July 27, 2013

CIA’s favorite Saudi prince is laying the groundwork for a post-Assad Syria


Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He’s not happy about the Arab Spring.
King Abdullah names Prince Bandar, director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, on top of his post as secretary-general of the National Security Council.


By Zvi Bar'el | Jul. 25, 2012 |

Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan fell in love with the United States when he was still an air force pilot and took aerobatics training on an American air base. The romance was renewed several years later when he was named the Saudi ambassador to Washington, a tenure that lasted 22 years. He was a regular guest of George H.W. Bush and later his son, and was the only ambassador guarded by the U.S. Secret Service.

Last week, King Abdullah named Bandar, 62, director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, on top of his post as secretary-general of the National Security Council, which he has held since 2005.

Bandar's appointment to the Saudis' most important security post is no coincidence. For one thing, he's very well connected to the kingdom's leaders. His wife Haifa was the daughter of King Faisal, who was assassinated in 1975. Her brother Turki al-Faisal once headed Saudi intelligence, and another brother, Mohammed al-Faisal, is one of the kingdom's richest men.

But it seems the main reason for his appointment now is that Saudi Arabia is preparing for the next stage in Syria, after President Bashar Assad leaves the political stage one way or another and Syria becomes a battleground for influence.

An intense campaign is under way over this inheritance, with the United States, European Union and Russia taking part. But the ramifications of Assad's fall on Iran and Hezbollah - and Iraq - are more important. And when Egypt is hobbling in its effort to establish its "Second Republic" and the Arab League is paralyzed, Saudi Arabia is left to draw up the Middle East's new map.

The view from D.C.

From Washington's perspective, Bandar's appointment is important news. Sure, his wife was investigated by Congress a decade ago about her connections to Al-Qaida activists. But Bandar is considered the CIA's man in Riyadh. He's not just a rugby fan and man-about-town - he's known as a can-do person who makes quick decisions and doesn't spare resources to achieve his objectives.

When there was a need to transfer money to the Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980s, Bandar dealt with the Saudi "grants" requested by the White House. He also arranged things when Saudi Arabia was asked to help fund the mujahideen's battles in Afghanistan against the Soviets.

Bandar is a member of the part of the royal family that opposes the revolutions in the Arab states; they see the Muslim Brotherhood's rise no less of a threat than Iran's influence in the region.

He helped King Abdullah (when the latter was still crown prince ) put together the Saudi peace plan - later the Arab Peace Initiative - to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he fashioned the Saudis' tough stance against Syria and Hezbollah after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A few years later, he suggested that the king change course and reconcile with Syria in an effort to cool relations between Damascus and Tehran.

From Bahrain to Tahrir Square

When the revolutions broke out, Bandar supported sending troops to the small kingdom of Bahrain next door to quell the Shi'ite revolt, which Saudi Arabia perceived as Iranian intervention in the Gulf states' affairs. Saudi Arabia also moved fast to support the new regime in Cairo, depositing more than $3 billion as a guarantee at the Egyptian central bank.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi knows well that this aid doesn't stem from Saudi Arabia's great love for the Tahrir revolution, let alone for the Muslim Brotherhood. But it's meant to block Iranian efforts to gain a foothold in Egypt. As a result, when Morsi was invited to Tehran for a conference of nonaligned nations, he stopped first in Riyadh so as not to give Iran the satisfaction of being the new Egyptian president's first host.

Saudi commentators say Bandar was the one behind the decision to give money to the Syrian rebels, and even to buy weapons for them. They say the Saudi demand that Assad step down is part of Bandar's strategy, which guides the kingdom far more than the positions of the 88-year-old king, whose health is failing.

The Saudi policy on Syria is being closely coordinated with the United States; both countries (like Israel ) want to separate Iran from its most important Arab base and slow the weapons flow to Hezbollah. These goals haven't eluded Iranian eyes, so Tehran is strengthening its position in Iraq and the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq. Moreover, according to reports from the Syrian opposition, Iran is making clandestine contacts with rebel representatives in Europe.

There's no way to know what Syria will look like after Assad, or which rebel faction it pays to invest in. Saudi Arabia, as is its wont, is investing in them all. Hopefully the United States will get the payoff.

How Saudi Arabia’s ‘Plan B’ became a game-changer in Syria

Friday, 12 April 2013

Saudi Arabia has always been renowned for its signature “silent treatment” on most affairs. Rarely confrontational by nature, and always extra-cautious, Saudi officials often repeat that the Kingdom’s policy is not to interfere in the affairs of other countries.

Rather, things usually happen behind closed doors in Saudi Arabia. Most of the time, issues are resolved through negotiations, and the Saudis usually have the means to make them fruitful. However, striking deals is not always attainable, and there have been instances in the past where Saudi Arabia had to resort to alternatives which secured a quicker remedy.

Recent unconfirmed reports suggest that Saudi patience with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been exhausted and estimates that there could be a possible end to the Syrian regime “within months.”
Over a series of interviews, the source, which has opted to remain anonymous, reveals that Saudi Arabia has managed to secure wide international – albeit unannounced - support for its initiative to end the Syrian crisis. The Saudi efforts are reportedly spearheaded by the Kingdom’s recently appointed intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Ever since, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been able to operate in a more effective manner and has enjoyed a significant upgrade in its arsenal; this is mostly due to better international coordination and management of the situation.

A proven track-record?

Despite a reputation for being laidback, inconsistent and ideologically restricted, Saudi Arabia has previously proven that it can be an extremely influential player when it chooses to intervene in global events.
Its role was paramount in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In addition, the Saudis have been an important – if not the most important – player in the global fight against terrorism falsely conducted in the name of Islam.

The common factor among those three examples of extraordinary Saudi ability is the fact that they all involved very close cooperation with the United States. More importantly, they all required very precise ‘casting’ on behalf of the Saudis to get the right man, or men, for the job.

When it came to the current Syrian crisis, the kingdom chose earlier on to break its silence. Since it became evident that the Assad regime had decided to make a bloody massacre of the peaceful protests that started in March 2011, Saudi Arabia has made its concerns vocal. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz recalled his ambassador from Damascus, and made very strong statements criticizing Assad.

When it became clear that - due to Iranian and Russian support - Assad was winning the war he is waging against his own people, the Saudis decided they needed a plan B.

However, when it came to logistical and military support for the Syrian opposition, most of the work was being done by the kingdom’s small neighbor Qatar. “The truth was that the Saudis and Qataris had reached an agreement, whereby Saudi Arabia outsources the logistical and military support tasks to Qatar, and confines itself to just paying the bills,” the source told Al Arabiya.

By March 2012, a year after the outbreak of the crisis, the Saudi-Qatari arrangement had achieved very little on the ground. The death toll stood at over 50,000, while hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians became displaced and sought refuge in neighboring countries
Both the Saudis and the Qataris understand that if the situation is not contained more rapidly, then not only will there be very few Syrians left to save, but Iran will be a major step closer to achieving regional hegemony.
The issue with Iran

Unlike how some orientalists prefer to analyze the situation, the efforts to curb Iranian enthusiasm for regional domination is not due to it being a Shiite state and Saudi Arabia being Sunni.

There is also a widely-believed thought that Saudi Arabia is now acting against Assad because the latter happens to hail from the Alawite minority, while Syria is predominantly Sunni. This is laughable because the same regime has been ruling Syria for 42 years, so anyone who actually believes this is insinuating that it took the Saudis four decades to find out the Assad family’s religious background.

The Saudis and the Assads go back a long way. However, the relation was much better when the late Hafez al-Assad was alive.
“Hafiz rarely said yes, but when he did say yes, he meant it. On the other hand, Bashar always says yes, but he never means it,” the Saudi source told Al Arabiya.

“Bashar is politically immature and a pathological liar. He had full Saudi support when he first assumed office, but the support quickly began to vaporize until none was left at all following the assassination of (former) Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005.”

Hariri was a moderate Sunni leader whom Saudi Arabia nurtured and supported. His rise to power came as a result of the Saudi-brokered Taif Accord of 1989, which effectively ended 15 years of Lebanese civil war. Syria was responsible for Lebanon’s security as per the Taif Accord, which is why upon the assassination, fingers were quickly pointed at Damascus and its ally, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Albeit a purely Shiite group, Hezbollah enjoyed wide support across various Lebanese sects – including Hariri’s – when it was regarded as a resistance movement fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Today, it is labeled a terrorist organization, and reportedly continues to receive weapons from Iran through Syria.

Upon the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah began consolidating power internally. It forced Lebanon into a war with Israel in 2006, and in 2008 it used its arsenal against its own people to occupy Beirut.

The crisis ended after a political agreement was reached, but there is nothing to stop Hezbollah taking over Beirut (or attacking Israel) again. As such, the group continues to be a double-edged bargaining chip for both the Iranians and the Syrians.

Just this week, Bahraini lawmakers voted to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The group, along with Iran, have been accused of stirring trouble and promoting sectarian strife between the Sunni and Shiite populations of Bahrain.
As such, it could be argued that the true face of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation is not a Sunni-Shiite one, but an Arab-Persian one, whereby the oil-rich successor to the Persian Empire is using its allies in Syria and Hezbollah to destabilize and control Arab nations. Needless to say, what did not help limit Iran’s regional ambitions was the miserable American failure in handling post-Saddam Iraq.

Following a swift and successful military operation that toppled the long-standing regime of Saddam Hussein in less than a month in 2003, the U.S. administration at the time adopted a series of extremely ill-advised strategies that did nothing except give Tehran more influence over its partly-Shiite neighbor.

With all of this in mind, when it became clear that - due to Iranian and Russian support - Assad was winning the war he is waging against his own people, the Saudis decided they needed a plan B.

B is for Bandar

Throughout 2012, there were many rumors that contrary to the previous arrangement of outsourcing logistics and military support to Qatar, the Saudis were involved in arming the Free Syrian Army, but nothing was ever officially confirmed. In fact, by the end of the year, some senior FSA members were actually predicting that due to a certain “game-changer,” Assad’s fall was only a few months away.

Many analysts argued that what helped change the situation was that the American elections were finally over, and the road was now clear for President Barack Obama to act without restraints. Others said it was likely due to a change in the hitherto extremely pro-Assad Russian position.

Whilst both those reasons were to a certain extent true, the Saudi factor did not emerge as a publically-known reality until the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos in January this year.

“I’m not in government, so I don’t have to be diplomatic. I assume we’re sending weapons, and if we’re not sending weapons, it would be a terrible mistake on our part,” said Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief himself and a former ambassador to both London and the United States as well.

Prince Turki’s statement came as part of a special panel on Syria, which was moderated by Al Arabiya News Channel at the WEF. Unsurprisingly, the statement was all over the international news wires within hours. Of course, it was significant enough that such a statement (albeit carefully worded) came from a senior figure in the Saudi royal family, but the timing of the statement was of particular importance as well.

Only six months prior to the WEF event in Davos, Prince Turki’s brother-in-law Prince Bandar bin Sultan was appointed head of the Saudi Intelligence Agency (al-Istikhbarat).

As in the United States - where the FBI focuses on domestic security, while the CIA is responsible for international intelligence-gathering - in Saudi Arabia, the Istikhbarat handles international threats and operations, whilst another body called the Mabaheth - whose head reports to the Ministry of Interior - handles domestic security.
Despite the fact that his “official” role has long been Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar – especially under the late King Fahd – has always served as his country’s international man of difficult tasks.
During the Lebanese civil war, he was a personal envoy of the late king, mediating between rivals and negotiating with the Syrians. As ambassador, he brokered what was at the time the largest U.S. arms deal in history, to deliver AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia despite Israeli opposition. Furthermore, he played a significant role in assisting the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Following his tenure as ambassador, he was appointed secretary general of the Saudi National Security Agency. Prince Bandar is believed to be in his mid-60s. In recent years, he was a victim of rumors that raised questions about his health, his loyalty to the Saudi throne and suggested that he was assassinated by the Syrians, all of which turned out to be untrue!
“When Syria started looking like it’s going to be mission impossible, the Saudis turned to Prince Bandar to manage the situation. Knowing him, he would never agree for anyone else to be behind the steering wheel, so Qatar was asked to take a back seat,” Al Arabiya’s source said.

“Prince Bandar toured the world, gathering support for his mission to end the crisis in Syria. Many countries in Asia and Europe offered their support, and began actively arming the FSA with lethal and advanced weapons, although they might deny this publically.”

The source confirmed recent stories in Western media that the weapons were being shipped to the FSA through Turkey and Jordan from countries such as Croatia. These weapons have been reaching FSA fighters since December 2012. “The Jordanians’ help has been crucial. They know that if the Syrian crisis is further prolonged, then the spillover across their border will be inevitable,” the source added.

According to unconfirmed reports, Jordan is supposed to be hosting an advanced joint-operation centre, where the situation is monitored. Throughout the crisis, and especially since the beginning of Plan B, the Americans have been indirectly supplying its allies with highly-sensitive and accurate information about the situation within Syria.
“Jordan has to play its cards very carefully. We’re in a very delicate situation, given our proximity to Syria. Bashar can cause trouble in Amman within hours. This is probably why we haven’t expelled the Syrian regime’s ambassador yet,” a veteran Jordanian journalist told Al Arabiya during a meeting in Amman in March.
So why has Plan B not worked so far? And what happened to the optimism, towards the end of 2012, that gave Assad only a few months before he would be taken down?

“There are a number of factors as to why we haven’t succeeded yet. Unfortunately, we (the opposition) are partly one of them,” a leading Syrian opposition figure told Al Arabiya in a private meeting in the Saudi city of Jeddah last month.
“Can you believe that (the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition) Sheikh Moaz (al-Khatib) declined to meet (American Secretary of State John) Kerry and senior U.S. military figures? What was he thinking? The Americans were ready to listen to us and to help us early on in the year. We’re still immature politically as an opposition group,” he added.
In the meantime, Al Arabiya sources say Assad’s fall is imminent. How long will it take? “A couple of months, and if it doesn’t happen within a couple of months, then I’m afraid it might be a very long time,” said the source with access to a prominent Saudi official.

*Faisal J. Abbas is the editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya English. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.

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