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The Saudis floated the idea of higher oil prices to get Russia to stop supporting Assad in Syria

Shane Ferro and Michael B Kelley
putin saudis

Rob Griffith/Reuters Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during a plenary session at the G20 leaders summit in 2014. It looks as if Saudi Arabia might be using oil policy to pressure Russia into backing away from its support for the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. 

The New York Times reports (emphasis ours): 

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.

The idea here, it seems, is that the Saudis are offering to reduce oil production, which would drive up prices and therefore alleviate some of Russia's economic problems, if Russian President Vladamir Putin agrees to withdraw support for Bashar Assad in Syria.

"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 told The Times.

That the idea might be on the table is fascinating, if highly unlikely.

For one thing, the Saudis don't seem close to movement on the oil-production front. Saudi representatives have continually said  the country is not willing to cut production, even as the price of crude plummets. 

Also, Russia and Saudi Arabia are on polar opposite sides of the conflict.

Saudi Arabia has called for Assad's ouster from the beginning, and it has funded opposition groups to facilitate the Sunni-dominated revolution. Putin has been a staunch backer of Assad, whom Putin sees as a bulwark against Western meddling in the Middle East.

Over the course of the four-year Syrian conflict, Russia has provided the embattled Syrian regime with supplies including  guns, grenades,   tank partsfighter jetsadvanced anti-ship cruise missileslong-range air defense missilesmilitary officers as advisersdiplomatic cover , and  lots  of  cash .

And then there's the question of what Saudi production's role in setting prices is right now. The idea is that the Saudis are keeping prices low to force out other producers. Cutting production is a gamble for Saudi Arabia. It will probably push the price of crude higher, but what if the price doesn't go as high as the Saudis need it to? The answer: Saudi Arabia  loses some credibility as a market player and may not get what it wants out of the Russians.

In any case, the tactic would embolden Sunni Saudi Arabia's biggest rival and Assad's other big backer: Shia Iran.

"You are going to strengthen your enemy whether you like it or not, and the Iranians are not showing any flexibility here," Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center who is close to the Saudi royal family, told The Times.

That said, it's an interesting negotiating tactic — even if just floated — and definitely something to keep an eye on.

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