NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 11 DECEMBER, 2017
Rising Tensions in West Asia: Syria Worries The Power Bloc
Four important players in the game, US, Saudi Arabia, Israel with an emerging Syria
NEW DELHI: West Asia, which includes the Gulf, is unstable at the best of times. However, developments in the last few weeks have made the region more combustible by adding new, more inflammable, material to the situation. A spark, deliberate or accidental, could result in a massive conflagration.
There are four Important players in the game unfolding before our eyes, viz. the US led by Trump; Saudi Arabia led by its 32-year old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Sultan (MbS), the de facto ruler of the Kingdom; Syria, where multiple players are involved including Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah; and Israel led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The actions of these players and their interplay will determine what happens in the region in the foreseeable future.
First, the US led by Trump, who has been taking astonishing decisions, the latest being the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Some of these decisions have been inspired by Jared Kushner, Trump’s 36-year old son-in-law. In fact, Trump has handed over control of his Middle East policy to Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, who is very close to Netanyahu.
Kushner is also close to MbS, who has been taking even more astonishing decisions regarding Saudi Arabia’s internal and external policies, the latest being the arbitrary arrest and detention of more than 200 prominent Saudis, including princes and businessmen, on Nov. 4, 2017.
They include Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, one of the wealthiest men in the world; Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, former commander of the National Guard; and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the US, in addition to several Saudi billionaires who control the media, construction, and other vital sectors of the Saudi economy.
This has never happened in Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally been governed by consensus among the major branches of the Saudi Royal Family (SRF). The spoils of the Kingdom’s oil wealth have been used to bind the different bloodlines in the Family. However, MbS has by now ousted every branch of the SRF except his own. He presently wields absolute power in Saudi Arabia.
Reportedly, Kushner paid an unannounced visit to Riyadh just days before MbS’ crackdown, prompting some observers to conclude that it enjoyed the blessings of the US. Their assessment was bolstered by the fact that Trump declared his approval of MbS’ actions through Twitter soon after the arrests.
After supporting MbS’ questionable actions, Trump announced the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on 6th December. This is contrary to all UN Security Council resolutions on the subject and is a flagrant violation of international law. Israel, and its lobby in the US, are the only supporters of Trump’s decision. It will encourage Israel to grab even more Palestinian territory in Jerusalem and the West Bank and build more settlements. That will further increase instability in the region which is already in flames, thanks to the US-led covert war in Syria.
Second, Saudi Arabia ruled by MbS, who has taken one disastrous decision after another, starting with launching the ruinous war in Yemen soon after coming to power more than two years ago. That war has created one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in the world, with thousands killed by indiscriminate Saudi bombing. A blockade has also been imposed on the country causing starvation, malnutrition, and a cholera epidemic.
That was followed by the summary replacement of two Crown Princes, eventually resulting in the appointment of MbS himself as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on June 21, 2017. Earlier, following Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May, MbS had broken off all relations with Qatar. He also threatened dire consequences if Qatar did not immediately sever all ties with Iran and met several other humiliating demands.
Qatar stood its ground and refused to capitulate under Saudi pressure. It was supported by Iran and Turkey which rushed to its aid. Kuwait and Oman stayed neutral, creating fault lines in the Gulf which continue to this day. MbS had miscalculated, again. The result of this decision was more tension and instability in the Gulf.
But MbS’ above actions pale in comparison to what he did on Nov. 4, summarily arresting hundreds of important princes and businessmen, as detailed above, ostensibly on charges of “corruption.”
Here it is necessary to point out that since the discovery of oil in the Kingdom in the 1930s and the rise in its price in the 1970s, the whole of the SRF, from top to bottom, has been immersed in corruption. It is a way of life in the country, the only one in the world named after its ruling family. MbS himself recently bought a $500 million yacht and is reported to be the actual buyer of a Leonardo Da Vinci painting auctioned a few days ago for more than $450 million. Where did that cash come from? Was it MbS’ hard earned money?
The truth is that the so-called campaign against corruption is a fig leaf for neutralising all possible centres of power, both political and financial, and consolidating MbS’ position as the sole de facto absolute ruler of Saudi Arabia. He now controls the army, the internal security and intelligence services, and the National Guard, which were earlier distributed among other branches of the family.
While carrying out the purge, MbS also decided to earn some money for the state coffers, which were reportedly in bad shape. He released some detainees on payment of what can only be described as ransom. Thus, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the previous king, was released after reportedly paying $1 billion to the authorities. A few prominent businessmen, too, negotiated their release by making payments to the government. Some observers have described the operation as a mafia-style extortion racket. They are not far from the truth.
But those who refused to do so are being subjected to harsh treatment, including torture, according to reports in the Western media. They include Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the wealthiest and most liberal face of Saudi Arabia, worth around $18 billion. The UK’s Daily Mail reported on 8th Dec. that he was hung upside down by private security contractors, imported from the US specifically for interrogation and torture. MBS has outsourced the detention and handling of influential figures to these mercenaries.
While Trump has openly supported MbS and the arrests, and Western leaders have generally kept quiet, it is not clear if MbS will succeed in eliminating all other centres of power in the long run. There is bound to be widespread anger and resentment in the SRF against MbS, who has recklessly broken every convention by which the SRF ruled the Kingdom since King Abdulaziz al Saud came to power in the 1930s.
Saudi Arabia is a family run enterprise, whose stability depends on the stability of the Royal Family. That does not exist anymore. It would not be surprising if, sooner or later, there is a backlash, including attempts at regime change. The country’s restive Shia minority, concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province, may try to take advantage of such a scenario to secede. A major conflagration in the Gulf may erupt.
MbS’ record of decision making does not inspire much confidence. All major decisions taken by him so far have proved to be disastrous, including those relating to Yemen and Qatar, raising serious questions about his judgement and ability to rule a state as complex as Saudi Arabia. A Kingdom ruled by MbS is likely to be a major source of instability in the region.
Third, Syria, where the six-year-old war seems to be winding down. On 6th Dec, Russia announced that ISIS had finally been defeated and uprooted from the country. Logically, the US military [illegally] present in the country, whose stated objective was the removal of ISIS from Syria, should now leave the country, its mission accomplished.
However, senior Pentagon officials have announced that US forces in Syria, numbering around 2000, will stay in the country “as long as we need,” virtually proclaiming an open-ended American military presence in Syria. Their stand has provoked sharp criticism from Russia and Syria, but without much effect. The CIA and the Pentagon are in no mood to accept defeat in Syria, even if Trump wishes to withdraw US forces from the country, as he has sometimes hinted.
This is not surprising. The CIA and the Pentagon, as also some other elements of the US “deep state,” have a long history of being a law unto themselves, going back at least to the presidency of John F. Kennedy (JFK). As comprehensively documented in the 2008 book “JFK and the Unspeakable” by James Douglass, these agencies systematically subverted every effort by JFK to make peace with the Soviet Union and to withdraw US forces from Vietnam before the war broke out. Douglass has also furnished compelling evidence to suggest that the CIA was responsible for Kennedy’s assassination.
That was more than 50 years ago. The US deep state has, if anything, become much stronger and more deeply entrenched in the American system. It has acquired a life of its own, not answerable or accountable to anybody. It is not prepared to accept US defeat in Syria, much less pull US forces out of the country.
It would, therefore, be premature to expect that peace is about to break out in Syria after the defeat of the ISIS, Nusra Front, and other terrorist outfits supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and their allies. They cannot swallow the ignominy of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad defeating them. They are not used to accepting defeat since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The war in Syria may, therefore, go on for some more time. Trump does not have the power to end it.
Finally, Israel, which has played a crucial role, mostly behind the scenes, in respect of several developments mentioned above. Israel’s strategic target is Iran, after Iraq was neutralised by the US in 2003. Netanyahu has long been trying to persuade or push the US to bomb Iran, citing the country’s nuclear program as an existential threat.
Obama managed to resist Netanyahu’s pressure by signing an agreement with Iran along with five other countries, aimed at restricting Iran’s nuclear program. However, Netanyahu did not give up. His hopes rose after Trump came to power in Jan. 2017, and appointed Jared Kushner as his point man on the Middle East. During his presidential campaign, Trump had vehemently opposed the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Israel also views all allies of Iran as enemies, including Syria and Hezbollah. Israel helped the ISIS, Nusra Front, and other terrorist groups when they were fighting Assad’s forces in Syria, supplying them weapons and medical aid. It was very disappointed when Russia entered the Syrian war in Sept. 2015, just in time to prevent the defeat of Assad’s forces. Russia’s intervention changed the course of the war.
The current position is that Syria and its allies are on the verge of winning the war and setting up, for the first time in many decades, a land route from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, traversing Iraq and Syria. Israel views this “Shia Crescent” with great alarm; moreover, Iranian forces are now present at Israel’s doorstep, not far from the occupied Golan Heights.
Israel will, therefore, do everything possible to prevent re-emergence of a unified Syria under Assad, closely aligned with Iran and Hezbollah. The reluctance of the CIA and Pentagon to leave Syria may partly be due to Netanyahu’s influence, whose objectives coincide with MbS’. Jared Kushner is the link between them.
A close partnership seems to have developed between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US, aimed at weakening Iran and its allies, as detailed above. Together, these three players will try hard to prevent peace returning to Syria and Assad staying in power. Whether they will succeed or not, remains to be seen.
The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the US—a manifestly unjust and illegal act— will fuel more discontent and anger in the Arab world. It could lead to violence against US, Israeli, and Saudi targets. Though the Saudis, for the record, have criticised the US action, nobody is fooled. The “Arab Street” views them, rightly, as clients of Israel and America.
The internal Saudi crisis precipitated by MbS will have far-reaching repercussions not just for Saudi Arabia, but for the region as a whole. It may take a long time to play out. Its outcome is not clear, except that it would be very surprising if there is no backlash. MbS has set in motion forces which he may not be able to control.
As things stand, the current winners in this game are Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. They are waiting and watching from the sidelines, as Trump, MBS, and Netanyahu lurch from one disaster to another.
( The writer, a former Ambassador of India, has served in Indian missions in several countries, including Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia )