In the back and forth about Syria, there is surprisingly little discussion about Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Even though Bandar apparently took over the Saudi covert account last year and has driven the Kingdom’s hard line against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. It’s also clear that Saudi Arabia has slipped the leash and is no longer a cooperative US ally. The general narrative is that the Saudis got disgusted and disillusioned by the Obama administration’s dithering in Egypt. Maybe it wasn’t just dithering. Maybe the Obama administration was consistently supportive of civilian rule and insufficiently sedulous in the attention it paid to the Egyptian army and its role in assuring the institutional continuity (ahem) and stability of Egyptian political life.
It is also possible that the Saudis finally decided that it would not try to paper over the disagreements between the US and the KSA over persistent US support for the Morsi regime, especially since the Saudi government was determined to overwhelm US attempts to control the Egyptian military through withholding the US aid package of $1.2 billion by “flooding the zone” with a promise of $12 billion from Riyadh. So a clean break was marked by a coup, a defiant massacre of America’s preferred political partners in Egypt, and orchestration of a vociferous and extremely public anti-US PR campaign that has made the Obama administration’s name mud in pro-coup activist circles.
My thoughts returned to Prince Bandar on the occasion of a piece on Kevin Drum’s blog about President Obama’s miserable Syrian options. In a previous post I speculated that the Syrian gas attack might have been a false flag attack designed to force the Obama administration to intervene in Syria.
At the time I wasn’t aware of the reporting on Prince Bandar’s extensive involvement in Saudi Arabia’s Syria project, so I coyly referred to the hypothetical visitor as “Prince B—.” But based on Mour Malas’ August 25 piece in the Wall Street Journal—including the revelation that Saudi Arabia had already been trying to push the Obama administration over the chemical weapons red line several months ago—we can certainly fill in the blanks and speculate about Prince Bandar’s possible role in a false flag attack:
That winter, the Saudis also started trying to convince Western governments that Mr. Assad had crossed what President Barack Obama a year ago called a “red line”: the use of chemical weapons. Arab diplomats say Saudi agents flew an injured Syrian to Britain, where tests showed sarin gas exposure. Prince Bandar’s spy service, which concluded in February that Mr. Assad was using chemical weapons, relayed evidence to the U.S., which reached a similar conclusion four months later. The Assad regime denies using such weapons.
According to Malas, Saudi Arabia has also been repeatedly telling the Obama administration its stature in the Middle East is toast unless it acts firmly on Syria. Connoisseurs of US Congressional diplomacy will also be pleased to know that Senator John McCain, who has been all over the airwaves pushing for a US response of regime-change dimensions and not a symbolic slap on the wrist, is hand-in-glove with Prince Bandar.
Anyway, as cited by Kevin Drum, Malas’ most recent piece fills in (boldface by Drum) some of the blanks, making the case that President Obama’s rather more genuine dithering on Syria resulted from the unwillingness to knock down the Assad regime until the U.S. and Syrian opposition moderates had gotten their act together and could field a plausible team to handle New Syria transition and governance.
The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.
…The administration’s view can also be seen in White House planning for limited airstrikes—now awaiting congressional review—to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons. Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power: “The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it,” a senior military officer said. The CIA declined to comment.
…Many rebel commanders say the aim of U.S. policy in Syria appears to be a prolonged stalemate that would buy the U.S. and its allies more time to empower moderates and choose whom to support…Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened, giving moderate rebel forces a chance to play a bigger role in Syria’s future. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been particularly outspoken with lawmakers about his concerns that weakening Mr. Assad too much could tip the scales in favor of al Qaeda-linked fighters.
“Slow and steady” is manifestly not the strategy that Prince Bandar prefers in Syria. Given the dysfunction of the Syrian overseas opposition—as opposed to the murderous efficiency of the distinctly non-democratic jihadis—one can’t really blame him. The Geneva peace talks, by the way—which embodied the US hopes of some kind of negotiated transition involving the Syrian opposition democratic goodniks—are not going ahead, thanks to the gas attack.
As the Russian media reported:
Earlier on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the timing of the chemical attack “suited” the opposition, “who obviously do not want to negotiate peacefully,” instead they want to “sabotage” the talks. “Why go to a conference if you believe that the regime’s infrastructure will all be destroyed anyway by allies, and then you can just march into Damascus unopposed, and take control?” said the official in Moscow.
Good question. Anyway, Prince Bandar has been very active on the Syrian brief. He arranged the high profile shipment of arms to the rebels out of Croatia and also—according to disputed but plausible reports—unsuccessfully cajoled/threatened Vladimir Putin to drop Assad by promising that Saudi Arabia could in return deliver a) support for Russia’s gas export ambitions and b) hold in check the Chechen rebels who otherwise might do awful, awful things to Putin’s Olympics in Sochi.
Inevitably, there are also mumblings linking Saudi Arabia to the supply of sarin gas to the rebels. Now, thanks to President Obama’s injudicious red line/chem munitions remark, he’s being forced to make a choice, to “get off the fence.” Well, maybe the choice has been made for him. Maybe he got pushed off the fence. By Prince Bandar.
I think we are creeping closer to confirmation of the hypothesis I’ve been advancing since November of last year: that Saudi Arabia had not only decided to push the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood out of the leadership of the Syrian opposition (something which has subsequently been confirmed and reconfirmed), but that the Saudi strategy for Syria involved regime collapse first, rejecting the strategy of cutting a deal with Assad to get him to the bargaining table after prolonged bleeding for some kind of negotiated capitulation and a democratic transition.
Anyway, in the proxy war for Syria it looks like we now have a debate between the rather conflicted but intensely risk-averse and regime-transition fixated Obama administration and Saudi Arabia + John McCain’s regime collapse advocacy. And everybody’s waiting for Israel—which is uncomfortable with a jihadi-led insurrection but probably feels that clout and initiative are slipping out of President Obama’s fingers—to get off its fence and either push for a strike, a big strike, or nothing at all.
Wonder how that will work out. In any case, if we’re talking about Syria, we need to talk about Prince Bandar.