The complaining by Saudi officials over the past months seems to have paid off. The Obama administration is moving to patch up differences between the two countries.
A little over a month before the one-day summit between the U.S. President and Saudi King Abdullah, there is optimism. The visit of Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef’s to Washington is setting into play a new understanding on the Syrian situation.
Significantly, King Abdullah put Mohammed bin Nayef in charge of the Syrian file, a move that makes Washington policymakers relieved. Simultaneously, the Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh praised the Interior Minister’s role in “relief of Syrian people, support for their cause, alleviation of their sufferings.” This religious endorsement is extraordinarily significant.
Nayef a good fit
Nayef is perfectly suited for the Syrian portfolio. For one, he, just like Saudi Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard Prince Miteb, was never a supporter of interfering in Syria. The Saudi Interior Minister is well respected by the United States, and within the Kingdom, and is well liked by fellow Saudi princes and tribes.
Most importantly is Nayef’s successful de-radicalization program meant to convert violent extremists to peaceful, pious individuals.
The program, already successful in the kingdom, is now a foreign policy mechanism and has a militarized component.
The Saudi program to organize, train, and equip moderate fighters through the Islamic Front is significant given Nayef’s expertise in de-radicalization. The future of anti-Assad fighters in the Islamic Front, and others who seek to join the rebels, will possibly be vetted and monitored for jihadist tendencies and rhetoric.
According to The Washington Post, the meetings in the U.S. capital was also attended by intelligence chiefs from Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and other countries that have been supporting the rebels. Sources said these countries agreed to coordinate their aid so that it goes directly to moderate fighters.
But what Nayef is trying to do with the Americans is set the stage for a Geneva III. His new mandate opens up this possibility. And Obama wants the Saudis on board in order to achieve Syrian opposition cohesion and transfer of the Geneva talks to Damascus itself.Dr. Theodore Karasik
His Highness also set up the agenda of the March Summit to discuss Syria but also to explain face to face the kingdom’s viewpoints on Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Egypt. His argument, according to interlocutors, is that Riyadh’s actions, such as with Egyptian Field Marshal al-Sisi, are aimed at stopping the chaos that will ultimately affect America.
But there are other issues at play in understanding the new stage. The Saudis, according to Arab sources, are facing a threat of the 15,000 radicalized and violent Saudis in Syria and 7,000 in Iraq. The king’s royal decree issued in early February imposing tough prison sentences (most up to dozens of years in prison) on any Saudi national who “participates in hostilities outside of the Kingdom in any way” explicitly criminalizes fighting abroad, and was aimed squarely at those sympathizing with extremist rebel groups in Syria.
In other words, the Saudi nationals are not to return home. This policy may mean that those fighting in the Levant on behalf of al-Qaeda will need to fight to the death or move elsewhere. This fact may not play well with the United States who sees the Syrian battle-space as a terrorist incubator; a point that has has been argued over and over again.
Regulate and coordinate military activity
The United States and Saudi Arabia have reportedly agreed on the need to regulate and coordinate military activity on the ground and to concentrate on key regions where the Islamic Front can seize control and negotiate peace settlements with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, one meter at a time.
The two countries also see that Syrian President al-Assad is not going to capitulate anytime soon so the two countries—including other key Arab states—see summer elections occurring in Syria.
In other words, the Saudis see Assad ultimately becoming the Queen of England while the prime minister, whoever that will be—most likely a Sunni—will hold real power; a scenario the Saudi’s were originally seeking in the first place. The country will become a type of confessional state and will seek to eradicate al-Qaeda completely.
Clearly, America and Saudi Arabia now agree that Assad will not be deposed. In fact, the Saudi official media no longer issues bitter condemnations of the Syrian president like it did a few months ago.
When the two leaders meet, it is very likely that President Obama will tell the Saudi King that the kingdom’s policies need to be renewed or Saudi Arabia will face their own troubles—a fact already well known.
The American president will make clear that all previous policies of the now disgraced and rogue Prince Bandar bin Sultan will be reversed and that the U.S. will support Saudi Arabia on the Syria file within Nayef’s mandate, both publically and privately.
But what Nayef is trying to do with the Americans is set the stage for a Geneva III. His new mandate opens up this possibility. And Obama wants the Saudis on board in order to achieve Syrian opposition cohesion and transfer of the Geneva talks to Damascus itself—before the Syrian presidential elections are to be supposedly held.
The process in play is stabilizing Syria jointly and internationally, finding unity and rebuilding the Syrian state in a new manner. Finally, President Obama will argue that the biggest threat is the jihadists and that American-Saudi cooperation on this issue is the most important point of all. This bi-lateral effort is now over ten years old. All of the above is to be completed in a one day summit, eye-to-eye.
Overall, Nayef’s appointment speaks volumes about cleaning up the mess in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. He is now the king’s point man on Syria. The minister of the interior is supported by many friends and colleagues in the United States. The two countries seem to have found a way to agree on the Syrian file in the short term through Nayef’s visit and discussions regarding Riyadh’s regional objectives.
Unlike a few weeks ago, when no plan and recklessness seemed to be the order of the day, a framework now seems to be in play that is acceptable to the Saudi leadership.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.