Enter Saudi Arabia and (Maybe) Syria

No one denies that the United States cannot afford to let Iraq break up into separate entities. The country would fall victim to never-ending civil strife and the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south would soon hijack the country’s oil resources. It is generally agreed that the key to Iraq’s integrity and survival is strong, multi-partisan, central government in Baghdad.

Nouri al-Maliki‘s administration is not seen in Washington by and large as fitting the bill. Rumors of a scheme for a military coup d’etat in Baghdad have reached DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in the Gulf, Baghdad and Washington. (See separate article in this issue.) They speak of would-be military plotters seizing power and forming a revolutionary council made up of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish members, under the command of ex-Baathist officers – all dedicated to a united, independent Iraq.

The council would defer to the elected presidential council and hold power as a provisional government until the surging violence in which the country is steeped is vanquished.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources report that a whisper of this scheme has reached Riyadh; it even stands a good chance of winning a Saudi blessing, provided the notional revolutionary council is headed by an Iraqi Sunni Arab general.

Saudi support would probably transcend words and come in the form of tangible arms and money. Most importantly, Riyadh is capable of checking Iranian moves to undermine a military takeover in Baghdad by wielding its colossal non-military firing power.

The first indication that Iraq’s neighbor was showing benign interest in such a scheme appeared in an article by Nawaf Obeid, former adviser to and spokesman of the Saudi monarchy, in the The Washington Post of Nov. 29. This article was more outspoken on the Iraqi crisis than any Saudi utterances hitherto.

Here are some instructive excerpts:

The Saudi leadership is preparing to revise its Iraq policy to deal with the aftermath of a possible US pullout, and is considering options including flooding the oil market to crash prices and thus limit Iran’s ability to finance Shiite militias in Iraq.

To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia’s credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran’s militarist actions in the region.

Obaid listed three options being considered by the Saudi government:

  •  Providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistances, including funding and arms;

  • Establishing new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias;

  • Or the Saudi king “may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half … it would be devastating to Iran … The result would be to limit Tehran’s ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions of dollars each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.”

Riyadh will have to bring Syria on board


This was the first Saudi comment after US vice president Dick Cheney’s Nov. 25 visit to Riyadh to discuss the Iraq crisis in the regional context. Obeid’s words do not necessarily reflect the views of the Saudi King Abdullah, in the view of DEBKA-net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts. They think rather that he may be speaking for certain senior princes, such as Riyadh’s US ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence in the 1990s.

Saudi Arabia does not command an army capable of meeting the Islamic Republic on the battlefield; nor does the United States have troops to spare for helping the Saudis in an armed showdown. But certain intriguing implications glimmer between the lines of Obaid’s article:

1. The Saudis appear to be willing to provide arms and money for a strong military regime in Baghdad which is capable of halting the slaughter of Sunni Arabs, provided it includes ex-Baathists – insurgent commanders and others.

2. Riyadh regards the crisis in Iraq as a threat not only to the monarchy but to the kingdom’s strategic position in the Gulf and Middle East at large.

3. The Saudis seriously consider throwing their oil and financial might into the fray as tools for deterring Iran from overthrowing or subverting a Sunni-dominated regime in Baghdad.

On the first two points, Riyadh would find willing partners among the Gulf emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

To execute the third strategy, the Saudis and the US might well operate in tandem. A collaborative venture of this kind would be a lot more effective than any economic sanctions the UN Security Council could devise for whipping the clerics of Tehran into line.

But a third active partner is needed to bring the Saudis aboard: Syria

For the hypothetical plan to succeed it is essential to extinguish al Qaeda’s operation in Iraq, as the prime provoker and fomenter of Sunni-Shiite strife.

To achieve this –

First: The revolutionary council must enlist Sunni militias and detach them from their al Qaeda connections.

Second: The Sunni militias must call off their attacks on US forces and Shiite Muslims.

Third: Forces loyal to the revolutionary council, including Sunni militia leaders, will have to eradicate the Shiite militias and death squads.

Fourth: Al Qaeda networks in Iraq must be stamped out by the combined efforts of Sunni militias, the Iraqi Army and US troops.

However, the fourth project stands or falls by Syria’s consent to stop harboring the logistical bases from which al Qaeda freely pumps fighters, weapons and cash into Iraq.

Al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency draw substantial manpower from the Arab tribes inhabiting the border regions straddling Iraq and Syria, Iraq and Jordan and Iraq and Saudi Arabia. These strategically-located Sunni Arab tribes of the frontiers must be convinced that Riyadh has induced Damascus to turn against al Qaeda. They will then throw in their lot in with the military council in Baghdad.

Syria’s Bashar Asad will take some convincing. The Saudi royal house will have to fork out lavish funds, oil and pledges of aid to rebuild the Syrian economy for the chance of bringing him round.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East experts say that the first sign of headway would be an invitation to Riyadh from Saudi King Abdullah to Asad. It would mean that things are moving.

It must also be taken into account that Iraq’s rulers, whoever they may be, might not wait passively for their neighbors to act on their behalf, but forge their own ties with Syria and Iran, circumventing Washington and Saudi Arabia alike and giving both nightmares.

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