Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal recently accused Russia of “supporting genocide” in Syria. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly said that Moscow will harm its Middle East interests if it keeps supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to support Assad, thus prompting a visit to the Kremlin by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief and the secretary-general of its National Security Council.
It is clear that it is not Moscow that changed, but Saudi Arabia. The Kremlin distributed a picture showing a smiling president receiving a smiling prince, who came to the “capital of communist atheism,” as they call it in Riyadh. Prince Bandar did not wear his elegant suit. Nor did he wear jeans and an open shirt as he did before the Iraq war when he visited his good friend George W. Bush, the man who destroyed Iraq. The Moscow visit had greater reverence. The Russian czar is not easily affected by charm or pressure.
Prince Bandar is not an ordinary man in Saudi Arabia today, and he may not be ordinary in the future either. In his book Inside the Kingdom, British author Robert Lacy reveals how Bandar, who spent 22 years as a diplomat in America, has completely mastered the art of knitting internal and external strategies behind closed doors and understanding major international transformations.
Like all Saudi Arabian leaders, Bandar wants to deal a blow to Hezbollah and weaken Iran. And they will do anything to accomplish that, including hitting President Assad’s regime.
But why did Saudi Arabia change its mind and decide to send Prince Bandar to a country that “supports the genocide in Syria”?
- To find the answer, first look for Iran. Some Gulf countries are genuinely concerned about a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. Despite Congress pressuring US President Barack Obama to extend the Iran sanctions, which have been extended, there is “flirting” going on between the two countries. Tehran has invited the Americans to attend Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration. And he might meet Obama on the sidelines of the next UN session. The P5+1 group is awaiting the formation of the new Iranian government, according to the foreign minister. Despite pressure from Israel and the pro-Israel lobby, Rouhani’s open-minded discourse has had positive echoes in Washington.
- Then look for the true US and European positions. There is information that Obama has officially informed the Russians that there will be no significant arming of the Syrian opposition for now, and that he wants to give the political solution a real opportunity. American officials have informed the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) leaders of this position. The French and the British are leaning in the same direction. So, Saudi Arabia felt that it was almost alone in trying to militarize and arm the opposition, especially since the new Qatari leadership might adopt a new position on the Syrian crisis. Saudi Arabia faced a choice: to reach an understanding with either Iran or Russia. Prince Bandar chose the least embarrassing path ... perhaps temporarily.
- Then look for the reason behind the international confusion on the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is currently leading the Gulf campaign against the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia has killed the Qatari strategy, which was built atop the Brotherhood’s shoulders after the so-called Arab Spring. So, it is natural for Saudi Arabia to encourage democratic, liberal, tribal and communist parties to grab some of the Brotherhood’s influence within the SNC. Riyadh, whose rule is based on Wahhabi Islamic law, no longer opposes a former “atheist” like Michel Kilo, who for months has been paving the way for that relationship by staunchly opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, the left and even the idea of a civil state. (See his articles in Asharq Alawsat). Some have even started to wonder whether Kilo is still an oppositionist.
- Then look for Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Turkey. It is hard to imagine that the relationship between the two is sound after their sharp disagreement on Egypt. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan considered what happened in Egypt to be a coup. In contrast, Saudi Arabia supported the coup and became one of its biggest financiers after it happened. Didn’t Saudi Arabia persuade the Salafists to support the Egyptian army and its commander?
- Then look for the military situation in Syria. Looking at the Syrian map reveals that the country is divided into three sections. One runs along the coastal road and includes Homs, Hama, Idlib, Tartous and Latakia and reaches Lebanon’s Bekaa. That section is in the regime’s hands. The second section is Damascus and most of its countryside. And the third section comprises most of the areas adjacent to Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Those areas are in the hands of either the armed opposition or the Kurds.
Except for Khan al-Asal, which was a painful blow to the Syrian army, the remaining areas are experiencing remarkable progress. There is information that the Syrian regime is continuing to fight and that it expects major military changes in the next phase, whereby at the beginning of 2014 the regime would have regained control of all the big cities and strategic areas, including Aleppo.
- Then look for what is happening in Egypt. Is it normal that European Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton is the one in charge of mediating a solution? Why have the Americans let go of their historic stronghold in Egypt? Is it to burn the European role, or is it because Obama is confused about the Egyptian situation and wants to put off the matter for a while?
- Then, finally, look for what America is doing about the Palestinian-Israeli settlement. Obama wants any kind of achievement there. The tunnels between Egypt and Gaza were destroyed to tighten the siege on Hamas. The Europeans put Hezbollah on their terrorism list. If Obama succeeds in pushing the Palestinians and the Israelis to start negotiating, then that by itself would be an important achievement for Obama for now. But it would also be a reflection of American powerlessness in achieving a breakthrough in Syria or Egypt, or perhaps an expression of despair.
In that context, Assad’s visit to Darya carried important messages. This vast area has seen fierce fighting. His visit there means that the army, which in the past few weeks has adopted a strategy of slowly recapturing the Damascus countryside, has completed the bulk of that mission away from media attention. There is information that the same thing is happening in other areas and that there will be major surprises before summer’s end.
Given these developments, it is natural for Saudi Arabia to search for exits. One of the exits used to be, and perhaps still is, a military victory for the Syrian opposition. Prince Bandar visited a number of Western countries to convince them to arm the opposition. He reassured his Western interlocutors that the Free Syrian Army and the opposition’s leadership are being restructured in a way that prevents weapons reaching extremists. But Western reports say otherwise. Prince Bandar was unable to convince the West of intensifying their arming effort. For example, France refused to deliver the opposition Mistral missiles. But Saudi Arabia still hopes to change the military equation. The Europeans and the Americans told Saudi Arabia that if a military victory is achieved then they would welcome it, but that they cannot deal with the repercussion of a defeat. The military option is still in effect, but other options are being considered.
One of those options is for Saudi Arabia to convince Moscow of a deal. But Putin seems firm. He openly declared that there will be no solution if the flow of arms continues. He complained about Saudi support for Chechnya. He warned about the danger of terrorism, which is spreading everywhere. He explained that Moscow will not accept any outside military intervention. And he pointed out that the US has moved closer to the Russian vision about a solution, but that the road is still long.
Saudi Arabia must pressure the opposition to facilitate the Geneva II conference.
It is significant for Putin to personally receive Bandar bin Sultan. Moscow wants the Saudi visitor to know that deals and compromises are possible, but not at any price. The departure of Assad is out of the question, unless this is what the Syrian people want. The negotiations will come first, then the interim government and then the elections. And after that, anything can be decided in due time.
Nothing suggests that the Russian position has softened. Damascus is unworried. Of course, the issues of Egypt and Palestine are normally discussed in such meetings. Bandar’s visit is in the interest of both Russia and Saudi Arabia. The visit allows Bandar to wave the Russian card in the Americans’ faces, and it allows Putin to claim that all the cards are in his hands.
The danger now lies in the fact that such visits usually precede significant developments. SNC head Ahmad al-Jarba and other oppositionists and armed groups, have clearly said that the Geneva II conference will not happen before the power balance is altered. He said that from Doha, two days after the opposition said that it is going to Geneva without conditions. There are preparations for military offensives like the one at Khan al-Asal. The Syrian regime realizes that going to Geneva before achieving a major breakthrough in the north or elsewhere would be meaningless. It seems that the war will go on for a while.
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