Saudis, vying to to be regional masters, prod USA to strike Syria
This posting has these items on the complex backstage manoeuvres to become the leading Arab power in the Middle East.
1) Washington Post: Kerry says Saudi Arabia has agreed to support military strike against Syria, Kerry counts the votes;
2) WSJ: A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works To Build Support to Topple Assad , a portait of the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, who leads the pack pressing the USA to strike Syria ;
3) Democracy Now: U.S.-Russian Tensions Heighten over Syria; Roots of Conflict Stem from NATO Bombing of Libya interview with WSJ security specialist who says Russia felt betrayed when the ‘protect Libyan people’ mission turned into regime change;
4) As Safir: Russian President, Saudi Spy Chief Discussed Syria, Egypt, Lebanese paper gets the leaked report of Prince Bandar’s offer of money to get Russia to drop Syria ;
Paris, September 8th, 2013: Secretary of State John Kerry talks with members of the Arab League Peace Initiative, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, centre, and PA foreign minister Riyad al Malki, right. Photo by Susan Walsh/ AP.
Kerry says Saudi Arabia has agreed to support military strike against Syria
Video: The Obama administration is distributing videos showing a chemical weapons attack in Syria to help convince Americans and Congress that a military intervention against the Syrian government is necessary, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
By Karen DeYoung, Washington Post
September 09, 2013
LONDON — The Obama administration picked up new international endorsements Sunday for a military strike against Syria as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied his government had used chemical weapons and warned the American people not to get involved in another Middle Eastern war.
After a meeting in Paris with Arab foreign ministers, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Saudi Arabia backed “the strike” that President Obama is weighing to punish Syria for the August chemical attack he has said left more than 1,400 dead. Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, speaking at a news conference with Kerry, called for foreign intervention “to protect the Syrian people.”
Qatar also agreed to join a statement, signed by 11 U.S. allies who attended last week’s Group of 20 summit in Russia, condemning the use of chemical weapons, holding Assad responsible for what they called a “horrific” chemical attack on Aug. 21 outside Damascus and calling for a “strong international response.”
The initial signatories were Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, Britain and Germany, which signed the day after the statement’s Friday release by the White House.
The statement was shepherded by the administration after the G-20 failed to agree on a common position. The G-20 nations that did not sign included Brazil, India and Indonesia, along with China and Russia, Assad’s principal arms supplier.
The statement has become the administration’s vehicle of choice to demonstrate shared international outrage as Obama fights an uphill battle for congressional authorization of the use of force against Assad. Kerry said other Arab countries had also agreed to sign it and would “make their own announcements in the next 24 hours.”
On Saturday, the 28-member European Union unanimously agreed to a similar statement. But neither document mentioned support for a military strike, and the E.U. said there should be no action against Syria until U.N. investigators who visited the site of the chemical attack issue their report later this month. The administration has said the U.N. report is irrelevant because U.S. intelligence has confirmed the attack and much of the world agrees.
Although administration officials have indicated they have wide allied backing for military intervention, the only other nations to publicly indicate support are Turkey and France, which said last week it wants to wait for the U.N. report. In Britain, Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for authorization to join the United States in a military strike.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been among the leading arms suppliers to the Syrian rebels and have long backed unspecified direct foreign intervention in Syria. Although neither has said whether it would participate in a U.S.-led military strike, Attiyah said Sunday that his government was considering how it could be of assistance. Qatar sent bombers and other resources to aid the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.
Speaking through an interpreter, Attiyah said that “the Syrian people over more than three years has been demanding or asking the international community to intervene.”
“Several parties who support the Syrian regime,” he said, had been intervening in that country since the war began with an uprising against the government in 2011. He was apparently referring to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.
The Paris meeting was originally scheduled as an opportunity for Kerry to brief the Arab League on progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Along with the Qatar and Saudi Arabia representatives, also attending were the foreign ministers of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority, as well as Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby.
Kerry, who flew to London late Sunday for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, repeatedly emphasized the need and desire for a political solution in Syria. But he spent the weekend trying to rally foreign support for a military strike while the administration continued making its case to Congress and the American people at home.
Assad sent his own message to those audiences, telling Charlie Rose of CBS News in a Damascus interview that “it had not been a good experience” for the American people “to get involved in the Middle East in wars and conflicts.” He added that “they should communicate to their Congress and to their leadership in Washington not to authorize a strike.”
Many of Assad’s comments, which were conveyed by Rose in a telephone report from Beirut on CBS’s “Face the Nation” ahead of their broadcast Monday, appeared designed to play on what opinion polls have shown is strong public opposition to U.S. intervention and indicated Assad is closely following U.S. media reports.
Rose said the Syrian president “denied that he had anything to do with the [chemical] attack. He denied that he knew there was a chemical attack. . . . He said ‘I can neither confirm or deny’” that Syria possesses chemical weapons.
“He suggested, as he has before, that perhaps the rebels had something to do” with the reported attack, Rose said, and he quoted the Syrian leader as saying there had been no evidence he had used chemical weapons against his people.
If the Obama administration had evidence, he said, Assad suggested “they should show that evidence and make their case.”
Assad said that his forces “were obviously as prepared as they could be for a strike,” Rose reported, and that he was “very, very concerned” that an American attack would tip the military balance of the war in the rebels’ favor.
Syria won some indirect support of its own Sunday as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in a Baghdad news conference with his Iranian counterpart that Iraq “will not be a base for any attack nor will it facilitateany such attack on Syria.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari (R) at the Baghdad airport September 8, 2013.
BBC- Goodwill to all Jews: Mohammad Javad Zarif told Tasnim news agency that he sent a tweet saying: “Happy Rosh Hashana”. In a Twitter exchange that followed, he also distanced himself from the Holocaust denials of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo by Saad Shalash/Reuters
Speaking during his first visit abroad since his appointment last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that U.S. intervention in Syria risks igniting a region-wide war.
“Those who are shortsighted and are beating the drums of war are starting a fire that will burn everyone,” Zarif said.
Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandarbin Sultan al-Saud manoeuvres behind the scenes to defeat the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies. He is director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency (Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah) and has formerly been Saudi ambassador to the US and an RAF pilot. Photo AP
A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works To Build Support to Topple Assad
By Adam Entous, Nour Malas and Margaret Coker, Wall Street Journal
August 25, 2013
Officials inside the Central Intelligence Agency knew that Saudi Arabia was serious about toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when the Saudi king named Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud to lead the effort.
They believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout.
Prince Bandar—for two decades one of the most influential deal makers in Washington as Saudi ambassador but who had largely disappeared from public view—is now reprising his role as a geopolitical operator. This time it is to advance the Saudi kingdom’s top foreign-policy goal, defeating Syrian President Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.
Prince Bandar has been jetting from covert command centers near the Syrian front lines to the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime, according to Arab, American and European officials.
Meanwhile, an influential protégé, current Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir, is leading a parallel campaign to coax Congress and a reluctant Obama administration to expand the U.S. role in Syria.
The conflict there has become a proxy war for Middle East factions, and Saudi Arabia’s efforts in Syria are just one sign of its broader effort to expand its regional influence. The Saudis also have been outspoken supporters of the Egyptian military in its drive to squelch the Muslim Brotherhood, backing that up with big chunks of cash.
The Saudi lobbying is part of the calculus as the U.S. weighs its options in the wake of a suspected chemical attack last week. Damascus suburbs allegedly targeted are at the heart of what the Saudis now call their “southern strategy” for strengthening rebels in towns east and south of the capital.
As part of that, intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Jordan and other allied states are working at a secret joint operations center in Jordan to train and arm handpicked Syrian rebels, according to current and former U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.
The CIA has put unspecified limits on its arming efforts. But the agency has been helping train rebels to better fight. Earlier this year it also began making salary payments to members of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, U.S. and Arab officials said. There are now more CIA personnel at the Jordan base than Saudi personnel, according to Arab diplomats.
Jordan denied any training or arming of Syrian rebels was taking place in the country, something Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad Momani said would be contrary to Jordan’s national interest and policy “to remain neutral” on Syria.
“There are no military bases in Jordan for the Syrian opposition…There are no bases of any sort. This is inconsistent with the Jordanian position that calls for a political solution to the Syrian crisis,” Mr. Momani said. He added that Jordanian King Abdullah has said firmly “Jordan will never be a base of training to anyone and will never be the launching base of any military action against Syria.”
For decades, wasta has been Prince Bandar’s calling card. The prince also wins U.S. officials’ trust in part because his background is, in its own way, so American. Though his father was a Saudi crown prince, his mother was a commoner, and he rose through the crowded royal ranks by force of will.
He attended U.S. Air Force officer training in Alabama, did graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University and worked his way into the good graces of several U.S. presidents. He has painted his personal airplane in Dallas Cowboy colors, and his son attended the pro-football draft this year at the table of owner Jerry Jones. Prince Bandar declined to be interviewed for this article.
Not everyone in the Obama administration is comfortable with the new U.S. partnership with the Saudis on Syria. Some officials said they fear it carries the same risk of spinning out of control as an earlier project in which Prince Bandar was involved—the 1980s CIA program of secretly financing the Contras in Nicaragua against a leftist government. The covert program led to criminal convictions for U.S. operatives and international rebukes.
“This has the potential to go badly,” one former official said, citing the risk weapons will end up in the hands of violent anti-Western Islamists.
Many top U.S. intelligence analysts also think the Syrian rebels are hopelessly outgunned by Assad allies Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, according to congressional officials and diplomats.
Prince Bandar and Mr. Jubeir have told the U.S. they don’t necessarily expect a victory by the Syrian rebels anytime soon, but they want to gradually tilt the battlefield in their favor, according to American officials who have met with them.
The Saudi plan is to steadily strengthen carefully selected groups of rebel fighters not in the radical Islamist camp, with the goal of someday seeing them in control in Damascus. Difficult as such an effort is proving to be, the Saudi thinking goes, not trying would risk a future in which Syria was dominated either by extremist Muslims from among the rebels or by Iran, Riyadh’s arch rival in the quest for regional dominance.
In Jordan, officials said they couldn’t yet tell whether the joint operation has reaped success in sifting moderate Syrian rebels from the extremists. Some said they couldn’t rule out the possibility some Saudi funds and arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar. U.S. officials said they couldn’t rule out that mistakes would be made.
Saudi King Abdullah, whose mother and two of whose wives hail from a cross-border tribe influential in Syria, tried for a decade to woo Mr. Assad away from Iran’s sway. He failed. The king’s attitude hardened in 2011 after the Assad regime, rebuffing the king’s personal advice on how to ease tension, cracked down brutally on political opponents and did so during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The king then decided to do whatever was needed to bring down Mr. Assad, American and Arab diplomats said.
Qatar also wanted the autocratic Assad regime out. While the Saudi princes initially were divided about how to proceed, some worrying that armed insurgents in Syria could later threaten Saudi stability, Qatar intervened quickly and gained influence with the rebels, according to Arab and American officials.
The Saudis stepped up rebel support in early 2012, at first by joining forces with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to fund what was then the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council. Saudi Arabia quickly soured on the effort because the Council wasn’t buying arms with the money, diplomats said, and began to push for directly arming the insurgents. It also began to work with Qatar through a command center in Turkey to buy and distribute arms.
But tensions grew over which rebels to supply. Both Saudi and American officials worried Qatar and Turkey were directing weapons to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Qatari and Turkish officials denied they favored certain rebel groups.
The Saudi king also was uncomfortable at sharing control with Qatar, a Persian Gulf rival. At a meeting to coordinate arms shipments last summer, Prince Bandar took a swipe at Qatar, a tiny nation with one of the region’s largest broadcasters.
Qatar is “nothing but 300 people…and a TV channel,” the Saudi prince yelled into a phone, according to a person familiar with the exchange. “That doesn’t make a country.” Saudi officials declined to comment on the exchange.
It marked the start of a new, more aggressive drive by Prince Bandar, and a Saudi shift to operate out of Jordan instead of Turkey. In July 2012, the Saudi king—his uncle—doubled the prince’s duties; already head of the national-security office, Prince Bandar took over the Saudi General Intelligence Agency as well.
“His appointment to head intelligence marked a new phase in Saudi politics,” said Nohad Machnouk, a Lebanese legislator with close ties to the Saudi leadership.
Some critics of Prince Bandar within the kingdom and in Washington described him as inclined to be impulsive and overoptimistic about what he can achieve. Defenders said his enthusiasm and drive were what made him the king’s go-to problem solver.
The Saudi ambassador, Mr. Jubeir, has long been courting members of Congress who could pressure the administration to get more involved in Syria. He found early support from Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
He also reached out to centrists, helping set up a rare one-on-one meeting for one of them, then-Sen. Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), with King Abdullah in Riyadh. Mr. Nelson said he told the king that if regional powers pulled together with a common strategy, it would be easier for the U.S. to become a partner.
Mr. Jubeir used his access to policy makers, including the president, to push the message that U.S. inaction would lead to greater Middle East instability down the road, American officials said.
A senior U.S. intelligence official called the Saudis “indispensable partners on Syria” and said their efforts influenced American thinking. “No one wants to do anything alone,” the official said in explaining why the partnership expanded.
The Saudi goal was to get the U.S. to back a program to arm and train rebels out of a planned base in Jordan. Then-CIA chief David Petraeus was an early backer of the idea, said Arab and U.S. officials, and helped clinch Jordanian military support for the base. Gen. Petraeus declined to comment.
Prince Bandar met with the uneasy Jordanians about such a base. His meetings in Amman with Jordan’s King Abdullah sometimes ran to eight hours in a single sitting. “The king would joke: ‘Oh, Bandar’s coming again? Let’s clear two days for the meeting,’ ” said a person familiar with the meetings.
Jordan’s financial dependence on Saudi Arabia gave the Saudis strong leverage, officials in the region and the U.S. said. They said that with the blessing of the Jordanian king, an operations center in Jordan started going online in the summer of 2012, including an airstrip and warehouses for arms. Saudi-procured AK-47s and ammunition then started arriving, Arab officials said.
Prince Bandar sent his younger half-brother and then-deputy national-security adviser, Salman bin Sultan, to oversee the operation in Jordan. Some regional officials took to calling him “mini-Bandar.” Earlier this summer, Prince Salman was elevated to deputy defense minister.
Mr. Petraeus in mid-2012 won White House approval to provide intelligence and limited training to Syrian rebels at the base, including in the use of arms provided by others. Saudi and Jordanian agents began vetting the fighters to be trained, said Arab diplomats and a former U.S. military official.
Prince Bandar has largely stayed out of Washington but held meetings with U.S. officials in the region. One was in September 2012. Sens. McCain and Graham, who were in Istanbul, met him in an opulent hotel suite on the banks of the Bosporus.
Mr. McCain said he made the case to Prince Bandar that the rebels weren’t getting the kinds of weapons they needed, and the prince, in turn, described the kingdom’s plans. The senator said that in succeeding months he saw “a dramatic increase in Saudi involvement, hands-on, by Bandar.”
In September and October, the Saudis approached Croatia to procure more Soviet-era weapons. The Saudis got started distributing these in December and soon saw momentum shift toward the rebels in some areas, said U.S. officials, Arab diplomats and U.S. lawmakers briefed on the operation. Officials in Croatia denied it was involved in weapons sales.
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.
After Mr. Petraeus’s November resignation over an affair, his job was handled by his deputy, Michael Morell, who privately voiced skepticism the agency could make sure any arms supplied by the U.S. wouldn’t end up with hard-line Islamists, said congressional officials.
Ultimately, the new CIA chief was John Brennan, whose closest Saudi confidant when he was White House counterterrorism adviser was also focused on the risk of inadvertently strengthening al Qaeda. Since moving to the CIA, Mr. Brennan has been in periodic contact by phone with Prince Bandar, officials said.
Despite its caution, the CIA expanded its role at the base in Jordan early this year. At that point, though, the U.S. still wasn’t sending weapons.
In early April, said U.S. officials, the Saudi king sent a strongly worded message to Mr. Obama: America’s credibility was on the line if it let Mr. Assad and Iran prevail. The king warned of dire consequences of abdicating U.S. leadership and creating a vacuum, said U.S. officials briefed on the message.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who was the first Saudi official to publicly back arming the rebels, followed with a similar message during a meeting with Mr. Obama later that month, the officials said.
By late spring, U.S. intelligence agencies saw worrisome signs that Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, in response to the influx of Saudi arms, were ramping up support to Mr. Assad. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed arming the rebels, and Mr. Jubeir and Prince Bandar turned their attention to skeptics on the House and Senate intelligence committees.
They arranged a trip for committee leaders to Riyadh, where Prince Bandar laid out the Saudi strategy. It was a reunion of sorts, officials said, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) warmly scolding Prince Bandar about his smoking.
Mr. Obama in June authorized the CIA to provide arms at the Jordanian base, in limited quantity and firepower, on the understanding the U.S. could reverse course if there weren’t sufficient controls on who got them, congressional officials said.
Prince Bandar flew to Paris soon after for talks with French officials. In July he was in Moscow to meet with one of Mr. Assad’s prime supporters, President Vladimir Putin.
A generation ago, Prince Bandar, in a role foreshadowing his current one on behalf of Syrian opposition, helped the CIA arm the Afghan rebels who were resisting occupation by Soviet troops.
Arab diplomats said that in meeting with Russian officials this summer, the prince delivered the same message he gave the Soviets 25 years ago: that the kingdom had plenty of money and was committed to using it to prevail.
This past weekend, as the White House weighed possible military attacks against Mr. Assad, Saudi Arabia and its allies pressed Mr. Obama to take forceful action in response to the chemical-weapons reports, according to a U.S. official. The Arab message, according to another official, was: “You can’t as president draw a line and then not respect it.”
Siobhan Gorman, Julian E. Barnes and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this article.
Write to Adam Entous at firstname.lastname@example.org, Nour Malas at email@example.com and Margaret Coker at firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcript: Amy Goodman and Juan González of Democracy Now interview Adam Entous, national security correspondent of the Wall Street Journal.
September 06, 2013
Part two of our conversation with Wall Street Journal national security correspondent Adam Entous. He discusses his latest article, “U.S. Decided Not to Horse-Trade with Russia on Assad.” Entous writes: “President Barack Obama’s 15 seconds of face time with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, while American and Russian warships patrolled the eastern Mediterranean, spoke to a deep chill that has created one of the biggest complications to the U.S.’s plan to strike Syria.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is part two of our interview with Adam Entous, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, who wrote the recent piece on longtime Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, called “A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works to Build Support to Topple Assad.” [see above] Adam Entous’s most recent piece is called “U.S. Decided Not to Horse-Trade with Russia on Assad.”
Adam, it’s great to have you with us. Explain what’s happening right now at the G-20 in Saint Petersburg. You open your piece by saying, “President Barack Obama’s 15 seconds of face time with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, while American and Russian warships patrolled the eastern Mediterranean, spoke to a deep chill that has created one of the biggest complications to the U.S.’s plan to strike Syria.”
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. Well, what you have, obviously, is a lot of tension there between the U.S. and Russia, stemming not only from Syria but also from the case of NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But really, you know, this is very Cold War in the positions that are being taken. The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has been an aggressive supporter of Assad, the president of Syria. And the president of the United States, Obama, has been trying, with very little effect, to try to bring Russia on board a strategy to try to isolate Assad. And that has been incredibly frustrating for the United States and undermined its efforts.
Most recently, you can see in Obama’s decision to go to Congress for authorization, he’s doing that, to a large extent, because he wants the political and legal cover of having Congress authorize these possible expected strikes, because the U.N. Security Council was not able to move on any resolutions as a result of Russia, you know, blocking any resolutions that would be brought up against Mr. Assad. And so—and then, on the ground, you know, in Syria itself, the Russians supplied Syria with very advanced, updated anti-ship rocket systems, called the Yakhont, which were upgraded in the spring. And that’s part of the reason why you’re seeing the four U.S. Navy destroyers keeping itself far from the coast of Lebanon and the coast of Syria, because the U.S. is concerned that those systems could be used against the Americans. To the same degree, you know, the U.S. believes that Russia is using its satellites, its radar systems and the seven ships that it has sent to the coast of Syria to effectively spy on behalf of Assad so that Assad will get a heads-up when the cruise missiles are launched. So you really do see an incredible dynamic between the U.S. and Russia that you really haven’t seen in a long time.
And where it stems from is Russia anger at the way—at the way the U.S. responded not only in Kosovo, but more recently in Libya, where the Russians feel that they were hoodwinked by the Americans, where they agreed to go on and support a resolution that authorized the use of force in Libya in 2011, after, they say, they got assurances from the United States that regime change would not be the objective. And really, the Russians just haven’t been able to move beyond that 2011 decision. And Vladimir Putin is very invested at this point in being a foil to the United States and, effectively, just trying to get in the way of what the U.S. is trying to do.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when the Libya intervention happened, Putin was then only prime minister. Now he’s back, obviously, as president. And he—on Wednesday, he said the U.S. Congress had no right to approve the use of force against Syria without a decision from the U.N. Security Council.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] Now we are all following Congress and Senate discussions on whether to sanction the use of force in Syria. This contradicts common sense. With the understanding of the international law, no congress in any country can approve such things. What are they approving? They are approving an act of aggression, because anything that doesn’t fit the U.N. Security Council framework is aggression except self-defense. Syria, as we know it, is not attacking the U.S., so we cannot talk about self-defense. Everything else without the U.N. approval is an act of aggression.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Adam Entous, what about this potential for a direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S., with, as you mentioned, Russian warships close …to the area, and more and more American military firepower being trained on Syria?
Right. I think the expectation is that there would not be any real prospect for there being an exchange of fire. These ships … are keeping a distance from each other. The … Russians have a base, a very small base at Tartus, on the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean. These ships are very close to that base. And the expectation is, is those ships are possibly resupplying the Syrians. And that’s what the Russians have been doing. They’ve been taking equipment out, bringing it to Russia, having the equipment repaired and maintained, and then resupplying and bringing it back to Syria. And that’s probably what these ships are doing.
Some of them are also intelligence collection ships, so they have sensors that would pick up American launches. And, for example, earlier this week there was a missile test that was conducted jointly by the United States and Israel, which briefly rattled world markets after the Russians made it public that they had detected a rocket launch in the Middle East from the Mediterranean. American and Russian analysts believe that was a message that the Russians were trying to send to the United States, that its radar systems were very sensitive and real-time and able to pick up on these launches. And, you know, U.S. officials that we spoke to in the last few days are of the mind that the Russians are going to be tipping off the Syrians in advance. But the American officials who are working on these plans for these strikes think that there’s little impact that this heads-up is going to really have on the operation itself.
You know, Assad has already been taking steps to move his sensitive equipment, such as helicopters, around the country to try to put them under hardened bunkers to make it harder for the United States to destroy them. And likewise, you see the Americans taking steps to prepare for a wider set of strikes as a result of the Syrians making these moves to hide their equipment. So that’s why now you’re seeing that the Americans are looking at using bombers, for example, B-2s from the United States or B-1s, B-1 bombers, which are already in Qatar, and also B-52 bombers, which, in particular, can carry these cruise missiles that would be used and could be used to carry out strikes from outside Syrian airspace, so there wouldn’t be a need for the U.S. to immobilize Syria’s air defenses, which of course were also supplied by the Russians.
AG: Adam, you also point out that Mr. Putin said that Russia would complete delivery of advanced S-300 air-defense systems to Syria if the U.S. strikes, which could shift the regional military balance.
Right. The S-300s are a very advanced system. American officials compare it to the American Patriot 3 batteries, which can be used against aircraft very effectively and also against incoming cruise missiles. So this is a very, very advanced system that the Russians had thought about and had threatened to sell to the Iranians. There was an effort by the Saudis to try to block that.
And, you know, bringing it back to Prince Bandar a little bit here, Prince Bandar was in Russia in July to meet with Putin to try to get them to not deliver these systems to the Syrians. You have—these systems, if they were to be delivered, would create a problem, if the United States were intent on doing a campaign using aircraft over Syrian airspace. With the way the current operation is conceived, these systems would not be a factor, but it would limit the ability of the United States and Israel, to a certain extent, to penetrate Syrian airspace in the future, if they decided to mount campaigns in Syrian airspace.
JG: Adam, you mentioned again Prince Bandar. I wanted to ask you about one of the interesting aspects of your—one of your articles about the cracks in the pro-intervention coalition, that includes Qatar and Saudi Arabia with the United States. You mention that at one point Prince Bandar, in an angry phone conversation, derided the government of Qatar, saying, “That’s not a nation. That’s 300 people with a television network,” referring obviously to Al Jazeera. …What’s the source of that conflict between those two countries?
Right. Well, they’ve been regional rivals for a long time, both of them jockeying for influence. Qatar has tended to be much more willing to support more Muslim Brotherhood-connected groups. And that isn’t just in Syria, for example, it’s also in Egypt, where you saw Qatar supporting Morsi, the former president that was recently brought down by the military. So this is a—this is a regional—a region-wide power struggle between Qatar and Saudi Arabia for influence. And, of course, Turkey’s—Turkey’s Erdogan is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, so is more naturally aligned with Qatar, whereas the United States aligns itself more closely with Saudi Arabia in this.
So …what you found in the case of Syria is Qatar moved very quickly to try to influence the rebels, whereas Saudi Arabia initially had an internal debate about whether or not to get in with arms and money. And so, Qatar played a very important early role in the rebellion inside of Syria, whereas the Saudis were on the outside largely. And that’s part of the reason why Bandar was brought in by the king. The previous intel chief for the Saudis was, you know, a very interesting guy, a wine connoisseur, very mild-mannered, but the king felt that he wasn’t the kind of guy who could really rattle things and make things happen like Bandar is able to do. And that’s why Bandar was brought back.
AG: Very quickly, “Bandar Bush,” as he was affectionately called by many in Washington, very close to the Bush family, also had a history with the Iran-Contra scandal. Can you explain what that is, Adam Entous?
Right, yeah… What he was doing was …working with the CIA, after the CIA was supposedly not delivering money and arms to the Contras, and he was helping with …bringing the money to that group. And it really was very similar to his role with the CIA in Afghanistan. Of course, that was more clearly authorized, right up to the top, including presidential findings that were signed, first by President Carter and later by Reagan, which gradually expanded the role of the United States in supporting the rebels. In the case of Afghanistan, and just like now in the case of Syria, you had Prince Bandar and other Saudi royals urging the United States to provide Stinger missiles to take out aircraft, to take out the Russian aircraft. This is back in the early 1980s. And the CIA and the White House reluctantly agreed to that. And that’s, again, a reference to the Charlie Wilson role here, which, of course, you know, helped—the CIA believes, really helped tip the scales against the Russians.
Now you have a very similar dynamic going on again, where Prince Bandar and Adel al-Jubeir, the current ambassador here in Washington, had been pressing the Obama administration to allow what’s referred to now as MANPADS, which are also shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons, to be given to the rebels. And again, you have the same dynamic, where the Obama administration doesn’t want that to happen, and the Saudis are pushing it. And so, really just the comparisons to the 1980s are fascinating and very interesting, and so many parallels across the board, not only the same—many of the same players, but really the same issues, about how the U.S. is—how willing is the U.S. to provide advanced—more advanced systems to the rebels to try to tip the scales.
AG: Adam Entous, I wanted to go back to Russia right now, to Saint Petersburg, to the G-20. I mean, clearly a key time, if President Obama wasn’t pushing for striking Syria, to negotiate. I mean, here is the main sponsor of Syria, Russia. President Putin is there. As you point out in your article, there are many issues to negotiate over. I mean, mostly you negotiate with your enemies, so it could be about the—NATO, about weapons that are pointed at Russia, something that has certainly always—annoys Russia, things they don’t want to be happening. Even the—even the Winter Olympics could be raised. Why isn’t this negotiation going on, having the other world leaders there, as well?
…What we found is that early in 2012 there was … a group of White House and State Department officials who did …a brainstorming exercise. They asked themselves, you know, what would the U.S. be willing to give up or compromise in order to bring Russia on board with isolating Assad? Maybe pare back plans to expand NATO. Maybe not deploy some of the elements of missile defense which the Russians are opposed to.* And basically, what happened was the White House concluded that those national security initiatives, like NATO expansion and like missile defense, were actually more important than Syria, at that point in time, in the way the White House prioritized its national security interests. Of course, now—
AG: That was a year ago. We’re talking now.
Yeah, now, obviously, as we’re at the brink of military action in Syria, that, you know, lack of an ability to bring Russia on board has really created a lot of problems for the United States, both in terms of legal issues—not having U.N. Security Council backing for this operation, which Obama’s own lawyers, you know, have acknowledged basically skirts international law—and, more directly, you have this—you have a system where literally if American warplanes do have to enter Syrian airspace, that the threat that they’ll be facing will be Russian arms, these anti-aircraft systems that the Russians have been maintaining for the Syrians.
So, you know, bottom line for the Americans is they just—they were never able to sort of figure out what it would take to bring Putin on board. And they figured Putin had no incentive to get on board. He’s sort of cast himself as the anti—the anti-Obama in many ways. You know, he gets a lot of points at home, political points at home, for standing up to the Americans. And he doesn’t seem to have any interest in changing that. You know—
AG: Obama had the CIA do a psychological profile of Putin?
Yeah, well, this is done by the CIA of most world leaders. But the one of Putin that was done, I think, was rather interesting. It describes him as somebody who was likely bullied as a youth and is not particularly self-assured, is very sensitive and prickly. And you sort of—if you look at the way the president interacts with Putin, you can tell that—or at least it suggests that he took the profile to heart. For example, when they met last time—I believe it was in the spring, late spring—you know, the president made kind of self-effacing comments about how his basketball skills were rusty, while Putin is excellent at judo and other sports. You know, you just have these references that the president would make to try to kind of show publicly how Putin is very virile and strong. And I’m not sure if those are—that that’s because he took to heart the CIA’s profile, or if that’s just the way he interacts. But you can just tell the Americans have really struggled to make a connection there with Putin, and realizes that it’s just he wants to look tough, and he’s not backing down to the United States.
AG. We’ve covered a lot of NSA spying stories. You also report that the Russians are spying on the G-20 summit.
Sorry, no, the Russians are—I’m sorry—spying on the—on American warships …that are positioned in the eastern Mediterranean, in order to…provide intel to the Syrians. But I would be shocked if they weren’t spying also on the G-20, as I’m sure the Americans are spying on the G-20, as well.
AG: Adam Entous, we want to thank you for being with us and for your excellent reporting, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, has written a number of pieces. The most recent piece that he did on the Saudi ambassador is called—Prince Bandar bin Sultan—it’s called “A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works to Build Support to Topple Assad.” And his piece on the G-20, “U.S. Decided Not to Horse-Trade with Russia on Assad.” Thanks so much.
Adam Entous, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
Posted by Al Monitor, translated from As-Safir (Lebanon).
August 22, 2013
A diplomatic report about the “stormy meeting” in July between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan concluded that the region stretching from North Africa to Chechnya and from Iran to Syria — in other words, the entire Middle East — has come under the influence of an open US-Russian face-off and that “it is not unlikely that things [will] take a dramatic turn in Lebanon, in both the political and security senses, in light of the major Saudi decision to respond to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.”
The report starts by presenting the conditions under which the Russian-Saudi meeting was convened. It states that Prince Bandar, in coordination with the Americans and some European partners, proposed to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz that Bandar visit Moscow and employ the carrot-and-stick approach, which is used in most negotiators, and offer the Russian leadership political, economic, military and security enticements in return for concessions on several regional issues, in particular Syria and Iran.
King Abdullah agreed with the proposal and contacted President Putin on July 30. In a conversation that lasted only a few minutes, they agreed to Bandar’s visit and to keep it under wraps. Bandar arrived in Moscow. The visit was secret. The Saudi Embassy did not follow the usual protocol for Saudi officials visiting Russia.
In Moscow, a preliminary session was held at Russian military intelligence headquarters between Bandar and the director of Russian Military Intelligence, Gen. Igor Sergon. The meeting focused on security cooperation between the two countries. Bandar then visited Putin’s house on the outskirts of the Russian capital, where they held a closed-door bilateral meeting that lasted four hours. They discussed the agenda, which consisted of bilateral issues and a number of regional and international matters in which the two countries share interest.
At the bilateral level, Bandar relayed the Saudi king’s greetings to Putin and the king’s emphasis on the importance of developing the bilateral relationship. He also told Putin that the king would bless any understanding reached during the visit. Bandar also said, however, that “any understanding we reach in this meeting will not only be a Saudi-Russian understanding, but will also be an American-Russian understanding. I have spoken with the Americans before the visit, and they pledged to commit to any understandings that we may reach, especially if we agree on the approach to the Syrian issue.”
Bandar stressed the importance of developing relations between the two countries, saying that the logic of interests can reveal large areas of cooperation. He gave several examples in the economic, investment, oil and military arenas.
Bandar told Putin, “There are many common values and goals that bring us together, most notably the fight against terrorism and extremism all over the world. Russia, the US, the EU and the Saudis agree on promoting and consolidating international peace and security. The terrorist threat is growing in light of the phenomena spawned by the Arab Spring. We have lost some regimes. And what we got in return were terrorist experiences, as evidenced by the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the extremist groups in Libya. … As an example, I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future.”
Putin thanked King Abdullah for his greetings and Bandar for his exposition, but then he said to Bandar, “We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade. And that support, which you have frankly talked about just now, is completely incompatible with the common objectives of fighting global terrorism that you mentioned. We are interested in developing friendly relations according to clear and strong principles.”
Bandar said that the matter is not limited to the kingdom and that some countries have overstepped the roles drawn for them, such as Qatar and Turkey. He added, “We said so directly to the Qataris and to the Turks. We rejected their unlimited support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. The Turks’ role today has become similar to Pakistan’s role in the Afghan war. We do not favor extremist religious regimes, and we wish to establish moderate regimes in the region. It is worthwhile to pay attention to and to follow up on Egypt’s experience. We will continue to support the [Egyptian] army, and we will support Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi because he is keen on having good relations with us and with you. And we suggest to you to be in contact with him, to support him and to give all the conditions for the success of this experiment. We are ready to hold arms deals with you in exchange for supporting these regimes, especially Egypt.”
Economic and oil cooperation
Then Bandar discussed the potential cooperation between the two countries if an understanding could be reached on a number of issues, especially Syria. He discussed at length the matter of oil and investment cooperation, saying, “Let us examine how to put together a unified Russian-Saudi strategy on the subject of oil. The aim is to agree on the price of oil and production quantities that keep the price stable in global oil markets. … We understand Russia’s great interest in the oil and gas present in the Mediterranean Sea from Israel to Cyprus through Lebanon and Syria. And we understand the importance of the Russian gas pipeline to Europe. We are not interested in competing with that. We can cooperate in this area as well as in the areas of establishing refineries and petrochemical industries. The kingdom can provide large multi-billion-dollar investments in various fields in the Russian market. What’s important is to conclude political understandings on a number of issues, particularly Syria and Iran.”
Putin responded that the proposals about oil and gas, economic and investment cooperation deserve to be studied by the relevant ministries in both countries.
Bandar discussed the Syrian issue at length. He explained how the kingdom’s position had evolved on the Syrian crisis since the Daraa incident all the way to what is happening today. He said, “The Syrian regime is finished as far as we and the majority of the Syrian people are concerned. [The Syrian people] will not allow President Bashar al-Assad to remain at the helm. The key to the relations between our two countries starts by understanding our approach to the Syrian issue. So you have to stop giving [the Syrian regime] political support, especially at the UN Security Council, as well as military and economic support. And we guarantee you that Russia’s interests in Syria and on the Mediterranean coast will not be affected one bit. In the future, Syria will be ruled by a moderate and democratic regime that will be directly sponsored by us and that will have an interest in understanding Russia’s interests and role in the region.”
Russia’s intransigence is to Iran’s benefit
Bandar also presented Saudi Arabia’s views about Iran’s role in the region, especially in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries. He said he hoped that the Russians would understand that Russia’s interests and the interests of the Gulf states are one in the face of Iranian greed and nuclear challenge.
Putin gave his country’s position on the Arab Spring developments, especially about what has happened in Libya, saying, “We are very concerned about Egypt. And we understand what the Egyptian army is doing. But we are very cautious in approaching what’s happening because we are afraid that things may slide toward an Egyptian civil war, which would be too costly for the Egyptians, the Arabs and the international community. I wanted to do a brief visit to Egypt. And the matter is still under discussion.”
Regarding Iran, Putin said to Bandar that Iran is a neighbor, that Russia and Iran are bound by relations that go back centuries, and that there are common and tangled interests between them. Putin said, “We support the Iranian quest to obtain nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. And we helped them develop their facilities in this direction. Of course, we will resume negotiations with them as part of the 5P+1 group. I will meet with President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the Central Asia summit and we will discuss a lot of bilateral, regional and international issues. We will inform him that Russia is completely opposed to the UN Security Council imposing new sanctions on Iran. We believe that the sanctions imposed against Iran and Iranians are unfair and that we will not repeat the experience again.”
Erdogan to visit Moscow in September
Regarding the Turkish issue, Putin spoke of his friendship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; “Turkey is also a neighboring country with which we have common interests. We are keen to develop our relations in various fields. During the Russian-Turkish meeting, we scrutinized the issues on which we agree and disagree. We found out that we have more converging than diverging views. I have already informed the Turks, and I will reiterate my stance before my friend Erdogan, that what is happening in Syria necessitates a different approach on their part. Turkey will not be immune to Syria’s bloodbath. The Turks ought to be more eager to find a political settlement to the Syrian crisis. We are certain that the political settlement in Syria is inevitable, and therefore they ought to reduce the extent of damage. Our disagreement with them on the Syrian issue does not undermine other understandings between us at the level of economic and investment cooperation. We have recently informed them that we are ready to cooperate with them to build two nuclear reactors. This issue will be on the agenda of the Turkish prime minister during his visit to Moscow in September.”
Putin: Our stance on Assad will not change
Regarding the Syrian issue, the Russian president responded to Bandar, saying, “Our stance on Assad will never change. We believe that the Syrian regime is the best speaker on behalf of the Syrian people, and not those liver eaters. During the Geneva I Conference, we agreed with the Americans on a package of understandings, and they agreed that the Syrian regime will be part of any settlement. Later on, they decided to renege on Geneva I. In all meetings of Russian and American experts, we reiterated our position. In his upcoming meeting with his American counterpart John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will stress the importance of making every possible effort to rapidly reach a political settlement to the Syrian crisis so as to prevent further bloodshed.”
As soon as Putin finished his speech, Prince Bandar warned that in light of the course of the talks, things were likely to intensify, especially in the Syrian arena, although he appreciated the Russians’ understanding of Saudi Arabia’s position on Egypt and their readiness to support the Egyptian army despite their fears for Egypt’s future.
The head of the Saudi intelligence services said that the dispute over the approach to the Syrian issue leads to the conclusion that “there is no escape from the military option, because it is the only currently available choice given that the political settlement ended in stalemate. We believe that the Geneva II Conference will be very difficult in light of this raging situation.”
At the end of the meeting, the Russian and Saudi sides agreed to continue talks, provided that the current meeting remained under wraps. This was before one of the two sides leaked it via the Russian press.
*Russia opposes US missile defence plan
In 2010 in negotiations for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Russia objected to the US plans to position more missiles in eastern Europe and, in particular the Black Sea, from where missiles could reach both RUssia and the Middle East.