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Peter Ford Comments on Developments in Syria and Post-Kashoggi Saudi Arabia

Peter Ford, former UK Ambassador to Syria 2003 – 2006 kindly responded to my request for a comment on the latest developments in Syria, particularly the potential opening of the UAE Embassy in Damascus.

“Since my piece was written we have seen the Saudis send a $100 million cheque to Washington for ‘stabilisation’ in the Kurdish proto-statelet but it hasn’t got the US security state off MBS’s case. (The security state is a jealous state. It resents anybody else, even including Saudis and Israelis, having pull in Washington to rival its own.)(These developments and shifting of alliances do not mean) that Syria is about to ditch Iran. I think Iran welcomes the development if it means a stronger Syria.”Here is Peter’s prophetic piece that was written one month ago:

Cui bono? Who benefits from the Khashoggi affair?

Regardless of whodunnit, we are clearly seeing some frantic and at times exquisitely cynical attempts by different players to deal with the new reality created by the Khashoggi affair. So who are emerging as the winners and losers?

First let’s look at the main losers, after Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia itself of course: the US.

After shilly-shallying for a couple of days the US administration has been forced to come down heavily on Saudi Arabia by the emergence of video and audio evidence obtained by Turkish intelligence. To continue, in the face of this, to call for a Saudi investigation (into what appears to be their own crime) would have been just too much, even for this US administration. Amongst other things it would make it harder to ridicule suggestions that Russia should participate in investigation of itself for alleged outrages in the US and the UK.

In such circumstances loyalty to allies counts for nothing and the US has just saved its own face and tossed Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) under the bus by leaking US intercepts of details of Saudi plans to lure the journalist to Riyadh and by confirming the credibility in US eyes of the Turkish claims. At the same time, Trump has brazenly made it clear that the US is not going to take this fit of morality to the point of actually making a financial sacrifice by limiting arms sales. Rather we can expect to see a slow working of the Magnitsky Act towards ‘targeted’ sanctions against named individuals such as those spotted in the videos, but perhaps not great princes unless further evidence comes to light. The ultra-pro-US Foreign Minister, a commoner, should perhaps be feeling his collar if his name was on any intercepted diplomatic cables. Not that the ‘great’ princes will get away scot free: they will inescapably be ostracised, unwelcome to visit the US (and therefore other Western capitals including London) for quite some time.

This new deep rift between Washington and Riyadh does not come out of the blue. In recent weeks there have been reports of tension, notably over apparent Saudi reluctance to compensate for the Iranian oil which is going to be lost to the global market as a result of the next imminent round of US sanctions by upping supply and thereby helping to keep prices down. Saudi wants to eke out its remaining oil over as long a period as possible and keep prices high. In addition Saudi has been reluctant to stump up for the de facto US occupation of Northern Syria. Trump notoriously detests paying for nation-building in the Middle East and wants the Saudis to foot the bill for the administration, recovery, policing and defence of an area as big as Lebanon. Saudi is already economically stretched enough. There may also be friction over the never-quite-there Kushner peace plan, the Saudis, whatever the princes’ private feelings about the Palestinians, baulking at endorsing what most of the Arab world including most Saudis would see as a shameful sellout. This will be even more the case now as MBS seeks to shore up his domestic front.

It’s not all loss for the US. Relations with Turkey which were going through a rocky patch will be improved by this cooperation over Khashoggi. And the fundamentals of the partnership with Saudi Arabia are not likely to be damaged beyond the short term.

Or are they? It may not be long before a probably paranoid MBS starts to worry about the Americans replacing him with a more reliable prince (and he might have reason!). It will be no surprise if, casting around in his now almost complete isolation he looks earnestly towards Moscow, possibly the only important world capital in which he would be welcome right now.

The canny Russians have been conspicuously cautious in commenting on the Khashoggi affair. Russian media outlets have been putting it about that maybe there is a ‘third party’ which somehow ‘disappeared’ the journalist. Poor MBS however if he thinks the Russians will help to make him frequentable for nothing.

One area in which we might see fallout is Syria. Already in recent weeks in the margins of the UN General Assembly there were signs that Saudi allies in the Gulf were willing to start bringing Syria back into the fold. Saudi will not be happy that it is a Qatari protege, HTS (Hay’at Tahrir Ash Sham, ex Nusra), which is the dominant party in Iblib. In their new post-Khashoggi weakened state the Saudis may be open to Russian requests to rein in the groups in Idlib which they continue to support, and to start discussing a Saudi role in reconstruction. It’s an ill wind…..

Meanwhile Qatar, enemy of Saudi, friend of Turkey, is laughing like a drain. Al Jazeera is having a field day. Khashoggi may not have been a Qatari stooge but he had sympathies for the Qatari-(and Turkish-) supported Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and vocally opposed Saudi criminalisation of the MB. The split down the middle of the Gulf has just got even wider.

With regard to Saudi Arabia itself we shall probably see the Saudis try to brazen it out but if more evidence emerges, fall guys will have to be found. However it may not be that easy to find fall guys, as anybody who is anybody in Saudi Arabia has powerful relatives. Much land and cash would have to change hands. In the meanwhile we could expect to see MBS spending even more time on his yacht in Jedda harbour for self protection and doubling down on repression.

Externally, as mentioned a weakened isolated Saudi will have to look further afield for friends. Might it reconsider its failing and expensive war on Yemen? That would be a humiliation for MBS and cause a fresh problem with the US, which foolishly sees the Yemen as a way to get at Iran.

Interestingly Iran itself has reacted more cautiously to the Khashoggi affair than Western countries. Iran could yet be one of the gainers from any repivoting of Saudi Arabia which comes about as a result of the Khashoggi affair and more particularly the US reaction to it.