Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman dropped a bombshell in the course of a weekend interview with Time magazine that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is not going to be ousted from power. He said, “Bashar is staying. But I believe Bashar’s interest is not to let the Iranians do whatever they want to do.”

This remark by the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia is a stunning reversal of Riyadh’s policies in Syria hinged on “regime change” in Damascus. One can call it an admission of defeat. But then, there is always the tantalizing possibility of sub-plots in politics and this could be one such situation of sub-plots gaining ascendance.

MBS, 32, remains an enigma wrapped in mystery. Some say he’s a great reformer while others call him an impetuous practitioner of coercive politics. Indeed, the two personality traits needn’t be contradictory necessarily, as history shows.

What cannot be overlooked is that MBS belongs to a new generation, which is acutely conscious of the Kingdom acquiring the skills of “soft power”. Soft power traditionally meant money power in the Saudi political lexicon. But things are changing.

Bid to win friends and influence

No Saudi ruler ever before launched such a media blitzkrieg as a curtain raiser to visits to the UK and the US. The Saudi public diplomacy used to be brash, but today there is an earnest attempt to win friends and influence people. And these are early days for MBS’s rule.

Put differently, Saudi diplomacy is transitioning. Thus, while on a visit to the US, MBS announces on the one hand that Saudi Arabia and Russia (read MBS and Vladimir Putin) – have agreed on a long-term energy alliance, while on the other hand, effectively signaling that he is ready to do business with Bashar.

Evidently, MBS is thinking through the Saudi predicament. Stable, high oil prices are achievable only with Russia’s cooperation and such a convergence simply doesn’t exist with the US – although the petrodollar is the life-blood of the American economy and US-led international financial system.

MBS has just announced that the curtain is coming down on the 70-year-old “oil-for-security” pact between Saudi Arabia and the US agreed upon by Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, founder of the Saudi Kingdom, in 1946 on the banks of the Nile.

Curiously, in a journey that took a quarter of a century, China chose just this past week to open its own oil futures on the Shanghai International Energy Exchange in contracts that will be denominated in yuan rather than US dollars, and where a futures contract is based on a basket of medium and heavy crudes that closely resembles grades that China imports in significant volumes from Saudi Arabia and Russia. The cacophony over the Skripal spy case should not detract the profound strategic implications of the Saudi-Russian oil alliance that MBS announced.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, November 14, 2017. Photo: Sana / Handout via Reuters

Saudis at odds with Trump on Syria

Again, MBS chose to speak of the dramatic shift in the Saudi policy toward Syria while he is still on American soil. Importantly, he spoke soon after meeting President Donald Trump in the White House on March 20 and discussing Syria with Defence Secretary James Mattis.

Even more importantly, MBS’s interview with Time followed just hours after Trump told a cheering crowd in Richfield, Ohio on Thursday, “We’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now, very soon. Very soon, we’re coming out.”

MBS, nonetheless, disagrees: “We believe American troops should stay for at least the mid-term, if not the long-term.” He told Time that the American troop presence inside Syria was the last effort stopping Iran from continuing to expand influence with regional allies, besides allowing Washington to have a say in Syria’s future.

But how far his sage advice will influence Trump is in serious doubt. In fact, after Trump spoke, news trickled in that two US military personnel were killed and five others wounded in the northeastern Syrian town of Manjib in a bomb attack on Thursday. On Friday, the White House provided an official transcript of Trump’s getting out “very-soon” remarks in Ohio.

On Saturday, reports appeared that Trump has separately ordered this week a hold on more than $200 million in recovery funds for Syria earmarked for basic infrastructure projects, such as restoring power and water and rebuilding roads, demanding more information on how the money would be used and also seeking that other countries step up to the plate and pay more.

CBS News reported that the decision was relayed to the State Department on Friday in a call that White House chief of staff John Kelly made to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. To be sure, MBS is astute enough to know that recent changes in the State Department and White House National Security Council significantly enables Trump to force his will on the Administration’s Syria policies.

MBS is reportedly set to visit Baghdad and Najaf very soon. A Saudi consulate may open in Najaf, the holy center of (Iraqi) Shi’ism. Following Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s two visits to Saudi Arabia last year, the rapprochement between the two countries rapidly gained traction, especially in the economic field.

Supporters of Iraqi Hezbollah protest in Baghdad against the upcoming visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on March 30. Photo: Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani

Similarly, MBS prefers to put Saudi money where the mouth is – in Damascus – rather than fund the Pentagon commanders’ fanciful infrastructure projects in power and water or rebuilding roads on a remote patch of land in the middle of nowhere along the western banks of the Euphrates.

MBS sees that the “regime change” agenda in Syria has exhausted itself. Make no mistake, he hinted at doing business with Bashar. After all, Bashar is no stranger to the Saudi royals.

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