WASHINGTON — Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and former director-general of the Kingdom’s General Intelligence Directorate, said on Tuesday, Oct. 22, ‘There is definitely, from a public opinion point of view in the Kingdom, a high level of disappointment in the US government’s dealings, not just with Palestine, but equally with Syria.”
Speaking with Al-Monitor after delivering the luncheon keynote address at the annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference of the National Council on US-Arab Relations, Prince Turki said the Syrian opposition “should not be treated the way that the US has treated them.”
Prince Turki, a former ambassador to the United States and co-founder of the King Faisal Foundation, made the case for military support for the moderate Syrian opposition forces to “level the playing field” before “meaningful negotiations” can begin.
“So whether it is Assad continuing, or not continuing, it is the fighting that has to stop, and the only way, in my view, that you can stop the fighting is, as I said, to have a level playing field where the opposition not only can fend for itself and protect itself from the onslaught of the aircraft and artillery and missiles and the chemical weapons of the regime, but also from being challenged by these extremists who are coming from all over the place, and are trying to do something according to their view of the world, ” Prince Turki explained.
Asked about the pressure for Turkey to crack down on Islamists on its Syrian border, and what it means for Saudi Arabia’s approach to Syria, Prince Turki said that he understands the goal is “a unified opposition that can represent all of the Syrian community, and that these countries will coordinate with each other on helping that organization defend itself against the onslaught of the Assad killing machine. That is as far as I know, so whether it is what is being done [at] the Turkish border, the Jordanian border, other borders, that is something that I am not privy to, but that I read in the press, including in Al-Monitor.”
On Iran, Prince Turki said, “It is up to the Iranians to show that their sweet and sensible talk is going to be translated into action, “ adding, “when and if that happens then there is a chance for the situation between, not just the Kingdom and Iran, but also between Iran and the rest of the world to improve.”
Prince Turki added that the kingdom has been direct in its dealings with Iran about the issues of tension between the two countries, telling its officials, “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t deal with us and then go and support somebody who wants to overturn us. And this is what they’ve been doing in Lebanon, this is what they’ve been doing in Syria, this is what they’re doing in Bahrain, and what they’re doing in Iraq etc., so this is how we deal with Iran.”
Prince Turki explained Saudi Arabia’s consistent diplomatic approach to Iran and other issues, saying, “When something comes like denying the seat or not accepting the seat [at the US Security Council], everybody is surprised and taken aback and shocked. It doesn’t come from thin air. We never act impulsively. It’s a hallmark of Saudi character. We were patient for a long time, but when we need to take action, we take it quickly.”
Al-Monitor: The Communique of the London 11 today reads: “When the TGB is established, Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria.” Do you consider this a precondition for participation in Geneva II, and would the Kingdom now encourage the coalition’s participation in Geneva II? As I understood US Secretary of State John at the press conference today, he did not say that is a precondition for engaging in the Geneva II conference.
Prince Turki: As I read the kingdom’s position, and I am not speaking officially, I do not represent my government, we were the initiators, among others in the GCC, of the resolution that came out of the Arab League a year and a half ago practically that called for a transition government in Syria where members of the government would join with the opposition to form this transitional government and then they would oversee how that would work. This was then carried by the Arab League to the Security Council. If you remember, it was vetoed by Russia and China. We didn’t stop there, we carried it to the General Assembly, that same resolution and it passed with, I think, 135-some countries, clearly showing that there was a world consensus, that this was the right way to go in Syria.
Whether the opposition or whoever represents the government, I am not privy to the talks now or at the stage before, so my point of reference to Saudi Arabia’s position is this Arab League resolution and any other references to that that come out of Saudi officials. I would ask you to look to those as being representative of official positions.
Al-Monitor: Should it be a precondition in your opinion?
Prince Turki: I don’t think my view of that would help in one way or the other so I would refrain from describing whatever people want to say. But I think it would be important for the opposition to be represented at the talks.
Al-Monitor: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t seem to be leaving, and my guess is would reject that stipulation, and Russia and Iran also may have some issues with it. Is it not possible that a real consequence of this approach might be a short and stymied Geneva II, an increase in the role of radical forces such as ISIS and Nusra, the prolongation of the war and even an extension of Assad’s term under emergency powers?
Prince Turki: From the very beginning I personally, but others as well, were saying that in order for this conflict to end, and this is particularly coming after the attempt to push the Arab League plan through the security council and the Russians vetoed it, and the Chinese, that you have to level the playing field in order for there to [have] meaningful negotiations between the parties . That is one aspect. You also have to extend support to the Syrian opposition that is for an inclusive Syria where everybody is equally represented. That is the only way that you can strengthen these people in front of the challenge, not just of the Assad regime and its butchering machine, but also in the challenge coming from the terrorists. And the view was Syria is an open wound, and an open wound will inevitably collect the worst bacteria that you can imagine anywhere, especially with the porous borders. So you are bound to have extremists pouring in as long as the fighting continues.
So whether it is Assad continuing, or not continuing, it is the fighting that has to stop, and the only way, in my view that you can stop the fighting is, as I said, to have a level playing field, where the opposition, not only can fend for itself and protect itself from the onslaught of the aircraft and artillery and missiles and the chemical weapons of the regime, but also from being challenged by these extremists who are coming from all over the place, and are trying to do something according to their view of the world.
Al-Monitor: There seems to be pressure form the world community on Turkey, and even from some sectors within Turkey, about the radical groups which have increasingly taken place on the border. We have even seen this week that Turkey engaged the ISIS forces along these borders. Are you concerned or encouraged that Turkey might feel that it needs to close its borders, or become a zone of conflict between ISIS and Turkey’s forces? How would that affect your plans of engaging and supporting the opposition even more intensely?
Prince Turki: I would change the format of your question. You keep asking, how would you strategize, or think. I don’t, I am not a member, I am not doing the strategizing, the planning, whatever preparations are needed. And as I plainly told you before, there are many things that I am not privy to, particularly inter-governmental issues.
But I saw statements, a few months back, from all the countries of interest, including Turkey and Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and other countries of the area, that they want to have a unified opposition that can represent all of the Syrian community, and that these countries will coordinate with each other on helping that organization defend itself against the onslaught of the Assad killing machine. That is as far as I know, so whether it is what is being done on the Turkish border, the Jordanian border, other borders, that is something that I am not privy to, but that I read in the press, including in Al-Monitor.
Al-Monitor: We just heard Gen. Lloyd Austin, Commander of CENTCOM, talk about his concerns about the rise of ISIS and the Nusra front in particular.
Prince Turki: He mentioned Al-Nusra, in particular.
Al-Monitor: These groups have increased control on the ground, as we have seen. In your view, what steps is the kingdom taking or should it take to limit the role of these groups as you seek to strengthen the moderate opposition forces?
Prince Turki: What I know is what I read in the papers, that the kingdom is providing support to the opposition that has an inclusive view of Syria. And this is where I think the kingdom is putting all of its efforts, and not just by itself but urging others to do the same.
Al-Monitor: The Wall Street Journal reported today that the Saudi Arabian intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan told western diplomats about the displeasure with western policy. You made a strong speech today about your concerns about US policy toward Syria. Are you concerned at all that if the kingdom pursues this course of continuing to strengthen the moderate opposition, given the difficulty that the US has had in doing so, are you concerned about an estrangement from the US on this issue?
Prince Turki: I cannot speak on what The Wall Street Journal says about the kingdom and its relationship with America, you will have to ask officials for that. There is definitely, from a public opinion point of view in the kingdom, a high level of disappointment in the US government’s dealings, not just with Palestine, but equally with Syria, and the efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, the inclusive opposition.
They should not be treated the way that the US has treated them. Because they [the US keeps saying that we want to support this opposition, but all they give is night vision goggles and some bullet proof vests, and helmets perhaps, and shoes. As far as we read in the press, they haven’t shown any inclination and, as I quoted General Dempsey, saying that he is not going to give any lethal weapons to the opposition. How can you help the opposition if you don’t give it the means to defend itself, let alone the Syrian people? Because the Syrian people look upon the opposition to defend against the onslaught of the Scud missiles, chemical weapons, aircraft and the various artillery and the tanks that the regime has?
So, as I said then, public opinion in the kingdom, and I think in all of the Muslim world, is very much disappointed in the way that the United Sates has dealt with this issue, along with the Palestinian issue.
Al-Monitor: You stated in your speech that one of the rationales for the King and his policies in Syria is the concern about Iranian influence there. Do you feel that the kingdom may be dismissing the prospects of a thaw in relations with Iran under Rouhani too soon? Shouldn’t it be tested more?
Prince Turki: That was exactly what I said in my speech, and what I said was, King Abdullah congratulated Rouhani when he was elected President and expressed hope for cooperation. Rouhani himself has been very positive on the kingdom, so there is this rhetorical engagement between the two countries, but it is up to the Iranians to show that their sweet and sensible talk is going to be translated into action.
When and if that happens, then there is a chance for the situation between, not just the kingdom and Iran, but also between Iran and the rest of the world to improve.
I will give you an example. King Abdullah was the one who engineered, if you like, with then President Rafsanjani back in 1994 or 1995, the removal of any bad spirits between the kingdom and Iran and the renewal of diplomatic relations, which had been cut during Khomeini’s time because of the Iranian efforts to influence the pilgrimage demonstrations and at one point, to occupy the Great Mosque
So, the king also welcomed the election of Mohammad Khatami [as president of Iran in 1997]. And Khatami, if you remember, paid an official visit to the kingdom back in the late nineties and toured the kingdom. Rafsanjani himself, when he left the presidency, actually asked to spend one month in the kingdom, and he came and he toured ten cities [there], and you know had hopefully a nice time.
[Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, when he was elected [president in 2005], he came for the Islamic summit conference in 2005, in January, that was held at the call of King Abdullah. And King Abdullah talked to him about issues like nuclear proliferation, Iranian interference at that time in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Bahrain etc., the issue of the islands and so on. Alas, no visible signs that he [Ahmadinejad] did anything to improve those issues. And before Ahmadinejad left office, last year, in Ramadan, Holiest month of the year for Muslims, the King also called for another conference, Islamic conference, in Mecca where Ahmadinejad came, representing Iran. And the whole purpose of that conference was to improve relations between the Shia and the Sunni. And all the Islamic countries, 57 of them, agreed that there would be a center set up in the second holiest city, in Medina al-Munawarrah, to look into the issue of how we can improve relations between Sunni and Shia. I see by your expression that you may have not known about these things.
Well, these are the things I refer to when I said that people are not listening to us. There are things that we say and that we do that people ignore. And then, when something comes like denying the seat or not accepting the seat, everybody is surprised and taken aback and shocked. It doesn’t come from thin air. We never act impulsively. It’s a hallmark of Saudi character. We were patient for a long time, but when we need to take action, we take it quickly. So, these are the efforts that we were making with Iran. A quote by Prince Saud during Ahmadinejad’s term, this was I think going back to 2009 perhaps, we had a visit by the then foreign minister of Iran [Manouchehr Mottaki].
And in answer to a question about relations between Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud, in front of the minister, responded by saying we welcome improved relations with Iran, and we urge Iran, in its dealings with the Arab world, to deal with the representative governments of the Arab world, not the super government groups that foment trouble and mayhem of the Arab countries. And so, this is where the kingdom has been. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t deal with us and then go and support somebody who wants to overturn us. And this is what they’ve been doing in Lebanon, this is what they’ve been doing in Syria, this is what they’re doing in Bahrain, and what they’re doing in Iraq etc. so this is how we deal with Iran. Above board, across the table, in public and without any inhibitions: when we have views on how they conduct themselves, to tell them those views. Thank you very much.
Andrew Parasiliti is editor and CEO of Al-Monitor. He also serves on the board of directors of the US Friends of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He also served as a foreign policy adviser to Chuck Hagel when Hagel, now defense secretary, was a senator.