Exclusive: Saudi Arabia – confident in its leverage over energy and finance and emboldened by a de facto regional alliance with Israel – is throwing its weight around with threats against Russia. But this muscle-flexing is drawing a tough reaction from President Putin, reports Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
All across Official Washington – from politicians to pundits – there has been much swaggering about the geopolitical value of threatening to bomb people as a way to extract concessions and enforce compliance. Think Syria on chemical weapons and Iran regarding its nuclear program. So, if that’s the case, maybe it’s time to put “on the table” a bombing threat against Saudi Arabia.
It now appears that the primary obstacle to peace talks that could resolve the bloody Syrian civil war is the obstruction from al-Qaeda-connected jihadists who are beholden for their military and financial support to Saudi Arabia and other oil sheikdoms operating under Saudi Arabia’s political/diplomatic wing.
Despite what you may have read in some New York Times opinion columns, the Syrian government has agreed to send peace envoys to Geneva. But the rebels have refused, insisting on a long list of preconditions, such as the U.S. delivery of sophisticated weapons and a reversal of the rebels’ fortunes on the battlefield. The real problem seems to be how divided the Syrian opposition is, with schisms from pro-democracy moderates to violent jihadists including some who film themselves eating the internal organs of dead Syrian soldiers and executing defenseless captives.
Since the only way to stop the bloodletting that has reportedly claimed more than 100,000 lives is to arrange a ceasefire and a political settlement, the calculation of the rebels must change or at least the calculation of their chief sponsors must change. In that light, perhaps a warning is in order to Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan that cruise missiles could be aimed at his offices in Riyadh if Saudi intelligence doesn’t stop arming the most extreme factions fighting in Syria.
Besides supporting the brutal jihadists in Syria, there’s another inconvenient truth: the history of Saudi Arabia’s support for Islamic terrorism across the region and around the world, a point that Prince Bandar reportedly raised during a tense meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 31, in connection with the rebellious Russian province of Chechnya.
According to a diplomatic account of that bilateral confrontation, Bandar sought Russian support for ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while offering various economic inducements to Russia along with a pledge to protect next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi from terrorist attack.
Putin apparently was offended by Bandar’s blend of bribery and threats, especially his allusion to Saudi longstanding support for Chechen terrorism, a sore point for Russians who have suffered numerous attacks by Chechen terrorists against Russian civilian targets. I’m told Putin also viewed the reference to Sochi as something akin to a Mafia don shaking down a shopkeeper for protection money by saying, “nice little business you got here, I’d hate to see anything happen to it.”
Bandar and Osama
Over the years, Bandar has treated the issue of “terrorism” as a situational ethic, using the term to disparage political movements disfavored by the Saudi royals while treating violent groups backed by Saudi Arabia as freedom fighters. That rhetorical technique has been well-honed since the days when Saudi Arabia and the Reagan administration teamed up to pour billions of dollars into the Afghan mujahedeen and their Arab jihadist allies fighting Soviet troops in the 1980s.
The anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan brought to prominence Saudi national Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who later consolidated themselves under the global brand, al-Qaeda. In the 1980s, these roving jihadists were hailed as brave defenders of Islam, but – in the 1990s – they began targeting the United States with terrorist attacks, leading up to 9/11 in 2001.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to the United States and was so close to the Bush family that he was nicknamed “Bandar Bush.” Bandar was also very close to the bin Laden family. After the attacks, Bandar even acknowledged having met Osama bin Laden in the context of bin Laden thanking Bandar for his help financing the Afghan jihad project.
“I was not impressed, to be honest with you,” Bandar told CNN’s Larry King about bin Laden. “I thought he was simple and very quiet guy.”
However, immediately after 9/11, Bandar undermined the FBI’s opportunity to learn more about the connections between Osama bin Laden’s relatives and the perpetrators of 9/11 when Bandar arranged for members of the bin Laden family to flee the United States on some of the first planes allowed back into the air – after only cursory interviews with FBI investigators. The only segment of the 9/11 Commission’s report to be blacked out was the part dealing with alleged Saudi financing for al-Qaeda.
Now, as chief of Saudi intelligence, Bandar appears to be back in the game of coercive geopolitics, arranging weapons for some of the most brutal Syrian rebels and Arab mercenaries operating inside Syria, while offering carrots-and-sticks to foreign leaders who get in the way of Saudi interests.
As a repressive monarchy that preaches the ultra-conservative Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia is bitterly opposed to the democratic reforms of the Arab Spring and the growing influence of Shiite Islam, which now stretches from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah enclaves of Lebanon.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has backed a military coup in Egypt that ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi. The Saudis also have stepped up assistance to Sunni-dominated rebels in Syria seeking to overthrow the Assad dynasty that is based in the Alawite religion, a branch of Shiite Islam.
The Saudi-Israeli Alliance
The commonality of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel has also given rise to a de facto alliance between the Saudi monarchy and the Jewish government of Israel. Though historically enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia are now on the same page in backing Egypt’s military regime, in viewing Iran as their principal adversary, and in wanting a rebel victory in Syria.
Bolstered by the lobbying and media power of Israel, the Saudis – with their own clout in areas of energy and finance – see themselves as an emerging regional powerhouse, one that can confront the traditional superpowers head-on, constraining President Barack Obama’s diplomatic maneuvering room on Iran and Syria and challenging President Putin face-to-face.
According to a leaked diplomatic account of the July 31 meeting in Moscow, Bandar told Putin, “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.”
According to this account, Putin responded, “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 reportedly replied, “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.”
Besides the possibility of lucrative arms deals that would benefit the Russian economy, Bandar reportedly raised the potential for Saudi cooperation with Russia on oil and other investment matters, 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.”
An Angry Putin
I’m told by a source close to the Russian government that this mix of overt inducements and implied threats infuriated Putin who barely kept his anger in check through the end of the meeting with Bandar. Putin’s redoubled support for the Syrian government is seen as one unintended consequence from Bandar’s blend of bribes and warnings.
The source said Russia has responded with its own thinly veiled threats against the Saudis. The Saudis may have substantial “soft power” – with their oil and money – but Russia has its own formidable “hard power,” including a formidable military, the source said.
The source said Putin hopes he can enlist President Obama in a coordinated response to this Saudi muscle-flexing. However, the Saudis may feel confident, in part, because of their de facto alliance with Israel and their knowledge that the powerful Israel Lobby in Washington can hem in Obama.
Still, perhaps the only way to force the Syrian rebels to the bargaining table is for two other old adversaries, the United States and Russia, to form their own united front and to make clear to Prince Bandar that Saudi Arabia must stop obstructing a political settlement in Syria.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.