The Saudi Crown Price was all smiles in Moscow. But it is Russia that should be smiling at this turn of events.
President Vladimir Putin has met with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman today in a meeting that left the Saudi Prince saying, “relations between Saudi Arabia and Russia are seeing one of their best stages at the moment”.While this may leave many scratching their heads, it actually follows the logic of both Russia’s foreign policy and of wider developments in the world.
First of all, Russia’s foreign policy is non-ideological and nor does it seek to violently oppose nations who have a different foreign policy to that of Russia, no matter how different.
Although Saudi Arabia helps to support al-Qaeda and ISIS which Russia is fighting in Syria, Turkey not only supporters similar jihadist groups in Syria such as the FSA, but more importantly also has an extremely capable army to back up the proxy jihadists. Saudi Arabia has lots of money to throw at vile jihadists but they have no real armed forces capable of backing them up. In Yemen, the only place the Saudi’s have tried to do so, they are losing a brutal war to poorly armed Houthi forces whose support from Iran is greatly exaggerated by western mainstream media.
If Russia can talk reasonably with Turkey, then surely Russia can do the same with the vastly less militarily relevant Saudi Arabia.
Secondly, there is the fact that many do not want to admit. Saudi Arabia needs Russia more than it needs the US. When all the weapons and convoys Cadillacs America has to offer are sold to Saudi, America realistically offers Saudi little in terms of trade. With the US becoming increasingly energy independent, America’s need for Gulfi oil is decreasing and apart from oil Saudi exports virtually nothing other than terrorism.
By contrast, like Saudi, Russia is an major energy producer and exporter. It was indeed only when Russia agreed with OPEC to cut production levels last year that Saudi avoided an even bigger economic recession than the one it is currently experiencing and trying its best to ignore.
Russia has the ability to flood the energy market at whim and is not formally bound by OPEC. In this sense Russia could if it so desired, play a tough upper hand with Saudi in respect of world-energy prices.
The Saudi Crown Prince went to Moscow knowing full well of Russia’s strategic partnership with Iran. The Saudis also know that if they declared war on Iran, Russia would give full political support and possibly also material support to Iran while America would not be likely to risk war with a major Iranian military power over Saudi Arabia. America hasn’t yet done so for Israel which should worry a state that if anything is slightly less close to Washington than the leaders in Tel Aviv.
With astounding precision, Donald Trump zeroed in on the worst possible Middle East policy option in his recent trip to Saudi Arabia and made it his own. He rebuffed the efforts of Iran’s newly elected moderate government to open up communications with the West and instead deepened America’s alliances with decrepit autocratic regimes across the Persian Gulf.
President Donald Trump is escorted by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during the arrival ceremonies, Saturday, May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo Shealah Craighead)
Turning up his nose at Iran — a rising young power — he embraced Saudi Arabia, which is plainly on its last legs. It was a remarkable display — rather like visiting a butcher shop and passing up a fresh steak for one that’s rancid and smelly and buzzing with flies.
Saudi Arabia is not just any tired dictatorship with an abysmal human-rights record but one of the most spectacularly dysfunctional societies in history. It takes in half a billion dollars a day in oil revenue, yet is so profligate that it could run out of money in half a decade. It sits atop 18 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, yet is so wasteful that, at current rates, it will become a net importer by the year 2030.
Its king travels with a thousand-person retinue wherever he goes while his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, plunked down $550 million not long ago when a 440-foot yacht caught his eye in the south of France. Yet this pair of royal kleptocrats dares preach austerity at a time when as much as 25 percent of the population lives on less than $17 a day in trash-strewn Third World slums.
The kingdom accuses Iran of sectarianism yet bans all religions other than Islam, arrests Christians for the “crime” of praying and possessing Bibles, equates atheism with terrorism, and has imposed a state of siege on Shi‘ite Muslims in its own Eastern Province. Although a bit restrained of late, its religious police are notorious for roaming the shopping malls and striking out with canes at anyone violating shari‘a law.
As the English novelist Hilary Mantel (of Wolf Hall fame) recalled of the four years she spent in the kingdom with her geologist husband, it was impossible to know what might arouse their ire: “it might be the flashing denim legs of a Filipina girl revealed for a second beneath an abaya gone adrift, or it might be the plate-glass shop front of a business that, as the evening prayer call spiraled through the damp air-conditioned halls, had failed to slam down its metal shutters fast enough. What were the rules? No one knew.”
Saudi Arabia also denounces terrorism at every turn even though its funding groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS (also known as ISIL and Islamic State) is an open secret. In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained in a diplomatic memo made public by Wikileaks that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In September 2014, she observed that “Qatar and Saudi Arabia … are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
A few days later, Vice President Joe Biden told a Harvard audience that “the Saudis, the emirates, etc. … were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” (Quote starts at 53:30.)
Arming the Saudis
Rather than fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, the Saudis give them money so that they can wage jihad on religious minorities. Yet this is the country that Trump now calls upon to “drive out the terrorists and extremists,” which is as ludicrous as relying on the KKK to drive out racism. It’s also the country that he hopes will serve as the cornerstone of an “Arab NATO” so that he can sell it more jet fighters and Blackhawk helicopters.
Entertainers perform traditional dances during a banquet held in honor of President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at Murabba Palace, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
But the Saudi military is already top-heavy with such gear while at the same time so short of infantry that it relies on ill-trained Sudanese mercenaries, scores of whom were reportedly killed in a recent battle in the Red Sea province of Midi in Yemen’s north. This is not surprising since no Saudi in his right mind wants to serve as a foot soldier so that the deputy crown prince can buy another yacht. But more such purchases will only add to the military imbalance while adding more fuel to the broader Middle East conflagration.
So how did this god-awful marriage come about? Is it all Trump’s fault? Or have others contributed to the mess? The answer, of course, is the latter.
Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has contributed to the catastrophe. Roosevelt declared Saudi Arabia a U.S. protectorate while Dwight Eisenhower got it into his head that a corrupt desert monarchy would somehow be useful in the fight against Communism. Worried that it might come under Soviet influence, Jimmy Carter commenced a military buildup in the Persian Gulf that, according to a 2009 Princeton University study, has now surpassed the $10-trillion mark.
Ronald Reagan relied on the Saudis to finance arms to the Nicaraguan Contras and to Jonas Savimbi’s pro-apartheid guerrillas in Angola. George H.W. Bush launched a major war to save the Saudis from the evil Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush and Barack Obama covered up the Saudi role in 9/11, while Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged them and other Gulf monarchies to fund anti-government rebels in Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring. Both Libya and Syria fell to ruin as a consequence as hundreds of millions of dollars flowed to pro-Al Qaeda forces and the flames of Wahhabist terrorism spread ever wider.
Indeed, Donald Trump for a while seemed to augur something different. Rather than praising the kingdom, he denounced it in 2011 as “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism” and asserted, not inaccurately, that it was using “our petro dollars – our very own money – to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.” Once on the campaign trail, he upped the ante by declaring that the Saudis “blew up the World Trade Center” and threatened to block their oil if they didn’t do more to fight ISIS.
Even more disconcertingly – at least to Washington’s endlessly bellicose foreign-policy establishment – Trump dismissed the cherished U.S.-Saudi-neoconservative goal of overthrowing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, arguing that the U.S. should concentrate on fighting ISIS instead.
“I don’t like Assad at all,” Trump declared in his second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton. “But Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS, and Iran is killing ISIS.” If killing ISIS was the main goal, then it followed that checking the power of the other three could be safely put off to another day.
Prioritizing in this way made a modicum of sense. But it went counter to Official Washington’s self-serving orthodoxy that Assad was somehow in league with the terrorists and that weakening one would undermine the other. Trump’s “Assad is killing ISIS” line thus triggered a firestorm of protest from those “in the know.” Clinton shook her head sadly at Trump’s naiveté while the mainstream U.S. media agreed that Trump didn’t know what he was talking about.
CNN, a division of Time Warner, said the claim was false because “there has been no visible effort by Assad regime forces to go after ISIS.” The Huffington Post, owned by Verizon Communications, wrote that Syria’s “primary focus” was not to go after ISIS, but “to wipe out less radical Syrian rebel groups that pose a larger challenge to Assad because they could be a popular, internationally acceptable alternative to him.”
In other words, although it might look to an objective observer that Assad was fighting ISIS, the Washington groupthink held that he really wasn’t; he was somehow on ISIS’s side. Or so such mainstream outlets assured us.
President Donald Trump touches lighted globe with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman and Donald Trump at the opening of Saudi Arabia’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology on May 21, 2017. (Photo from Saudi TV)
But it was nonsense as IHS Markit, a London analytics firm with extensive aerospace and defense experience, made clear in a subsequent report. Beginning in April 2016, its study of actual field conditions in Syria found that government forces engaged Islamic State in battle two and a half times as often as U.S.-backed forces did. Damascus, for all its faults, was the one doing the heavy lifting, not the United States and its allies.
“Any further reduction in the capability of Syria’s already overstretched forces,” IHS Markit observed, “would reduce their ability to prevent the Islamic State from pushing out of the desert into the more heavily populated western Syria, threatening cities like Homs and Damascus.”
Added a Middle East analyst named Columb Strack: “It is an inconvenient reality that any US action taken to weaken the Syrian government will inadvertently benefit the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.”
Overthrowing Assad, in other words, means clearing a path for ISIS straight through to the presidential palace. This reality is obvious. Yet it is a reality that Official Washington prefers to ignore so it can continue selling Saudi Arabia more military goods.
As a result, Democrats, neocons and the liberal media opened up with a rhetorical artillery barrage when it became apparent that America had someone in the White House who might think differently. Trump, they cried, was a “Siberian candidate”! He was a Kremlin stooge!
The fact that Trump questioned whether overthrowing Assad should be the first priority of the U.S. strategy in Syria was proof that he was in league with Vladimir Putin! Reeling from the onslaught, Trump began to realize that he was in a no-win situation, just as Obama had eight years earlier when he gave Hillary Clinton and her neocon allies control of the State Department.
Bucking Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, a.k.a. “The Blob,” was a losing proposition. The neocons were too powerful. Resistance was pointless. So Trump surrendered to the “truisms” of Official Washington’s foreign-policy elite regarding the Middle East conflicts: Saudi Arabia and its allies: good; Russia, Syria, and Iran: baaaad.
Shoring up his right flank, Trump brought on board standard-issue hawks like Secretary of Defense James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. He launched a raid inside Yemen and bombed a Syrian military air base, earning rave reviews from the press. He invited Saudi Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman to a lavish White House lunch and then flew to Riyadh to cozy up with his dad, King Salman. Washington Officialdom was pleased. So was Israel.
Trump’s discordant comments on the campaign trail were forgotten as U.S.-Saudi relations settled back into their well-worn groove. The upshot was a record $110-billion arms deal, a sword dance, ritualistic denunciations of terrorists – Saudi-speak for anyone opposed to the royal family – and a good deal of incendiary rhetoric aimed at Tehran.
Where to Now?
The big question now is whether all this tough talk leads to something more substantial. If so, two flashpoints bear watching. One is the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s chief entry point for humanitarian aid and, according to the Saudis, for Iranian military aid to the Houthis. For months, the kingdom has been pushing for an all-out effort to wrest the port away from Houthi control, and the great danger now is that Trump, swept along by his own rhetoric, will go along.
Map of Syria
But a frontal assault on a city of more than 300,000 is no easy matter. To the contrary, it would be a major undertaking requiring not only U.S. air and naval support but probably U.S. ground troops as well.
As the rightwing Jamestown Foundation noted: “Even with US assistance, the invasion will be costly and ineffective. The terrain to the east of Hodeidah is comprised of some of the most forbidding mountainous terrain in the world. The mountains, caves, and deep canyons are ideal for guerrilla warfare that would wear down even the finest and best disciplined military. The most capable units of what was the Yemeni Army and the Houthis themselves will inflict heavy losses on those forces that try to take Hodeidah and then, if necessary, move up into the mountains.”
It’s hard to imagine even Trump blundering into such a trap. This is why the second flashpoint is even more worrisome. Located some 1,800 miles to the north near the desert town of Al-Tanf, it is where the Baghdad-Damascus highway, a crucial supply route, crosses into Syria from Iraq. It is also where U.S. jets struck a pro-Syrian government convoy on May 18 as it neared a U.S.-British military outpost. It is an area where all sides – the Syrian army, Iraqi Shi‘ite militias, Iranian-backed forces plus U.S., U.K., and even Norwegian troops – are now beefing up their forces. With Trump’s “Arab NATO” vowing to contribute 34,000 troops to the struggle against both ISIS and Iran, the question is whether the U.S. and Saudis will push matters to the brink by attempting to sever a key Syrian supply link to the outside world.
If so, the upshot could well be a firefight that triggers a wider war. That will make the neocons and their Saudi allies very happy and no doubt please Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well. But it will scare the hell out of everybody else.
During the election campaign Donald Trump argued for better relations with Russia. He wanted to engage in a common fight against the Islamic State and other terrorists. Hillary Clinton argued for a confrontational policy against Russia and a new cold war. The foreign policy establishment, the media and the CIA were solidly on Clinton's side. The people of the United States made their choice. It was Trump and his views of policies that were elected.
After Trump had won the election, he advised his staff to set up a confidential track-2 communication channel with the Russian government. He rightfully did not trust the established official channels through the State Department and the CIA. His incoming National Security Advisor Flynn and his foreign policy advisor Kushner worked on his behalf when they soughed contacts with Russian officials. Such diplomacy is by nature not acted out in public.
The various formulations in those pieces are painting the discrete diplomatic contacts as something sinister and illegal:
NBC News reported on Thursday that Kushner was under scrutiny by the FBI, in the first sign that the investigation, which began last July, has reached the president’s inner circle. ... FBI investigators are examining whether Russians suggested to Kushner or other Trump aides that relaxing economic sanctions would allow Russian banks to offer financing to people with ties to Trump, said the current U.S. law enforcement official.
But paragraphs down from that:
While the FBI is investigating Kushner’s contacts with Russia, he is not currently a target of that investigation, the current law enforcement official said. ... There may not have been anything improper about the contacts, the current law enforcement official stressed.
The WaPo author has at least the honesty to note:
It is common for senior advisers of a newly elected president to be in contact with foreign leaders and officials.
As an aside the Washington Post leakers reveal that U.S. intelligence can listen to Russian diplomatic communication between the embassy in Washington and Moscow. This is a criminal breach of a "sources and methods" secrets that should be punished.
The scandal here are not various contacts of Trump advisors with Russian and other country's diplomats. The scandal is the undermining of the constitutional prerogative of the elected President of the United State to set foreign policy:
Under the Constitution, the President serves as head of state and head of government. [..] As head of government, he formulates foreign policy, supervises its implementation and attempts to obtain the resources to support it. He also organizes and directs the departments and agencies that play a part in the foreign policy process. Along with the Vice President, he is the only government official elected nationally. This places him in a unique position to identify, express and pursue the “national interests” of the U.S.
The scandal here is not Trump and are not his advisors' contacts with Russian officials. The scandal are the leaks by "officials" about confidential diplomacy, the sham FBI "investigations" and the general undemocratic hostility and resistance of the foreign policy establishment, the security services and the media towards the president's chosen policies. This is completely independent of whether one likes those policies or not.