April 18, 2014
The sacking of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is public acknowledgement that the strategy for ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad has not only failed, but spawned a new generation of skilled Islamic terrorists.
The departure of Prince Bandar on Wednesday was announced in a brief statement from the royal palace of Saudi King Adbullah, the prince’s uncle. It is the end of a career that has been a major influence on relations with the United States and Washington’s approach to the Middle East for several decades.
For 22 years until 2005, Prince Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to Washington. He charmed and smarmed his way into close relations with both President Ronald Reagan and both presidents George Bush. Indeed, he became such a fixture in the retinues of those administrations that he was often called “Bandar Bush.”
Many saw him as a pernicious influence on these Republican administrations. Prince Bandar’s links to the Bush family seem to have been most beneficial in the hours after the September, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Although 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi citizens, Prince Bandar was able to persuade the Bush administration to allow scores of Saudis to leave the U.S., even when a ban on commercial flights remained in place.
Since his appointment as the Saudi spy chief in 2012, Prince Bandar has been Saudi Arabia’s lead strategist on supporting the Syrian rebels in their war to remove the Assad regime. However, Prince Bandar has been criticised for causing the fracturing of the rebel groups by channelling arms to al-Qaida-linked extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nursa.
But even with Saudi support and equally lavish gifts of arms and money from the Gulf State of Qatar, the rebels have failed to topple the Assad regime. More than that, much of the fighting now in Syria is between rebel groups squabbling over territory and ideology. Assad’s forces have taken full advantage of this chaos and are on a steady drive to regain control of cities and regions lost to the rebels since the civil war began in March, 2011.
In the major scheme of things, Washington is now more concerned with the talks with Tehran about containing Iran’s nuclear development program than with the civil war in Syria. The two are linked, and peace in Syria may well prove to be a by-product of a settlement between Washington and Tehran. Syria’s President Assad and his regime are Alwyte Muslims, a branch of the Shia sect of Islam, which is led by the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei in Tehran.
The Iranian government has been actively helping Assad with arms and battlefield assistance from members of its Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, usually called the Republican Guards Corps. Tehran has also been encouraging fighters from Hezbollah, the terrorist and political organization it supports in Lebanon, to join the Assad forces in Syria.
Clearly, détente with Iran is far more in Washington’s national interest than is the outcome of the civil war in Syria. But there are aspects of the Syrian war that alarm Washington.
The United States has become increasingly concerned about Prince Bandar’s arming of extremists in Syria, both domestic and jihadist fighters flooding in from elsewhere. Washington is also irate at Prince Bandar’s public criticism of the Barack Obama administration for failing to intervene militarily to depose Assad, as it did with NATO allies, at his request against the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011..
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is reported to have angrily told senior Saudi officials about Washington’s outrage at Prince Bandar’s actions on Syria. This outburst contributed, in part, to a frosty meeting at the end of March between President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah that led to predictions of a serious breech in Washington-Riyadh relations.
But the king’s resistance to pressure from Washington over Prince Bandar may have been only a natural desire not to be pushed around. There are indications that Prince Bandar’s career was already on the skids.
In February, at a meeting of security chiefs for countries involved with the Syrian civil war it was Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef who attended on behalf of the Saudi government, not Prince Bandar. Prince Mohammed has now been given the Syria file, to the relief of Washington, which has always found him a reliable partner.
For months, Prince Mohammed has led the criticism of Prince Bandar’s policies on a number of fronts. Of immediate domestic concern is the number of battle-hardened and radicalized young Saudis returning home from the fighting in Syria, but Prince Bandar’s regional policies are also criticised.
He is accused of failing to use his spy network effectively to curb Iran’s regional influence. Prince Bandar, say his critics, should have done more to stir up friction between Shia Muslims, represented by Iran, and the Sunni Islamic mainstream, led by Saudi Arabia.
There is anger too among the royal princes, who make up the Saudi government, at Prince Bandar’s active support and financing of the military coup in Egypt last year that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi. Part of this criticism is aimed at the vast amounts of money he spent promoting the military coup, but there is also quiet, but significant, support among the Saudi royal princes for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Prince Bandar is also accused of damaging relations with Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour, Yemen, and to have caused an even worse breech with the Gulf State of Qatar.
Qatar has been bent on upstaging Saudi Arabia in its enthusiasm to support the Syrian rebels. In 2011 the Doha government gave $100 million to the Syrian National Council, the rebel movement’s political umbrella group. It has been arranging the shipment of arms from Libya and several eastern European countries to various rebel groups, and flying them through Turkey.
Washington has been as alarmed that the Qatari aid is putting guns in the hands of terrorists as it has been at Prince Bandar’s activities. The U.S. has refused to supply shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, fearing they would end up in terrorists’ hands. But in recent days sophisticated American-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles have been seen in rebel videos. It is unclear if these weapons have been supplied with Washington’s knowledge or whether countries such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar have supplied them from their own stockpiles.
Prince Bandar is reported to have angrily threatened the Emir of Qatar, especially for his support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, a cousin organization to the one Prince Bandar deposed in Egypt. As a result, there has been a major rift between Doha and Riyadh, with Saudi Arabia withdrawing its ambassador.
Qatar, which has recent experience of Saudi intervention in its affairs, including attempts to replace the ruling emir, is continuing to support the Syrian rebels, but with not as much public chest thumping as previously.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
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