Saudi Arabia ‘determined’ to solve the Syria crisis, Russia’s foreign minister says

AMMAN, JORDAN—Saudi Arabia has assured Russia that it supports a gradual process of negotiating local ceasefires and setting up “de-escalation zones” in Syria, Russia’s foreign minister said Monday, a day after meeting with Saudi leaders.

Russia and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional foe, back Syria’s government, while Saudi Arabia supports Syrian rebels. Russia, Iran and Turkey, another rebel backer, have been sponsoring talks, known for their venue, the Kazakh capital of Astana, on local ceasefires and de-escalation zones. A new round starts later this week.

Asked Monday whether Saudi leaders support the Astana process, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters: “Yes, I think Saudi Arabia is determined to solve the Syria crisis.”

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He said that when the process began, Saudi leaders expressed support for it and said “they would co-operate in creating de-escalation zones and implementing other initiatives which are being developed in Astana.”

Lavrov spoke at a news conference after holding talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi. Later Monday, Lavrov held talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Earlier this summer, Jordan was involved in three-way talks with Russia and the U.S. on a ceasefire in southern Syria, an area that abuts the Western-backed kingdom.

Jordan has a vital interest in pacifying southern Syria. The Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year, triggered an exodus of refugees, including hundreds of thousands Syrians who found refuge in Jordan. Two years ago, the fighting forced the closure of Jordan’s last trade crossing with Syria.

Safadi said Monday that Jordanian-Russian co-operation is important, especially in southern Syria.

Local ceasefires have proven to be the most successful approach to mitigating multi-sided fighting in Syria, which has killed some 400,000 people and displaced half the country’s population since 2011, he said.

In a dig at the U.S., Lavrov defended his country’s military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying Russia, along with Iran and the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, are in Syria “based on a direct invitation from the legitimate Syrian authorities.”

He said that closer U.S.-Russian co-operation in fighting extremists in Syria failed because of an alleged failure by Washington to separate the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Fatah al-Sham Front, formerly al-Nusra Front, “from other opposition forces the Americans co-operated with.”