Caught in the Syrian tempest Saudi Arabia replaces chief spy

Commentary Materials 16 April 2014 17:22 (UTC +04:00)
A Saudi royal decree announced that the kingdom’s top spy, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of the country’s intelligence services was being relieved of his post, at his own request, and that his deputy would replace him
Caught in the Syrian tempest Saudi Arabia replaces chief spy

By Claude Salhani- Trend:

A Saudi royal decree announced that the kingdom's top spy, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of the country's intelligence services was being relieved of his post, at his own request, and that his deputy would replace him.

Politics in the desert kingdom are not simple, to say the least. To better grasp what is happening in the country, one needs to look at Saudi Arabia's involvement in Syria. And to better understand what is happening in Syria it is important to zoom out of the picture a little bit and to take in a wider scope, one that includes Iran.

Saudi Arabia's battle with Syria is nothing personal. Well, it is actually, and we will come to that in a moment. But what is really driving the House of Saud - and what has been driving it since the beginning of the Syrian revolt - is Saudi Arabia's mistrust and fear of Iran. More precisely, fear of what they regard as Iran's desire to expand its influence, and its desire to obtain nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia and most of the other oil rich emirates regard Iran as a threat to their immediate security, from both internal and external approaches. Internally by instigating the Islamist element and externally by obtaining nuclear weapons.

In the past the Saudis had relied on the United States for their defense. Indeed, a pact first reached between King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the close of WWII, guaranteed the United States would be able to buy cheap gas from Saudi in return for providing protection to the kingdom.

But now the region has changed and the rules of engagement have also changed drastically. So important is the issue of making certain that Iran does not walk away from the Syrian conflict with a victory that in July 2012 the king appointed one of the most noted and capable men of the kingdom to handle the Syrian dossier.

Indeed, Prince Bandar bin Sultan had served as his country's ambassador to Washington for nearly three decades. While in D.C. the Saudi envoy became the center of Washingtonian diplomatic life, where fine wines and cognac and Cuban cigars were abundant. Bandar spared no expense to entertain his guests. He became close to the Bushes and was a frequent guest at the Bush ranch in Texas, so much so that he was given the nickname "Bandar Bush."

Upon leaving Washington, Bandar served as head of the National Security Council, often carrying messages back and forth between Washington and Riyadh.

When it became apparent that the war in Syria would drag on, the king appointed Bandar as the kingdom's chief spy and front man in charge of overseeing Saudi's role in the Syrian conflict. What exactly is that role? It is twofold. First it is to try and check Tehran's influence in the region. And second - we mentioned the personal aspect of the conflict - was to get back at Syria for the killing of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who enjoyed immense Saudi backing.

Bandar promised he would have the Syrian situation cleared up in a matter of months. Instead, it has worsened with more groups and countries and factions involved and rather than being ousted from power, as Riyadh had hoped, Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have the upper hand once again.

Bandar tried to convince the Russians to abandon their long time friend and ally but President Vladimir Putin was adamant in his support for the regime in Damascus.
So perhaps in part due to his inability to achieve any headway, perhaps in part due to Bandar's failing health, King Abdullah announced in a report carried on the official news agency that the prince was being replaced as head of the intelligence services by Youssef al-Idrisi. The Saudi Press Agency stated that "Prince Bandar was relieved of his post at his own request and General Youssef al-Idrissi was asked to carry out the duties of the head of general intelligence."

Bandar had become extremely upset with the Obama administration's lack of positive action regarding Syria and relations with Washington were at their lowest point.

The Saudis in recent months re-evaluated their policy regarding Syria and the Islamist threat and the recent appointment of Prince Nayef as Interior Minister, a powerful position in the kingdom, was an indication that Riyadh wanted to focus more on internal security and prevent trouble from erupting in the country rather than becoming more involved in Syria.

The Saudis are not without blame in the mess that is taking place in parts of the Middle East today. For years they followed a two-tiered policy; supporting terrorists on the one hand and trying to fight it on the other. It was a policy that would come back to bite. And it did.

Claude Salhani is senior editor at Trend Agency in Baku and a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and terrorism. You can follow him in Twitter @claudesalhani.