Nothing normally stands in the way of 91-year-old Saudi King Abdullah’s annual three-month summer vacation. But this year, he cut short his vacation in Morocco on June 21 after a month to deal with the pressing matter of Iraq.
And it was just as well that he did. Thursday, June 26, he was driven to summon a National Security meeting to deal with a looming emergency. Saudi air force reconnaissance had discovered Iraqi al Qaeda-linked Sunni fighters of ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – heading for the Saudi border and homing in on the Iraqi-Saudi crossing at Ar Ar.
This should not have been a surprise in a week in which ISIS and its Sunni allies grabbed the Iraqi-Syrian and Iraqi-Jordanian crossings, strategic assets of even greater value that the cities seized in their whirlwind two-week advance (to see full size map click HERE).
The Saudi king lost no time in declaring his armed forces mobilized and on a high state of readiness to defend the kingdom against “terrorist threats.” That was on Thursday, the day before US Secretary of State John Kerry was expected for a visit outside his travel schedule.
Egyptian commandos to fly to Saudi Arabia’s defense
Abdullah took an added precaution against a potential Iraqi Sunni military threat.
On his way home from Morocco, the royal Boeing 747 made an important stop at Cairo airport.
There, the plane’s royal conference room played host to a Saudi-Egyptian summit between the monarch and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
Their discussion of the possible dispatch of Egyptian troops if Saudi Arabia faced an ISIS invasion proved timely. Less than a week later, Egypt was assembling a commando force ready to fly to the defense of the oil kingdom and bolster its borders.
The photograph of that occasion revealed a hidden shift in the Saudi power structure: To the king’s left, sit the Egyptian president and his entourage; to the right, his own retinue, at the center of which is none other than former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, dressed in a formal white robe with gold trim and a black sword tucked in his belt.
For the past year, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources have reported extensively on Bandar’s discord with US President Barack Obama’s administration on how best to handle the war in Syria and the culmination of that row in the Saudi prince’s dismissal on February 19.
Bandar had challenged Obama’s decision to cut off money and arms to radical Sunni militias in Syria, including ISIS. He argued that these groups alone had the ability to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, contend with Iran and cut down the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah’s growing military and political sway in Damascus.
Bandar is vindicated and restored to favor
When Bandar’s advice drew Washington’s ire and American arm-twisting became excessive, the king reacted by dropping the prince as his intelligence chief and senior strategist for Syria.
But in private conversations with Arab and American friends, Bandar was in no doubt that he would soon be vindicated, because his worst-case scenario was rolling out at speed: ISIS was on the march in Iraq and the region was being dragged into a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war. The prince also correctly predicted that the Syrian war’s spillover into Iraq would expose Saudi Arabia’s national security and the royal family to grave peril.
Bandar’s prominence in the Cairo summit indicated he had been restored to royal favor and the king’s inner circle of advisers.
It also suggested that Abdullah was now receptive to the prince’s point of view – even though it put backs up in Washington. He would never have brought Bandar back if his relations with the US president were good.
But most of all, Bandar’s presence behind the royal shoulder attested to Riyadh’s multilayered position vis-a-vis ISIS.
DEBKA Weekly’s experts explain: ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his 3,000 jihadis could not have managed their smash-and-grab progress in Iraq unaided. In fact they were helped by certain Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders and… Saudi intelligence.
What’s good for ISIS in Syria is bad for ISIS in Iraq
Prince Bandar developed direct ties with ISIS in Syria to back the rebel drive against Assad, our military sources report. In Iraq, Saudi ties with ISIS are roundabout through local Sunni tribal liaison. Saudi friendship with those tribes pre-dates the American occupation of Iraq. The custom is for ISIS to relay its operational plans to the Sunni chiefs, who pass them on to the Saudis. No move is made without Riyadh’s approval. The chiefs are also funneling to the jihadis intelligence and arms, many of them brand-new and US-made.
Our sources say that the unwritten Saudi-ISIS pact includes the understanding that those plans must also satisfy the indigenous tribal chiefs’ interests, with the ISIS undertaking to transfer all strategic posts and facilities seized from the Iraqi Army to those tribes.
This deal played out when ISIS soldiers handed over the Baiji oil refineries to the Sunni tribal chiefs after seizing them only a week before.
This war-by-proxy tactic mirrors Saudi Arabia’s strategy in the 1980s, when the princes donated large sums to Osama bin Laden.
As ISIS racked up the victories, it also pulled in more Saudi funds.
However, this ruthless double game, by which the Saudis hoped to defeat the Shiite Iranian drive for domination of the region, may be shattering with the approach of an ISIS force to the Saudi border.
That was not part of the deal Riyadh forged with its Iraqi Sunni allies for Al-Baghdadi’s jihadis. This time, the Saudi army may have to stand up and fight fellow Sunnis, unless they back off.
The stakes of the Iraqi war shot up this week, pulling in one neighbor of the embattled country after another
On Wednesday, Kerry warned Mideast nations against taking new military action in Iraq that might heighten sectarian divisions. That call came too late.