The recent acts of political violence in the Middle East’s Levant are not unrelated.
Car bombings in the predominantly Shia southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh; twin bombings targeting Sunni mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli; an alleged chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus blamed on the Syrian government; a secret IDF operation across the Lebanese border foiled by Hezbollah; rockets lobbed by an Al Qaeda-related group into Israel; an IDF airstrike on a pro-Damascus Palestinian resistance group base in Lebanon…
From one perspective, the common thread is the crisis in Syria, where a 29-month conflict has cemented divisions in the rest of the region and set the stage for an existential fight on multiple battlefields between two highly competitive Mideast blocs.
From another perspective, the common thread drawing these disparate crimes scenes together is the “culprit” – one who has strong political interest, material capabilities and the sense of urgency to commit rash and violent actions on many different fronts.
In isolation, none of these acts are capable of producing a “result.” But combined, they are able to instill fear in populations, stir governments into action, and in the short term, to create the perception of a shift in regional “balances.”
And no parties in the Mideast are more vested right now in urgently “correcting” the regional balance of power than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the state of Israel – both nations increasingly frustrated by the inaction of their western allies and the incremental gains of their regional rivals Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and now Iraq.
Worse yet, with every passing month the “noose of multilateralism” tightens, as rising powers Russia, China and others offer protective international cover for those foes. Israel and Saudi Arabia are keenly aware that the age of American hegemony is fast declining, and with it, their own regional primacy.
Common foes, common goals
At the helm of efforts to “correct” the imbalance is Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the US’s longtime go-to man in Riyadh – whose 22-year reign as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington provided him with excellent contacts throughout the Israeli political and military establishment
Like Israel, Bandar has long been a vocal advocate of curtailing the regional influences of Iran and Syria and forging a neocon-style “New Middle East” – sometimes to his detriment.
When he all but disappeared from public view in 2008, one of the reasons cited for Bandar’s “banishment” from the royal circle of influence was that he had “meddled in Syrian affairs, trying to stir up the tribes against the Assad regime, without the king’s approval.”
The frustrated Bandar, who at the time officially headed Saudi’s National Security Council, was also notably absent when Saudi King Abdullah paid a highly visible visit to the Syrian president in late 2009 to renew relations after four years of bitter tensions.
All that changed with the Arab uprisings in early 2011. Regime-change in Syria – according to an acquaintance who visited various prominent Saudi ministers (all key royals) in 2012 – suddenly become a national priority for the al-Saud family. According to this shocked source, the Saudis had come to believe that if the battle for control over Syria “is lost,” the kingdom would lose its Shia-dominated Eastern Province where its vast oil reserves are concentrated.
That year marked Bandar’s return to influence in the kingdom, and within short order he was promoted to head the powerful Saudi Intelligence Agency, known for its myriad links into the underworld of global jihadis.
But the kingdom’s once-reliable western powerhouse ally, the United States, appeared to be withdrawing from the region. Highly sensitive to the fall-out over its aggressive interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington was shying away from the kind of overt leadership that the Saudis desperately needed to re-establish their equilibrium in the region.
Which is where Bandar comes into the picture. The former ambassador to Washington has the kind of relationships that go deep – no Saudi knows how to twist American arms better than he. But to push western allies in the desired direction, the Saudis were in need of an influential and opportunistic ally that was also passionately fixated on the same set of adversaries. That partner would be Israel.
Says a 2007 Wikileaks cable from the US embassy in Riyadh:
“We have also picked up first hand accounts of intra-family tension over policy towards Israel. Some princes, most notably National Security Advisor Bandar Bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, are reportedly pushing for more contact with Israel. Bandar now sees Iran as a greater threat than Israel.”
Bandar’s ascendancy to his current position suggests more than ever that the Saudis, at least for now, have put aside their reservations over dealing with Israel. And Iran’s election of a moderate new President Hassan Rouhani has brought urgency to the Saudi-Israeli relationship – both fearing the possibility of a US-Iranian grand bargain that could sink their fortunes further.
Putting wheels into motion
For Riyadh and Tel Aviv, Syria is the frontline battle from which they seek to cripple the Iranians in the region. None have been as ferocious in lobbying Washington on the issue of Syrian “chemical weapons use” and “red lines” as this duo – perhaps even setting up false flag operations to force its hand. Since last Winter, says the Wall Street Journal:
“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 US, which reached a similar conclusion four months later.”
The following Spring, it was Israel’s turn. In an article entitled “Did Israel Ambush the United States on Syria,” Alon Ben David says:
“By stating that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the director of Israel’s Military Intelligence Research Department, cornered the Americans. Washington finally — and very tentatively — admitted that such weapons had been used. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to ambush the Americans, it was a phenomenal success. From an Israeli standpoint, this was a chance to test America’s supposed “red line.”
The Russians, however, have stood in the way of every effort to draw the US into intervening directly in Syria. In the past year, the Saudis and Israelis have tag-teamed Moscow, by turns cajoling, threatening and dangling incentives to shift the Russians from their immovable position.
Just last month, Bandar beat a path to Moscow to test Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appetite for compromise. According to leading Lebanese daily As-Safir, a private diplomatic report on the Saudi prince’s visit claims that Bandar employed a “carrot-and-stick” approach to wrest concessions from Putin on Syria and Iran.
In what has to be the most delusional statement I’ve heard in a while, Bandar allegedly told the Russian president: “There are many common values and goals that bring us together, most notably the fight against terrorism and extremism all over the world.” He continued with a threat:
“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 the report, Putin responded to Bandar thus: “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 ibn Israel: a terror Frankenstein
Chechen jihadis have, of course, turned up in Syria to fight alongside their brethren from dozens of other countries against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the past two years.
The Saudi links go beyond jihadis though. Seventeen months ago in Homs – and barely a month after the battle over Baba Amr – 24 Syrian rebels groups sent an email to the externally-based Syrian National Council, complaining about the rogue behavior of the Saudi-funded Al Farouq Battalion. This is the group to which the infamous lung-eating Syrian rebel once belonged.
Alleging that Al Farouq was responsible for killing at least five rebels and fomenting violence against civilians and other fighters, the group wrote:
“The basis of the crisis in the city today is groups receiving uneven amounts of money from direct sources in Saudi Arabia some of whom are urging the targeting of loyalist neighborhoods and sectarian escalation while others are inciting against the SNC. They are not national, unifying sources of support. On the contrary, mature field leaders have noted that receiving aid from them [Saudi Arabia] entails implicit conditions like working in ways other than the desired direction.”
In a reprisal of his role in Afghanistan where he helped the CIA arm the Mujahedeen – who later came to form the backbone of the Taliban and Al Qaeda – Bandar is now throwing funding, weapons and training at the very same kinds of Islamist militants who are establishing an extreme version of Sharia law in territories they hold inside Syria.
Says an analyst at a Beirut-based think tank:
“These fighters, many of whom are ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda, are much more pragmatic today. They are ready to take funding, facilities and arms from the Saudis (who previously they targeted). There is no concept of a main enemy – it could be the US, Russians, Iranians, Saudis, Muslim Brotherhood. Their only priority is to use the new situation of instability in the region to form a core territorial base. They now think in Syria they have a real opportunity to regenerate Al Qaeda that they didn’t have since their defeat in Iraq. In the Sinai too. Through a central Syrian base they are ready to converge with other regional actors from which they will move into Lebanon, Iraq and other places.”
“Some of them know Bandar for a long time,” says the analyst. “There have always been Saudi intelligence officers dedicated to oversee jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya.”
Though the Saudis tell Washington that their goal is to keep extremists out of power in Syria, elements in the US administration remain uncomfortable about where this could end. Says the Wall Street Journal, quoting a former official concerned about weapons flowing into jihadi hands: “This has the potential to go badly” – an understatement, if ever there was one.
Using Lebanon as a lever
Whereas western powers have sought to maintain stability on the Lebanese front, the Saudis – who lost influence in the Levantine state when Hezbollah and its allies forced the dissolution of a Riyadh-backed government in early 2011 – are not as inclined to keep the peace.
Paramount for Bandar’s Syria plans is halting the battlefield assistance Hezbollah has provided for the Syrian army in key border towns which had become supply routes for rebels.
To punish Hezbollah and weaken its regional allies, the Saudis have used their own alliances in Lebanon to hammer daily at the Shia resistance group’s role in Syria. One easy route is to sow sectarian tensions in multi-sect Lebanon – a tactic at which the conservative Wahhabi Saudis excel. Pitting Sunni against Shia through a series of well-planned acts of political violence is child’s play for Saudis who have decades of expertise overseeing such acts – just look at the escalation of sectarian bombings in Iraq today as example.
This does not necessarily mean that Riyadh is involved in planning these operations though.
Says the Beirut analyst: “The escalation may be Saudi-run, but not necessarily the deed itself. (When they back these Islamist extremists in Lebanon), they know the software of these people. They know they will attack Shia and moderate Sunni, use rockets, car bombs, etc. They empower these groups being conscious of the consequences. These guys are predictable. And the Saudis also have some trusted men among these groups who will act in a way that will conform to Saudi interests and projects.”
The diplomatic report on the Bandar’s Moscow visit concludes: “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.”
Two bombings: one, targeting a Shia neighborhood, the second aimed at Sunni residents. On another front, the IDF launches a secret mission across the Lebanese border, swiftly thwarted by a Hezbollah counterattack. Soon after, an Al Qaeda linked group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB), which last year acknowledged its fight against the Syrian state, launches four rockets into Israeli territory. Israel does not retaliate against this Salafist militia though. The IDF choses instead to strike at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that supports the Resistance in Lebanon and Syria.
It appears that Israel, like the Saudis, has a message to relay to Lebanon: Hezbollah should stay out of Syria or Lebanon will bear the consequences.
The escalation of violence in the region – from Lebanon to Iraq – is today very much a Bandar-Israel project. And the sudden escalation of military threats by Washington against the Assad government is undoubtedly a result of pressures and rewards dangled by this duo.
While Putin may have told Bandar to take a hike when the he offered to purchase $15 billion in weapons in exchange for a compromise on Syria and Iran, the British and French are beggars for this kind of business. Washington too. With $65 billion in arms sales to the kingdom in process, the Obama administration is prostituting Americans for cold, hard cash.
Let there be no mistake. Bandar ibn Israel is going for gold and will burn the Middle East to get there.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.
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