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Saudi Prince Bandar promised a victory he could not deliver

Saudi Arabia's controversial intelligence chief stepped down this week after rumours that his policies on Syria had fallen out of favour.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan in Riyadh on March 3, 2007. Hassan Ammar / AFP Photo
Prince Bandar bin Sultan in Riyadh on March 3, 2007. Hassan Ammar / AFP Photo
BEIRUT and ABU DHABI // A month into the Syrian uprising, a university lecturer from Damascus was arrested at a peaceful protest in the capital and, after the customary beating and a few days in prison, was ordered to sign a confession.

The document laid before him by the Syrian mukhabarat officer admitted to personally taking US$100 dollars from the hand of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the influential Saudi spy chief who resigned this week.

It was preposterous that Saudi Arabia's head of intelligence would personally give money to a protester but, even in those early days of the revolution, it underlined the Syrian regime's paranoid narrative of a foreign plot, orchestrated by Riyadh, Israel and Washington, to topple the president Bashar Al Assad.

From the very beginning, Prince Bandar was held up as a bogeyman by the Syrian authorities to discredit those brave enough to take to the streets in pursuit of political reforms after 40 years of police-state autocracy.

The exact reason for his resignation on Tuesday is not clear. But it appears that despite his decades of experience navigating the region's wars and unrivalled international connections, Prince Bandar's failure to topple Mr Al Assad's regime may have cost him his job.

"What we really don't know is whether he stepped back or whether he was pushed back and that's the key here," said F Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi politics at the Brookings Doha Centre.

Prince Bandar's resignation comes after reports that he had undergone surgery and was convalescing in Morocco. He returned to Riyadh this month, but on Tuesday "was relieved of his post at his own request", according to the official news agency.

During his time away responsibilities for Syria were reportedly overseen by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's interior minister.

Prince Mohammad "is the embodiment of the kingdom's new policy toward Syria, which is now more closely coordinated with Washington," said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

"It was too costly for Riyadh to keep him in any senior official post. At least with this US administration, he is almost like persona non grata," Mr Saab said.

His stepping down comes after Riyadh appeared to have changed its policy on Syria amid increased concerns about domestic blowback from the conflict.

Instead of pushing for an all-out rebel victory, Saudi Arabia in recent months shifted its policy to supporting the rebels with enough military power to convince the regime that "you have to come back to the table and give concessions if you want to survive," said Mustafa Alani, the Saudi director of security and defence studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre.

Some insisted that Prince Bandar, 65, who served as ambassador to Washington for more than two decades, was stepping down solely for health reasons. The prince, a former fighter pilot, has suffered from persistent back problems after crash landing his jet in 1977.

But some analysts say his fall out with the Obama administration over its Middle East policies, especially Washington's decision not to carry out a military strike against the Assad regime's forces after chemical weapons were used in the conflict last year, may have led to a growing isolation in Riyadh. The prince was also angered by the US rapproachment with Iran.

Man of war

Saudi Arabia, under a policy widely believed to have been championed by Prince Bandar, began to funnel cash and guns to Syrian rebels at the beginning of 2012.

It was a momentous and controversial decision that changed the course of a war that has killed more than 150,000 people and inflamed a conflict that shows no sign of ending.

While some in the Syrian opposition see Prince Bandar as a man of principle who tried to help them when no one else would - especially the indecisive Americans and Europeans - others believe he played into the regime's hands, unleashing a wave of violence.

"Bandar's influence on the Syrian revolution was a disaster," said an opposition figure, who asked not to be named. "He helped push us down the road to war, he was too eager to see the revolution militarised and that was a historic mistake.

"We needed to stay peaceful and we needed our friends and allies in the international community to help us stay on that path no matter what the provocation from the regime, instead, Bandar gave us guns and money and promised a victory he could not deliver."

His aggressive leadership style, experience from the Iran-Iraq war and the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, and wide degree of international connections made Prince Bandar an ideal candidate to oversee Riyadh's Syria policy, said Mustafa Alani, the Saudi director of security and defence studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre.

When he was appointed to head the intelligence agency in July 2012, the rebels were fighting their way into Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and had pushed regime troops out of large parts of the countryside. "He was the right man for the job at the time," said Mr Alani.

"There was the expectation that he could do more than other people in Syria, especially after it became a more international conflict."

But in Syria he appeared to meet his match.

Washington was not eager to use force to unseat Mr Al Assad and wary of arming the rebels, some of whom were aligned with Al Qaeda militants.

Moscow and Tehran, fearing losing power in the region, backed Mr Al Assad with all their might.

Prince Bandar supported the rebels with the cash and weapons that he could, and lobbied to be allowed to supply weapons that might turn the tide of battle decisively against Mr Al Assad. He also worked at a diplomatic level, even travelling to Moscow for negotiations with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

But it was to no avail.

Change in expectations

The appointment of Prince Bandar's deputy, Yousef Al Idrissi, as his replacement shows that he has not completely fallen out of favour in Riyadh.

Prince Bandar is also still head of the Saudi's National Security Council, Mr Alani said. The council is an advisory board that directs key Saudi policies.

"The responsibilities in the NSC are much lighter. That's why the king decided to keep him in that position."

Mr Al Idrissi is likely to be only a temporary replacement. Further confirmation of Riyadh's intentions towards Syria will only be more clear when the next intelligence chief is formally appointed.

This year, Saudi Arabia said it will jail any citizen who goes to fight in Syria, a sign how seriously Riyadh views the risk of militants returning to destabilise the kingdom. It also named one of the fiercest fighting rebel units, Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra, a terrorist group. "Once that money gets on the ground and those arms get on the ground the Saudis kind of lose control over them," Mr Gause said.

Critics of Prince Bandar said his unflinching support for the rebels also empowered extremists like Al Nusra, which could pose a risk to Saudi Arabia in the future.

"You cannot prevent extremists from taking advantage of the jihadi field in Syria whatever you do," Mr Alani said.

"You now have two wars, not only against the regime, but also against the extremists."


Phil Sands reported from Beirut, Justin Vela reported from Abu Dhabi and Taimur Khan reported from New York.

Updated: April 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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