x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Prince Mohammed appointment highlights Saudi Arabia’s terrorism concerns over Syria

Riyadh fears blowback from militants fighting to overthrow Bashar Al Assad and has asked Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is well regarded in Washington for his efforts to combat Al Qaeda, to look after its Syria policy, a move that analysts say brings Saudi Arabia closer to the US.

New York // Riyadh’s reported replacement of its Syria policy point man, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, with a more senior anti-Al Qaeda figure, signals a closer alignment of Saudi and US objectives in Syria on counter-terrorism and a smoother relationship than that of the last six months, analysts say.

The interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has taken on the role of carrying out Riyadh’s Syria policy, is well regarded in Washington for his efforts to combat Al Qaeda in the kingdom and Yemen over the past decade, and help in foiling terrorist plots against the US.

“Mohammed bin Nayef is perceived in Washington as someone who fights Al Qaeda, and second, is closer to the top in terms of transition in Saudi Arabia itself. So those two things give him a special role in this situation,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute For Near East Policy. The prince is thought to be one of the top candidates to one day become king.

The switch came just weeks after Saudi King Abdullah issued a new law that mandates harsh punishments for Saudis who travel abroad to fight in places such as Syria and Iraq. It is estimated that between 1,000 and 3,000 Saudis have joined Islamist rebels in Syria.

Prince Mohammed’s new role, as well as the new law, “indicates that the Saudis are more concerned now than they were even six months ago with the domestic blowback of the fight against Bashar Al Assad”, the Syrian president, said F Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi affairs at the Brookings Doha Centre.

“This puts them more in line with Washington’s fears about the growth of [extremists] in Syria,” he added.

The shake-up of Saudi’s Syria policy also coincides with a review of Washington’s policies there after stalled peace talks in Geneva. Damascus’s main international backer, Russia, was unable to push Mr Al Assad to even discuss political transition, and Barack Obama admitted that his strategy in Syria was failing.

“It’s hard to fight Al Qaeda in Syria without having the Saudis on side and so there’s a lot more cooperation in terms of pressuring the regime and in dealing with extremism,” said Mr Tabler. “That’s the reason why you’ve seen some of the more recent changes.”

The Saudi-US relationship has suffered since August, when Mr Obama decided at the eleventh hour to avert a missile strike on Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Riyadh and other Arabian Gulf allies have also long been frustrated by Mr Obama’s refusal to allow more sophisticated weapons to flow to rebel groups.

Prince Bandar was thought to be one of the more vocal critics of these positions and was reportedly at loggerheads with senior US officials such as US Secretary of State John Kerry. His replacement with Prince Mohammed shows “a desire on both sides to walk back some of the rhetoric about a more serious split” and ease tensions over Syria, Mr Gause said.

Prince Mohammed, who met the CIA chief and other senior officials in Washington last week in preparation for Mr Obama’s trip to Riyadh next month, was also reported by the Wall Street Journal, which first disclosed his new role, to emphasise a renewed focus on diplomatic pressure and outreach to Mr Al Assad’s allies Russia, Iran and Hizbollah.

This would dovetail with the stated US goal of facilitating a political transition in Syria rather than an outright rebel victory that could lead to a protracted civil war or more territory for groups linked to Al Qaeda.

But the analysts cautioned against reading too much into the closer alignment of US and Saudi tactics in Syria, and that Riyadh is still committed to helping rebels overthrow Mr Al Assad. “These moves lessen the distance but I still see real differences between Riyadh and Washington on overall Syria policy,” Mr Gause said.

Mr Obama is unlikely to take the larger steps that Riyadh and other allies would like, such as a green light for more powerful weapons and a no-fly zone.

“I don’t think that they can find a way that will dramatically affect the balance of forces on the ground, limit the strength of more extreme Islamist groups, and not have the US be directly involved,” Mr Gause said. “They’re always looking for that but it is an impossible find.”

However, clearer coordination between the US and Saudi Arabia could lead to longer-term strategic gains for the opposition.

“Alignment on the issue of counter-terrorism would work towards rather than against political transition in Syria, so long as Saudi Arabia and the US shared broadly similar views about what constitutes a terrorist organisation,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank.

Washington recognises that the Assad regime’s brutality caused the rise of extremist groups in Syria and also that the more moderate rebels are the ones fighting against them, Mr Tabler said.

Senior intelligence officials from these countries reportedly met in Washington earlier this month to come to agreement on which rebel groups can be supported.

“Closer Qatari-Turkish-Saudi alignment on the rebellion … is a significant development that could indeed help consolidate a rebel force or coalition of forces,” added Mr Itani. “Divisions between external rebel supporters working at cross-purposes was quite harmful.”

While Syrian opposition officials say they are now seeing more coordination than competition on the political track, the difficulty of bringing together even ostensibly allied rebel fighters remains.

tkhan@thenational.ae