Saudi Purge a Part of Murky Developments in West Asia That Presage Escalation of Conflict

With an opposition-less Prince Mohammed cosily ensconced with his American and Israeli allies, the three belligerent powers in the region are squaring up for a battle to rid Israel and Saudi Arabia of any challenge to their dominance.

File photo of U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two men are shown here at their meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Saturday, November 4, was an extraordinary day: it witnessed three developments which, taken together, suggest a major escalation in the armed conflict in West Asia is in the offing, even as the region is already groaning under the violence of bloody wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, in which half a million people have been killed and several million have been displaced.

Saudi Arabia is at the heart of all these developments. First, in a dramatic coup within the royal family, engineered by King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 11 princes have been detained, along with four sitting ministers and several former ministers and officials.

Three developments

Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the commander of the National Guard, the country’s powerful domestic security force, has been summarily dismissed, so that force has now also come under the control of the crown prince. The instrument used to effect these changes is the anti-corruption committee set up by the king on Saturday, with the crown prince as its chairman.

The second development was the sudden announcement in Riyadh by the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, that he was resigning. Hariri had taken charge only in December 2016 after entering into a power-sharing agreement with President Michel Aoun. In his public remarks, Hariri said that Iran had planted “disorder and destruction” in his country and had made Hezbollah a “state within a state” in Lebanon.

Hariri’s announcement has plunged Lebanon into a fresh crisis, when it has barely recovered from the two-year impasse earlier when it could not agree on a president until Aoun, said to enjoy the backing of Hezbollah, took over in a compromise arrangement and later got Hariri on board. Hariri’s resignation means that the power-sharing arrangement has collapsed, setting the stage for a deep national divide between Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor on one side and Hariri, with Saudi backing, on the other.

As Saturday came to an end, there was news that the Houthis in Yemen had fired a missile at Saudi Arabia’s international airport in Riyadh. The kingdom announced that the missile had been intercepted by US-supplied Patriot missiles and destroyed before it could do any damage. Houthi sources said the missile was a Burkan-2H, a home-made variant of the Scud missile, which is available to the Houthis in large quantities. Later that day, Saudi airstrikes were launched at Sanaa, the first night attack in several weeks.

A Houthi spokesman said that the missile strike was “in response to the Saudi killing of innocent Yemeni civilians”, a reference to the nearly 14,000 civilian casualties in the Yemen war, including over 5,000 dead, largely as a result of air attacks by the Riyadh-led coalition.

The spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen said that a “regional state” was providing material support to the Houthis and that the missile “threatens the security of the kingdom and regional and international security”. The statement added: “This hostile and random act by the Houthis proves that one of the terrorism-supporting countries in the region supports the Houthis.”

Purge in Saudi Arabia

The purge of the princes, unprecedented in recent Saudi politics, is clearly aimed as clearing the way for Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ascend the throne. Rumour has it that this will take place early next year. Alternatively, the king could continue to hold the throne but make his son prime minister, turning the monarch into a titular head of state for the first time in Saudi history.

The abrupt sacking of Miteb removes an important centre of power so far outside the crown prince’s control. Till now, it had been speculated that Miteb had not been removed because of the personal loyalty that the national guard would have for him, given that the guard had been led by Miteb’s father and former ruler, King Abdullah, since 1962. Perhaps, the crown prince now has reason to believe that the national guard will be loyal to the monarchy rather than to a particular branch of the royal family.

The names of the other detained princes have not been officially revealed, though they are said to include the high-profile billionaire prince, Alwaleed bin Talal. This prince has holdings in some of the world’s major companies, including News Corp, Citigroup, Twitter, and several other media networks. While Alwaleed is not known to have made any controversial remarks on domestic politics, he has been seen as liberal in that he was a vocal supporter of driving by women in the country.

However, the wealthy prince had made himself an enemy of President Trump, with whom he had had some commercial transactions earlier. In a twitter message in 2015, he had described Trump as “a disgrace not to the GOP but to all America”. Trump had replied by calling him a “Dopey Prince [who] wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money”.

The anti-corruption committee has very wide-ranging powers: it is empowered to investigate, issue arrest warrants and place tight controls over the funds of persons under investigation. It can also take “precautionary measures” while investigations are ongoing, including taking control of all assets of those being investigated.

In his upward push over the last two years, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has attempted to broaden his popularity base in the country, particularly among the young. He has sought to make them his partners in the economic and social transformation of the country and to announce policies that are likely to go down well with them. His decision to allow women to drive and his commitment to make the country a moderate nation where all faiths will be tolerated are two such popular initiatives. Similarly, his anti-corruption stance touches on a major area of concern for most Saudis.

But few Saudis are likely to be taken in by the latest move: corruption is an integral part of the Saudi order and, indeed, has members of the royal family at its centre. Most Saudis will also know that while corruption charges under the draconian royal regulations are the bludgeon used by the crown prince, his real interests are political: the partial list of those purged or detained indicates that influential persons long associated with the former ruler, King Abdullah, are in the dragnet. These include Prince Turki bin Abdullah, son of the last king and former governor of Riyadh, a post from which he was removed when Salman became king; Khalid al Tuwaijry, the head of Abdullah’s court; high profile economic ministers and public sector heads, and prominent heads of business empires, Bakr bin Laden and the billionaire, Saleh Kamil.

American role

Clearly, at one stroke, associates of Prince Miteb and the Al Abdullah branch of the royal family are included in the purge, suggesting that the crown prince would have had intelligence reports of their leading a coup or just being seriously disgruntled. These reports could have been generated from domestic and/or external sources, the latter most probably being from US agencies.

The Trump presidency has affiliated itself very closely with the crown prince and has extended solid political support to the kingdom in its confrontation with Iran and, since June this year, with Qatar. There are reports of close personal ties between the crown prince and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who, among other responsibilities, is heading the president’s efforts at promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Curiously, Kushner, designated as senior adviser to the president, visited Saudi Arabia on an unannounced tour, a week before the purge; he spent four days in the country, returning home on October 28. He was accompanied by deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and the US envoy for the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt. After Saudi Arabia, Greenblatt visited Amman, Cairo, Ramallah and Jerusalem.

The conclusion is unavoidable that during the discussions in Riyadh, certain major policy decisions were taken that would have serious implications for the West Asian political and military scenario. These would have included the US green signal for the wide-ranging purge of possible opponents of the crown prince and the decision to initiate confrontation against Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, in Lebanon.

This game-plan has started with the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri while safely on Saudi soil and the identification of Hezbollah and Iran as sources of “disorder and destruction” in the country, while threatening the life of the prime minister himself.

There is no doubt in Iran about the US-Saudi conspiracy to escalate confrontation against itself and Hezbollah. The Iranian foreign office spokesman has said that Hariri’s resignation was “masterminded by Trump and crown prince MBS”; he accused Hariri of aligning himself with “those who want ill for the region”, naming in this group Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US.

Post-ISIS politics

The Hariri resignation is the first salvo in the competition to re-shape West Asian politics in the aftermath of the removal of the Islamic State from the regional configuration. From the US-Saudi-Israeli perspective, this means reducing, if not eliminating, Iran’s influence from Syria and Lebanon. In addition, Israel is specifically interested in destroying Hezbollah as a military force in the region, while sections of the US administration would like to see Russia’s influence reduced, though Trump’s own view on this is not clear.

In the face of this challenge, Iran and Hezbollah are gearing themselves for a military engagement with Israel in Lebanon, while politically Iran is seeking to ensure it continues to have strong ties with Russia in resisting the US (and Saudi Arabia) in Syria. This complex inter-play of diplomacy and war is now the defining feature of regional politics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Iran November 1, 2017. Credit: Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

As of now, Russia is pushing ahead with the Syrian peace process led by it, in association with Turkey and Iran. It has invited all opposition groups to a conference in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi on November 18, which will be followed by the eighth round of the Geneva process on November 28. At this point, Iran has legitimate concerns that Russia might not favour its thinking that the US be excluded from any role in the peace process, with the nightmare scenario before it that Moscow might even abandon Tehran in pursuit of closer ties with Washington not just in Syria, but in other areas where it might suit Russian interests to work with the US.

During his day-long visit to Tehran on November 1, which included an hour-long meeting with Supreme Leader Khamenei, Putin expressed full support for the nuclear agreement, highlighted the importance of their bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and spoke of the value of their strategic partnership, particularly in the defence area.

But, Iran wants more: it would like to see a strong Iran-Russia relationship that would, in Khamenei’s words, “isolate America” and promote their cooperation in Syria, remain alert to US machinations in Syria and Iraq, and jointly combat US sanctions on Iran. As of now, Putin seems to be wary of committing his country to this exclusivist relationship, including in Syria.

The Lebanese writer, Rafiq Khouri, has said in Al Anwar that Russia sees the importance of the US role (with Europe and the Gulf states) in the peace process since their backing will be required to see through the reconstruction in Syria after peace has been achieved; peace without reconstruction would be “putting a cemetery in order”, he says sharply.

Prospects of war

It is in this background that talk of an impending war has gained ground, with Israel taking the lead to dilute Iranian influence in its neighbourhood. The distinguished London-based Arab writer, Abdel Bari Atwan, believes that the ground for the coming conflict has already been prepared through four recent developments: revelation of an Iran-bin Laden nexus, as culled from bin Laden’s documents in US custody; the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation; the report that the Assad government used sarin gas in Khan Shaykhun (which has been rejected by Russia), and the likely creation of a political crisis in Lebanon, which would lead to a civil conflict. (He wrote this before the Hariri resignation.)

There are also reports that in early September, Israel conducted its largest military exercise in 20 years at the Lebanese border, simulating a ten-day war with Hezbollah, with a view to obliterating the latter. Israel has also put in place its “Iron Dome” defence system to intercept Hezbollah missiles. Israeli media have carried reports that Israel has warned Russia that, if Iran continues to expand its presence in Syria, it will bomb President Assad’s palaces.

Commentators have been quick to note that an Israeli assault on Hezbollah will be fraught with considerable risk: the group has at least 10,000 battle-hardened veterans and about 150,000 advanced rockets, and may also be able to threaten Israel from the sea.

In fact, the Saudi daily, Arab News, on November 4, carried an opinion piece by Maria Dubovikova, under the headline: “Israel beats the drums of war”. She has noted that since 2013 Israel has hit at least 100 targets in Syria and Lebanon, largely because the war in Syria is moving in favour of President Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies. She also quotes Israel defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as saying that Israel’s next battle on its northern front will be with Syria and Lebanon, while retaining the option of opening a southern front in Gaza.

With Prince Mohammed bin Salman facing no opposition or constraints and cosily ensconced with his American and Israeli allies, we are perhaps seeing the three belligerent powers in the region squaring up for a battle to make the region secure for Israel and Saudi Arabia by bombing Yemen to the stone age and defanging the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah with robust military force.

Talmiz Ahmad, author and former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, and is Consulting Editor, The Wire.