The Washington Post reports: When Saudi Arabia’s elderly king took the unusual step of naming a deputy heir, the move initially was welcomed as a sign of continuity in a country that soon will confront major questions over the future of its leadership.
But in subsequent weeks, the announcement has stirred a rare outburst of dissent, revealing previously unacknowledged strains within the royal family and casting into doubt prospects for a smooth transition from King Abdullah’s rule.
The king’s youngest brother, Muqrin, who was named deputy crown prince on the eve of President Obama’s visit in March, appears to be popular among ordinary people, who say he is not corrupt. He also is well-regarded by foreign diplomats, who describe him as likable and smart.
But behind closed doors, royal tongues have been wagging about the manner in which Muqrin was chosen, the validity of his newly created title and his pedigree as the son of a Yemeni concubine who was never formally married to his father.
“He is not a real prince; his mother was a slave and there are other brothers who are more competent,” said a former Saudi official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because criticizing the royal family is imprudent. “Nobody believes Muqrin can become king.” [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Saudi Arabia has invited the Iranian foreign minister to Riyadh for the first senior meeting between the regional heavyweights since the start of the Arab Awakenings in which the two countries have engaged in a proxy war for influence.
The Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, contacted his counterpart in Tehran on Tuesday after months of lower level communications between the countries, aiming to bring an end to a series of regional crises in which both are invested, principally in Syria.
“Iran is a neighbour, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them,” the minister said.
“We will talk with them in the hope that, if there are any differences, they will be settled to the satisfaction of both countries. Our hope is that Iran becomes part of the effort to make the region as safe and as prosperous as possible, and not part of the problem of the insecurity of the region.”
The US has been attempting to persuade Riyadh to reach an accommodation with Iran, despite deep distrust between the two powers. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Middle East policy persist, despite attempts to shore up their old alliance, and may prove calamitous for Syrian rebels.
Although there is evidence that some American weapons are starting to find their way to more moderate groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, disagreements over what to supply, and to whom, have hindered the fight.
Rebels lament a lack of anti-aircraft missiles to help counter Assad’s air force.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funding the rebels for years now, arguing that the war in Syria is a battle for the future of the Middle East, pitting pro-Western forces against Riyadh’s main enemy Iran and Islamist militants.
However, while the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama also blames Assad for the violence and wants him to leave power, it sees the conflict very differently.
American officials fear involvement in a messy civil war for which they see no clear military solution and which threatens to radicalize a new generation of Islamists who hate the West.
Among the rebels, the failure of the Saudis and the Americans to cooperate better stirs disillusion. Two hours of talks between Obama and Saudi King Abdullah in March appear to have done little to alter that sentiment. [Continue reading...]
Faisal Al Yafai writes: When one of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East holds the largest military exercise in its history, the region and allies would be wise to look beyond the explosions and manoeuvres at the political intent.
Last week’s “Abdullah Sword” military exercises in the north-east of Saudi Arabia brought together 130,000 troops, as well as military jets, helicopters and ships. With the notable exception of Qatar, all the GCC countries were there to observe the exercises, as well as the head of Pakistan’s army.
On the surface, the exercises were timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the accession of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But military movements of this order send messages. But to whom?
The obvious answer is Iran, Saudi’s great regional rival, or one of the three states that the Saudis are most concerned about – Syria, Iraq or Yemen. And it will not have escaped Tehran’s notice that the CSS-2 ballistic missiles that Riyadh paraded for the first time last week can easily reach any part of Iran.
Certainly, a message of strength was being telegraphed to the region. But there was also another one, over the heads of the region, to the United States: if you leave, the region can defend itself. [Continue reading...]
Trita Parsi writes: As President Barack Obama must have noticed during his visit, there is a panicky tone to almost everything the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does these days, whether it’s campaigning for two years to win a coveted seat on the UN Security Council only to give it up immediately after the vote, or its public pronouncements of going it alone in the chaos of Syria, or its break with its fellow Arab state Qatar, or the closing of the Al Jazeera office in Riyadh, or the banning of the books of renowned Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish. Or, of course, its opposition to diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program and the prospects of a US-Iranian thaw.
Riyadh’s opposition to the Iran nuclear talks has largely been understood in the context of the larger Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia rivalry. Consequently, Saudi’s negative reaction was predictable, the argument goes. The Saudi royal house would undoubtedly not sit idly by as its regional rival negotiated its way out of harsh sanctions and into a potential US-Iranian rapprochement that could pave the way for an American tilt towards Tehran—all at the expense of Saudi interests.
But the intensity of Riyadh’s reaction cannot be explained solely through the kingdom’s displeasure at Tehran’s diplomatic advances. In fact, the unprecedented opening between the US and Iran is arguably only the tip of the iceberg of Saudi Arabia’s growing list of concerns. Numerous geopolitical trends in the last decade have evolved in opposition to Saudi interests. Much indicates that it is the combination of these factors, rather than just Saudi displeasure with US-Iranian diplomacy, that best explain the erratic behavior of the House of Saud. [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: The Obama administration is considering allowing shipments of new air defense systems to Syrian rebels, a U.S. official said Friday.
President Barack Obama’s possible shift would likely be welcomed by Saudi Arabia, which has been pressing the White House to allow the man-portable air-defense systems, known as “manpads,” into Syria. Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday evening for meetings with King Abdullah.
Allowing manpads to be delivered to Syrian rebels would mark a shift in strategy for the U.S., which until this point has limited its lethal assistance to small weapons and ammunition, as well as humanitarian aid. The U.S. has been grappling for ways to boost the rebels, who have lost ground in recent months, allowing Syrian President Bashar Assad to regain a tighter grip on the war-torn nation.
The actual manpad shipments could come from the Saudis, who have so far held off sending in the equipment because of U.S. opposition. [Continue reading...]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia has sidelined its veteran intelligence chief, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, as leader of the kingdom’s efforts to arm and fund Syrian rebels, replacing him with another prince well-regarded by U.S. officials for his successes fighting al Qaeda, Saudi royal advisers said this week.
The change holds promise for a return to smoother relations with the U.S., and may augur a stronger Saudi effort against militants aligned with al Qaeda who have flocked to opposition-held Syrian territory during that country’s three-year war, current and former U.S. officials said.
Prince Bandar, an experienced but at times mercurial ex-diplomat and intelligence chief, presided over Saudi Arabia’s Syria operations for the past two years with little success, as a rift opened up with the U.S. over how much to back rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has won praise in Washington for his counterterror work against al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere, is now a main figure in carrying out Syria policy, a royal adviser and a security analyst briefed by Saudi officials said Tuesday. [Continue reading...]
Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.
Translate this to Syria and this parable takes an ugly twist:
Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and he asks a doctor to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the doctor does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If the doctor were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.
The principle, do no harm, applies just as well to politics as it does to medicine, yet it’s a mistake to view this as a choice between action and inaction. If conceived in those terms, the balance will always incline towards inaction because we can’t know the future. We can never say with certainty that our actions will cause no harm.
Yet if we endeavor to do no harm, we have to recognize that inaction has effects. A passive bystander who actually possesses a significant amount of power yet declines to wield it in any meaningful way, is not lacking in agency. More often, he is simply climbing through the moral escape-hatch which every day affords people across the globe some fragile peace of mind: it’s not my problem. I don’t need to worry about it.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post last week, Stephen Hawking wrote:
What’s happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?
When I discuss intelligent life in the universe, I take this to include the human race, even though much of its behavior throughout history appears not to have been calculated to aid the survival of the species. And while it is not clear that, unlike aggression, intelligence has any long-term survival value, our very human brand of intelligence denotes an ability to reason and plan for not only our own but also our collective futures.
We must work together to end this war and to protect the children of Syria. The international community has watched from the sidelines for three years as this conflict rages, engulfing all hope. As a father and grandfather, I watch the suffering of Syria’s children and must now say: No more.
Hawking is clearly frustrated with global inaction, he sees the suffering of the Syrian population as an affront to any conception of universal justice, and he is appealing for the war to end. What he fails to do is propose any course of action which might lead to that outcome.
A theoretical physicist can reasonably claim he is unqualified to outline such a plan. Nicholas Burns, on the other hand, was a career diplomat and was the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Bush administration. We might expect that while appealing for action he would go further than offer a McCainish something must be done.
There are no easy answers to the Syria crisis. A US-led ground invasion would require something on the scale of the 1991 Gulf War — hundreds of thousands of troops. That’s not in the cards for a president, Congress, and public emerging from two major wars since 9/11. Russia and China continue to shield Syrian President Bashar Assad from international pressure at the UN, going so far as to object to proposals to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. For now, the main, and mainly vain, hope is UN-led talks for a ceasefire and transition from Bashar Assad’s rule. At its current languid pace, that could take years to materialize.
Washington finds itself in an uncharacteristically weak position to drive events in Syria. President Obama has taken force off the table, refusing to strike last September following Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Obama has still not provided effective, lethal support to moderate rebels or threatened strikes on Assad’s air force if the brutal killings continue. As a result, the United States lacks the leverage and credibility to intimidate Assad. The administration plods along the diplomatic path, remaining a responsible contributor of humanitarian aid but lacking the strength to produce a solution on its own.
The one country that could make a decisive difference to stop the fighting is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But Putin, aligned with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, prefers to run arms to the Syrian government and serve as Assad’s de facto lawyer in Geneva.
Putin will never reach a “Srebrenica moment” on Syria. That leaves the rest of us to consider once more — how many more lives will be claimed by Syria’s ceaseless civil war before we are finally shamed to stop the killings?
The question is: how?
Opponents of war, who nowadays seem to be much more concerned about avoiding involvement in other people’s wars than in ending wars — let’s call them the Not-Our-War-ists — seem to commonly have a kind of organic perspective on Syria.
If allowed to, the war will follow its natural course — though no one’s particularly clear about where that leads. In one breath the conflict in Syria involves no “good guys” and thus there is no basis for taking sides. Yet in the next breath, the conflict is driven by external powers and the Assad regime is resisting Western imperialism.
While it’s impossible to construct a coherent picture from these elements, the unifying theme is that Syria must not become another Iraq.
On those terms, since there has been no invasion, no bombs dropped nor cruise missiles launched from American warships, I guess — at least for now — Syria counts as one success story in the campaign to end U.S.-led wars in the Middle East.
While 140,000 have been killed and 6 million Syrians have lost their homes, this hasn’t become America’s war.
If this is mission accomplished, this is the kind of victory that leads to ruin.
So what’s the alternative?
One of the many reasons Americans tend to have a twisted view of war is because the continuation or end of a war has often had so little impact on life in America. Ending a war is a political choice here, but the physical implications play out elsewhere. America and American civilians collectively, face no existential threats.
The day the war ends is not the day the bombs stop dropping because for most Americans during wartime the bombs were always dropping somewhere else. War thus appears to be nothing more than the product of the callous calculations of governments — governments which might just as easily choose to end such wars as they chose to start them.
In Syria, on the other hand, both sides see themselves as facing an existential threat. There can be no return to a status quo ante bellum.
But as much as this is true for the Assad regime, it is not true for its principal supporters. Iran’s future does not depend on its alliance with Syria and neither does Russia’s. And while Hezbollah’s dependence may be the greatest, its involvement in Syria is actually serving to postpone its greatest existential challenge: whether it can ever fully evolve into a political entity, or whether it will always need weapons to compensate for a deficit in its popularity.
Without these three pillars of support, Assad is finished, and everyone knows that all four will not all rise or fall together.
Burns is right that Putin will never reach a “Srebrenica moment” on Syria — but neither will the U.S. and its allies. That moment came and went last August.
So what’s left?
Assad rules Syria from the air and now more than ever through barrel bombs which plummet aimlessly from helicopters. This crude use of power utterly depends on the weakness of his opponent, but that may soon change.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal, quoting Western and Arab diplomatic sources, reported that Saudi Arabia is about to supply Syrian rebel forces with “Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia”.
[I]f the Manpads are supplied in the quantities needed, rebels said it could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favor of the opposition. The antiaircraft and Russian Konkurs antitank weapons would help them chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor.
“New stuff is arriving imminently,” said a Western diplomat with knowledge of the weapons deliveries.
Rebel commanders and leaders of the Syrian political opposition said they don’t know yet how many of the Manpads and antiaircraft missiles they will get. But they have been told it is a significant amount. The weapons are already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey.
Earlier in the conflict, rebels managed to seize a limited number of Manpads from regime forces. But they quickly ran out of the missiles to arm them, the Western diplomat said.
Following the logic that more weapons means more violence, the supply of Manpads would have to be viewed as an unwelcome development. Moreover, no one can plausibly claim that Saudi Arabia has an interest in promoting democracy in the region. Yet assuming that the Manpads do in fact materialize, the most immediate and likely effect they will have is to bring a sudden end to the regime’s use of barrel bombs. Perhaps a broader shift in the balance of power will follow.
An end to this war depends less on finding enough people willing to give peace a chance than it does on changing the status quo.
And while some observers will always be inclined to see nefarious motives in all Saudi actions, their decision at this time, along with Washington’s quiet acquiescence, provides yet another telltale sign of AIPAC’s dwindling power.
The most vociferous opposition to Manpads circulating in Syria comes from Israel — which also happens to be the power that appears most content with a continuing stalemate.
The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia pledged $3 billion to bolster Lebanon’s armed forces, in a challenge to the Iranian-allied Hezbollah militia’s decadeslong status as Lebanon’s main power broker and security force.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman revealed the Saudi gift on Lebanese national television Sunday, calling it the largest aid package ever to the country’s defense bodies. The Saudi pledge compares with Lebanon’s 2012 defense budget, which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put at $1.7 billion.
Lebanon would use the Saudi grant to buy “newer and more modern weapons,” from France, said Mr. Sleiman, an independent who has become increasingly critical of Hezbollah. It followed what he called “decades of unsuccessful efforts” to build a credible Lebanese national defense force.
As a direct challenge to Hezbollah, the Saudi gift—and the Lebanese president’s acceptance—has potential to change the balance of power in Lebanon and the region. It also threatens to raise sectarian and political tensions further in a region already made volatile by the three-year, heavily sectarian civil war next door in Syria.
The Saudi move was announced hours after thousands of Lebanese turned out for the funerals of former cabinet minister Mohamad Chatah and some of the other victims killed Friday in a bombing in downtown Beirut. The bomb was believed to have targeted Mr. Chatah, an outspoken critic of Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanese affairs and security. No group has claimed responsibility. [Continue reading...]
Andy Fitzgerald writes: At the memorial for Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama eulogized the fallen leader:
Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement – a movement that at its start held little prospect of success. Like [Martin Luther] King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed.
Listening in the crowd sat Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s second deputy prime minister. Apparently the words were lost on the government His Royal Highness was representing (though it’s questionable he even relayed the message), because within the next week, a Saudi judge sentenced democratic activist Omar al-Saeed to 4 years in prison and 300 lashes. His crime: calling for a constitutional monarchy (a government that would likely outlaw such cruel and unusual punishment).
Saeed is a member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (Acpra), an organization documenting human rights abuses and calling for democratic reform. He is its fourth member to be sentenced to prison this year. In March, co-founders Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani (who I have met in the past, and previously wrote about) and Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to prison terms of 10 and 5 years on charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and running an unlicensed political organization – despite repeated attempts to obtain a license.
Not surprisingly, there has been no strong public statement from the Obama administration regarding Saeed’s sentencing. [Continue reading...]
Rami G. Khouri writes: Lebanon was jolted into a fresh political crisis on Friday after a car bomb in central Beirut assassinated Mohammad Shatah, a prominent political ally and adviser to former Prime Ministers Saad Hariri and Fouad Siniora. Such attacks have been a sad part of Lebanese political culture since the 1970s. The target, timing and location of the attack perhaps shed light on the perpetrators and purpose of the criminal deed, which killed at least four others and wounded over 70 people.
The attack should probably be analyzed at three levels simultaneously: the domestic confrontation between the March 14 and March 8 coalitions; the armed conflict to bring down or save the Syrian regime; and the wider ideological conflict across the Middle East that is driven to a large extent by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Killing Shatah at this time and in the heart of March 14’s political terrain in West Beirut echoes elements of all three conflicts.
Lebanon has been gripped by political stagnation in its formal governance institutions for much of the past year, as the Parliament, Cabinet and National Dialogue have all been moribund due to a deep ideological divide between the Hariri-led March 14 forces that are close to Saudi Arabia and the Hezbollah-led March 8 camp that is close to Syria and Iran. Both rhetoric and violent actions have escalated between these two groups and their allies in Lebanon in the past year. They are also engaged in combat inside Syria, where Hezbollah and Iran support Bashar Assad’s regime and Lebanese Sunni Salafists are fighting to bring down the Damascus regime. [Continue reading...]
Time magazine reports: Speeches by Hizballah head Hassan Nasrallah are usually predictable affairs. Each time he speaks, be it in front of the podium or from a secure, undisclosed location, the bearded, turbaned and bespectacled leader blends fiery rhetoric, anti-Western exhortations and bombast in a familiar pattern designed to inspire his followers, fire up new recruits and strike fear into enemy Israel. But in an interview with Lebanese TV station OTV late on Tuesday night, he went radically off script, zeroing in on a new target for his rhetorical darts: Saudi Arabia.
Nasrallah rarely mentions Saudi Arabia by name, only referring to the monarchy in vague terms in order to maintain plausible deniability. But that all changed on Tuesday, when he accused Saudi agents of being behind the suicide-bomb attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut last month that claimed 23 lives. (The assassination of a senior Hizballah commander on Wednesday, though the assailants remain unknown, deepened the group’s sense of embattlement.) In doing so he has openly declared a war that has long been fought in the shadows, first in Lebanon where Hizballah-allied parties are at a political impasse with the Saudi-backed Future Movement of Saad Hariri, and now in Syria, where Hizballah, with Iranian assistance, is fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad against Saudi-backed rebels. “This is the first time I have ever seen such a direct attack [by Nasrallah] against Saudi Arabia,” says Lebanon-based political analyst Talal Atrissi. “This was the formal declaration of a war that has been going on in Syria since Saudi first started supporting the rebels.” [Continue reading...]
Al Jazeera reports: Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister who is currently on a tour of the Gulf states, has appealed to Saudi Arabia to work with Iran towards achieving regional stability.
He said on Monday in Doha, Qatar, after visits to Kuwait and Oman for meetings on its recent nuclear deal with world powers that his goal was to assure Gulf Arab states that the deal was in their best interests.
“We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region,” Zarif told AFP news agency.
Zarif suggested the deal should not be seen as a threat.
“This agreement cannot be at the expense of any country in the region,” he said on Sunday. [Continue reading...]
Rami G. Khouri writes: The most striking implication of the agreement signed in Geneva last weekend to ensure that Iran’s nuclear industry does not develop nuclear weapons while gradually removing the sanctions on the country is more about Iran than it is about Iran’s nuclear industry. The important new dynamic that has been set in motion is likely to profoundly impact almost every significant political situation around the Middle East and the world, including both domestic conditions within countries and diplomatic relations among countries.This agreement breaks the long spell of estrangement and hostility between the U.S. and Iran, and signals important new diplomatic behavior by both countries, which augurs well for the entire region. It is also likely to trigger the resumption of the suspended domestic political and cultural evolution of Iran, which also will spur new developments across the Middle East.
Perhaps we can see the changes starting to occur in Iran as similar to the developments in Poland in the early 1980s, when the bold political thrust of the Solidarity movement that enjoyed popular support broke the Soviet Union’s hold on Polish political life, and a decade later led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Empire. The resumption of political evolution inside Iran will probably move rapidly in the years ahead, as renewed economic growth, more personal freedoms, and more satisfying interactions with the region and the world expand and strengthen the relatively “liberal” forces around Rouhani, Rafsanjani, Khatami and others; this should slowly temper, then redefine and reposition, the Islamic revolutionary autocrats who have controlled the power structure for decades but whose hard-line controls are increasingly alien to the sentiments of ordinary Iranians.
These domestic and regional reconfigurations will occur slowly, comprising the situations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council states led by Saudi Arabia. The critical link remains a healthy, normal, nonhostile relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which I suspect will start to come about in the months ahead, as both grasp the exaggerated nature of their competition for influence in the region and learn to behave like normal countries. They will learn to compete on the basis of their soft power among a region of half a billion people who increasingly feel and behave like citizens who have the right to choose how they live, rather than to be dictated to and herded like cattle. [Continue reading...]
Al Jazeera reports: Saudi Arabia has said an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear programme could be a step towards a comprehensive solution – and hoped it could lead to the removal of WMD from the Middle East.
“The government of the kingdom sees that if there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear programme,” the cabinet said in a statement.
It said the deal could eventually lead “to the removal of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, from the Middle East and the Arab Gulf region”.
The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia maintained a pointed silence Sunday on the new nuclear pact between world powers and Saudi Arabia’s top rival, Iran, while other Gulf and Arab states gave a cautious welcome to a deal hoped to ease tensions in a region bloodied by proxy battles between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states.
Saudi political commentators voiced persistent fears that Iran would now see itself as freed to advance on other, non-nuclear fronts against its Middle East rivals.
By early Monday in the Middle East, most of the region’s Muslim powers — Turkey, Egypt, and at least four of the six wealthy Arab Gulf countries — had issued statements expressing support for the deal. The United Arab Emirates., a commerce-minded nation that traditionally has thrived on doing business with both Iran and Arab states, welcomed the deal as one it hoped would protect the region “from the tension and danger of nuclear proliferation,” the emirates’ council of ministers said.
Saudi Arabia, the most powerful of the Arab states and the most intensely suspicious rival of Shiite Iran, made no public comment on the pact Sunday, and its foreign ministry didn’t return requests for comment. [Continue reading...]