Here is a prediction: if the current war in Syria is not contained it will only be a matter of time before it affects any and all the countries that have become both part of the solution, as well as party to the problem. High among that list figures Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. All three are major oil and natural gas producers
In recent years sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community in efforts to contain the Islamic Republic’s quest for nuclear capability have limited Iran’s contribution to the oil markets, but any imposed changes on Saudi’s input or Qatar’s natural gas contribution could wreak havoc on the international energy markets.
Is it perhaps with that in mind that Saudi Arabia has sidelined the long-serving diplomat and head of the country’s intelligence services as the lead person in charge of steering Saudi involvement into – and hopefully out of-- the Syrian conflict?
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What began as domestic strife when a group of youths scribbled anti-government graffiti on public walls and were arrested and tortured went on to become a civil war between supporters and opponents of the Baath regime in Syria.
But in the three years since the fighting began, the war has again evolved, now turning into a precarious conflict opposing Sunni and Shi’a; Arabs and Iranians and Russians and Americans as a revival of the Cold War looms on the not too far off horizon.
The violence has gone well past Syria’s borders affecting all its neighbors. Several millions of Syria refugees have sought safety in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, placing additional strain on the host countries. Fighting has periodically spilled over into Turkey and far more often and more violent, into Lebanon.
During that time relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have suffered as a result over diverging opinions and has reached an all-time low.
This all came to a head recently with the Saudis recognizing the fact that something should finally change. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, an influential figure in Saudi politics has been replaced as the point man on the Syrian dossier.
Bandar, who is at times is described as “mercurial,” led the Saudi effort to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad for almost three years now. It was also with Bandar at the helm of Saudi Arabia’s Syria policy that relations with the United States hit the lowest point ever.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the richest and most influential of the Arab oil-producing countries. It is also one of the most conservative countries on earth. As a general rule, the Saudi’s prefer to maintain a steady status quo and not rock the boat. Change, when it comes, is slow and infrequent. This is true with most things in the country and is particularly noticeable when it comes to the people running this country. Major appointments are in for the long run. So when change does come about it is noticed.
As the Saudi royal family began getting more and more involved in the Syrian civil war, it made sense to have one of the most experienced members of the government, the long-time serving head of the country’s intelligence service take charge of the dossier.
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Those in the know found it to be a good match. Prince Bandar had the experience needed for the job and the revenue from the more than generous dividends from the sale of Saudi Arabia’s oil and natural gas to back him up. He was also a good friend of the United States, an additional asset.
The Saudi spymaster at first tried to act discreetly, as per the norm, conducting business in the shadows. But soon his more outwardly manner took the upper hand and he clashed with many. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was his disagreement over the bombing of Syria by the US and its allies.
Replacing Bandar are two very well known men: the current Interior minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, and the head of the Saudi National Guard and son of the king, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah.
Both men have high standing with the United States and have won praise from Washington for their handling of the al-Qaida threat when the terrorist organization had launched a nation-wide terror campaign against the Saudis and all foreigners in the kingdom some years back.
Some analysts predict that this is likely to usher a new phase in the Syria civil war that is very likely to an era of greater diplomacy and less military action.
This, however, is not a given when one takes into account the track records of the two princes who defeated al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia. Here however is a safe prediction to make: there will be more instability until the fighting in Syria subsides regardless of which princes in Saudi Arabia or which president in the White House are in charge of the chaotic mess that Syria has become.
By Claude Salhani