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While Ukraine Burns, Syria Cools - Sapping the Bedrock of Shaky Nations

Politics / GeoPolitics Feb 21, 2014 - 12:38 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Bindar bin Sultan Replaced

Saudi Arabia has sidelined its veteran intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as leader of the kingdom's efforts to recruit, arm, fund and direct Syrian rebels. He was replaced last week by two other, and different Saudi princes, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, King Abdullah's son and head of the Saudi National Guard, and the likely key future decider on Syria in Riyadh, KSA's Interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef,

Former fighter pilot Prince Bandar's removal was claimed to be “due to health reasons”, but his hard-line stance on the Syrian war and KSA's role in it, has failed. Prince Nayef met with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Obama's Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, Lisa Monaco, February 12, ahead of President Barack Obama's trip to the kingdom. Prince Nayef has many times signaled his readiness to deal with the Russians, and possibly but not openly with Iran. The Middle Eastern news site Al-Monitor in early February said that bin Nayef “has led the fight inside the kingdom for the last decade against the al-Qaeda underground....He is also a major figure in the Saudi campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is a joint Saudi-Yemeni group”.

Al-Monitor said that Prince Nayef knows the danger of coddling jihadists – for one reason because Saudi jihadists almost assassinated him a few years ago. Al-Monitor went on to surmise that his Ministry of Interior discovered evidence of plotting by Saudi jihadists in Syria to return to KSA and carry out attacks inside the kingdom, similar to those carried out in 2004 to 2006 by Saudis returning from Afghanistan.

Mounting evidence suggests that the kingdom is losing interest in a war campaign ending in the total collapse of the Bashr al-Assad regime and the proclamation of an Islamic Republic. A negotiated settlement and hand-over of power to a credible civilian government is now the likely royal goal.

Saudi Arabia has been the largest state supporter of rebels fighting to overthrow the al-Assad regime. Its wider regional geopolitical goal of pushing Iran out of the Arabian peninsula and cutting Tehran's political power in the MENA region is becoming seen in Riyadh as difficult to attain, and able to powerfully backfire to the detriment of KSA. Prince Bandar, more than six months ago, acknowledged to European diplomats that his country's campaign against al-Assad had so far failed. He was quick to blame US lack of commitment to forceful western military intervention, but US-Russian realpolitik prevailed in a “no war policy” leaving Prince bin Sultan enraged and isolated.

After Barack Obama canceled proposed US-led airstrikes on the Syrian regime, American-Saudi relations sunk to their lowest level in decades, which also heavily weakened Prince Bandar's standing in Riyadh. His removal places the Syrian war dossier in the hands of princes who are said to be been among the most cautious among Riyadh's royal deciders about “aggressive and unlimited” support to jihadist rebels.

Backing Off and Out of Syria
US and European Syria concerns are clear. Total collapse of the al-Assad regime means the jihadists have won. While US nationals are few among foreign recruits fighting in Syria, this is not the case for EU28 nationals. The US and Europe want to see the moderate rebels they support fight the regime – and also oppose and oust radical fighters, especially the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams and the Jabhat al-Nusra movement. Increasingly, this results in turf war fighting among and between rebels on the ground in Syria.

What would happen if bin Sultan's hardline extremist stance continued has been a high level subject of concern in Saudi security circles. His attachment to symbols – such as equipping jihadist rebels with high tech antiaircraft missiles – backfired against him. He proposed Saudi transfer of late-model antiaircraft artillery and other heavy modern weapons to rebels, totally ignoring “what comes next” and the presence in insurgent ranks of al Qaeda-linked fighters who can get their hands on the arms. In any case, present Saudi official plans include supplying rebels with shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles that can bring down jets, as well as NATO-standard antitank and antibuilding infantry missile weapons.

Both Prince Mohammed and Prince Nayef are said by US media to be acutely aware of the dangers of letting these arms fall into the hands of radicals whose Web sites clearly say they intend to “sweep away all monarchic regimes in the Middle East” and install The Caliphate.

The present challenge for Saudi Arabia therefore dovetails closer to US and European demands. Ramp up support for the moderate opposition in Syria despite the collapse of peace talks in Geneva last month and at the same time, develop measures for containment inside Syria of jihadist movements. This is is an increasingly pressing goal of US and European diplomats, due to the growing and rational fear that Syrian insurgents can plot attacks against the West from camps in Syria, after al-Assad falls, and that foreign fighters now in Syria will become a significant threat when they return home to Europe, the Gulf and the U.S.

Sapping the Bedrock of Shaky Nations
The US has unwillingly and gradually expanded its involvement in Syria at the urging of bin Sultan, who persuaded the CIA to pay regular salaries to some fighters of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels. The program as revealed by US media including 'Wall Street Journal' says the CIA recruited an average 50 to 100 fighters each month in 2013, for training in a joint Saudi-Jordanian camp, and also according to US media, this program will be intensified, but was never accepted as anything but window-dressing by bin Sultan.

According to Washington's Capitol correspondents, such as Christopher Dickey, Bandar bin Sultan, over the years, earned himself a reputation for being able to lower and to raise global oil prices as required, to help or hinder US leaders from the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan era to the Bushes. Bin Sultan was  “thick with Dick Cheney” and so close to the George H.W. Bush clan that they simply called him “Bandar Bush.” His main problem was, according to Capitol insiders, that he intensely opposed Barack Obama's new isolationism.  Bandar let it be known that one of the biggest obstacles to his goals was President Barack Obama. The correspondents go on to say this personal animosity to Obama led to Bandar “buying an option” on Pakistani-made atomic weapons, for potential direct use against Tehran.

Nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia is a prospect that rings a lot of alarm bells,  far outside the MENA region. More so when “Bandar Bush” gave Washington correspondents what they thought were one-liner offhand comments  taken to be amazing stories about world-class politicians and potentates - but some of which, surprisingly, were true. Using nuclear weapons for “pre-emptive” attack on Tehran, or even Lebanon's Hezbollah, would certainly change the scene in the Middle East – but Bandar was always short on the details of what would come next.

Vaguely talking about “the Caliphate” also rang alarm bells, but bin Sultan can certainly be called true to his own words – seeking to destroy the old Middle East while claiming that religion could make up for the nations which disappear, in that way protecting and serving the line of Saudi rulers since King Abdulaziz, known as Ibn Saud founded the country in 1932. As Michael Herb explained in his 1999 book, “All in the Family – Absolutism, Revolution and Democracy in the Middle East”, ibn Saud never reigned undisputed in his own land but Saudi Arabia's ethnic uniformity and the iron rule of Wahabite ideology – and oil revenues - helped prevent it from shattering apart. 

Neither Iraq nor Syria have that golden combination, especially so in Syria's case. Bin Sultan's tinkering in both countries have generated massive blowback in the shape of war-torn countries that in reality no longer exist – but “what happens next” is unknown. Saudi Arabia's ceaseless quest for security and legitimity is a long-standing theme, but with current regional trends post-Arab Spring we have a powderkeg. Removing and replacing bin Sultan may help snuff the fuze, but this is very far from sure and certain.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2014 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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