2 Dec 2014

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki: time to step up the war in Syria

Members of the Saudi royal family, especially those in or near government, rarely speak in public so when Prince Turki bin Faisal bin Saud comes to town it’s worth hearing what he has to say.


For 24 years he was the kingdom’s top spy, heading the General Intelligence Directorate, before becoming ambassador first to the UK and then Washington. Now he runs a think tank in Riyadh, but when he says his knowledge is based on “what I read in the newspapers” he is being disingenuous to say the least.

In the last three years he has toured the world lambasting US policy on Syria, promoting the Saudi government’s view that the overthrow of President Bashar al Assad is essential to restore stability in the region.

“Dilly-dallying is what allowed [Al-Qaeda linked] Jabhat Al-Nusra to enter the fray,” he said in a talk at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Had the US and Europe listened to the kingdom and provided the opposition with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, we would not have had to deploy our air forces against ISIL now.”

It’s no secret that the Saudis have armed and funded rebel groups fighting in Syria, but Prince Turki is dismissive of those who accuse Saudi-based Salafist imams of backing and financing Al-Qaeda and the IS.

“Tell us and we ‘ll take action,” he said. “If you have names, come forward, but don’t wag your finger at us.”

In the past, the Saudi regime has turned a blind eye to such imams and financiers, the idea being that if the extremists keep the peace at home they can wreak havoc elsewhere. (This didn’t always work – there have been several jihadi attacks in Saudi Arabia).

In his world view, Saudi Arabia is the bastion of sense and stability in a region threatened by Persian meddling.

“As long as Iran continues interfering in Arab affairs, our relations will remain strained and belligerent,” he said. Assad’s survival, he believes, is down to the presence of Iranian backed militia, including Hizbollah, and the Islamic Republic’s own Revolutionary Guard, as well as Russian weapons.

“Remove the Iranians and I bet you anything that it wouldn’t take more than a few weeks or a couple of months to bring Assad to his knees… we have to negate Assad’s military superiority because he won’t negotiate until then.”

With the UN calling for local ceasefires in Syria, a sense of stalemate on the ground and drift in western policy, it’s startling to hear someone advocate all out warfare: no negotiations with Iran, a campaign to defeat Assad by military means, faith in a “moderate” opposition that most western policy makers believe scarcely exists, let alone has the potential to prevail. The CIA is training and arming some rebels in Jordan, but on the ground Assad’s forces and IS are squeezing the non-jihadi rebels, many of whom have defected to the extremists.

Back in the 1980s Prince Turki spearheaded the covert programme to provide weapons to the Afghan mujahedeen, via the Pakistani secret service and a young Saudi businessman called Osama bin Laden. He was acting at the behest of the Americans as they tried to oust the Russians from Kabul.

That programme gave birth to Al Qaeda, but the experience does not appear to have made the prince more cautious about supplying weapons to those he believes can oust the enemies of the House of Saud.

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