MANAMA (Reuters) - Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian conflict will have the unintended consequences of drawing Russia into a quagmire and alienating Sunni Muslims across the region, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday.
Russia began air strikes a month ago, changing the balance of forces in the war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad and against rebel groups that include both jihadists and non-militants backed by the West, Turkey and Gulf countries.
“The quagmire will spread and deepen, drawing Russia further in. Russia will be seen as being in league with Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, alienating millions of Sunnis in Syria, the region and indeed in Russia itself,” Blinken told the Manama Dialogue regional security conference in Bahrain.
Syria’s civil war has aggravated sectarian tensions in the region, with Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and some Iraqi militias, all Shi’ite Muslim, backing Assad against rebel groups that are overwhelmingly Sunni.
“One month has passed since the Russian occupation. More than 1,400 are killed, all civilians, in parts of Syria. And these are areas which are outside the control of Daesh,” Syrian opposition leader Khaled Khoja said in Manama, using an Arabic name for Islamic State.
Talks in Vienna on Friday provided the first occasion on which Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s two main backers of opposing forces in Syria, put aside their bitter rivalry to discuss the possibility of a peaceful solution.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it had been a “remarkable achievement” to get the two countries to sit and talk, but Saudi Arabia said Russia and Iran had to agree on when and how Assad and foreign forces backing him should quit Syria.
“For us without al-Assad’s departure, there is no solution for the Syrian problems,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters. Asked by reporters when that should take place, he replied: “He should leave this afternoon. The sooner the better.”
He added that Riyadh was meanwhile considering intensifying support to moderate Syrian rebels by providing them with “more lethal weapons”, but gave no further details.
Blinken said Washington was adding $100 million in support to the Syrian opposition for basic services such as schooling, raising its total infusion to $500 million.
Blinken said there was a shared objective with Russia in defeating Islamic State, but it was important to get away from the idea that the only choice in Syria was between the ultra-hardline militant group and Assad.
He also took the region’s countries to task for their restrictive politics and lack of openness, saying it was the marginalization of moderate voices rather than the Arab Spring calls for freedom in 2011 that had caused instability.
“Where there was hope for more open, accountable, and democratic government in 2011, there is now - with few exceptions — more violence, fear, and chaos,” Blinken said.
He said U.S. engagement in the Middle East, while deeper than ever, was broad and went beyond the military aspect, and there could be no military solution to Syria’s war.
On Friday, the United States disclosed plans to station its first ground troops in Syria for the war against Islamic State.
Washington has sought to reassure Gulf allies that its reluctance to actively participate in military efforts to push Assad from power does not mean it is turning its back on the region or on its traditional Arab partners.
Delegates at the Manama conference, a rare regional talking shop on security, included ministers, diplomats and intelligence officials from countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Gulf Arab states as well as the United States and Britain. Gulf-based Russian diplomats were also present.
Saudi Foreign Minister Jubeir added that he hoped Iran would use its additional revenue after sanctions on it were lifted following its nuclear deal with world powers to develop its economy “rather than for aggressive policies”.
Additional reporting by Nazeeha Saeed in Manama; Writing by Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Miral Fahmy and Clelia Oziel