economy.

Saudi Arabia has been trying to pressure President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to abandon his support for President Bashar al- Assad of Syria, using its dominance of the global oil markets at a time when the Russian government is reeling from the effects of plummeting oil prices.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have had numerous discussions over the past several months that have yet to produce a significant breakthrough, according to American and Saudi officials. It is unclear how explicitly Saudi officials have linked oil to the issue of Syria during the talks, but Saudi officials say -- and they have told the United States -- that they think they have some leverage over Mr. Putin because of their ability to reduce the supply of oil and possibly drive up prices.

"If oil can serve to bring peace in Syria, I don't see how Saudi Arabia would back away from trying to reach a deal," a Saudi diplomat said. An array of diplomatic, intelligence and political officials from the United States and the Middle East spoke on the condition of anonymity to adhere to protocols of diplomacy.

Any weakening of Russian support for Mr. Assad could be one of the first signs that the recent tumult in the oil market is having an impact on global statecraft. Saudi officials have said publicly that the price of oil reflects only global supply and demand, and they have insisted that Saudi Arabia will not let geopolitics drive its economic agenda. But they believe that there could be ancillary diplomatic benefits to the country's current strategy of allowing oil prices to stay low -- including a chance to negotiate an exit for Mr. Assad.

Mr. Putin, however, has frequently demonstrated that he would rather accept economic hardship than buckle to outside pressures to change his policies. Sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries have not prompted Moscow to end its military involvement in Ukraine, and Mr. Putin has remained steadfast in his support for Mr. Assad, whom he sees as a bulwark in a region made increasingly volatile by Islamic extremism.

Syria was a major topic for a Saudi delegation that went to Moscow in November, according to an Obama administration official, who said that there had been a steady dialogue between the two countries over the past several months. It is unclear what effect the Jan. 23 death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might have on these discussions, which the Saudis have conducted in secret.

Russia has been one of the Syrian president's most steadfast supporters, selling military equipment to the government for years to bolster Mr. Assad's forces in their battle against rebel groups, including the Islamic State, and supplying everything from spare parts and specialty fuels to sniper training and helicopter maintenance.

With a fifth of the world's oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is the leading player in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and has great sway over any move by the cartel to raise prices by cutting production. Its refusal to support such steps despite dizzying price declines has prompted myriad theories about the Saudi royal family's agenda, and Saudi officials have hinted that the country is happy to let the low prices punish rival producers who use more expensive shale-fracking techniques.

"They have almost total leverage," said Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, who recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have offered economic enticements to Russian leaders in return for concessions on regional issues like Syria before, but never with oil prices so low. …

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