Friday’s meeting in Riyadh between King Abdullah and President Obama is likely to be a tense one. First, there’s the fact that the Saudis and the White House differ on a host of regional issues, from Egypt and Bahrain to Syria and Iran. Moreover, there are also the secondary players likely to be in attendance, one of which from each side the other considers a nuisance. The Saudis think that newly named National Security Council staffer Robert Malley is an irritant, and the White House doesn’t like Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief and formerly longtime ambassador to Washington.
For the Saudis’ taste, Malley, who worked on the Arab-Israeli peace process in the Clinton administration, got too close with Syrian regime officials when he was program director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. From Riyadh’s perspective, Malley’s appointment merely confirms their worst fears about Obama’s regional strategy—U.S. rapprochement with a host of figures it considers deadly adversaries, from Assad to Iran and Hezbollah, and at the expense of the Saudis and other longtime U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.
For the Obama administration, Bandar, a former Washington power player and Bush family confidante, is a thorn in its side. First, he’s been publicly critical of White House policy, frequently leaking anti-Obama tidbits to the U.S. press. He’s also reached out to Vladimir Putin in an effort to buy arms from the Russians—and show up the White House. Speculation in Saudi circles is that the last straw was when Secretary of State John Kerry requested a meeting with him during a trip to Riyadh only to be told that since Bandar was on his way out of town that they meet at the airport. From the administration’s perspective, the problem with US-Saudi relations isn’t the White House’s and Riyadh’s diverging regional policies, but Bandar himself. The White House allegedly pushed to have Bandar put on administrative leave, and suddenly the man who had revived Riyadh’s Syria policy was out of the headlines. While Saudi spokesmen repeatedly explained that the prince was on travel for health reasons, in Marrakesh most recently for shoulder surgery, rumor was that the kingdom had succumbed to U.S. pressure by sidelining its top spy.
Now that Bandar appears to be back, perhaps Friday he’ll ask the American side why it compelled Jordan to shut down its border to arms shipments going to rebels in southern Syria. This action may have tipped the balance of power against the rebels and on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s allied forces in the battle for Yabroud.
The Syrian opposition had believed that opening a southern front might distract Assad from his siege of Yabroud, a town northwest of Damascus, and force him to redeploy some of his assets. Rebels therefore launched an offensive from areas they control around the town of Quneitra and scored some successes. When they sought rearmament through a cross point they control on the Syrian border with Jordan, Amman shut down the arms route, and the Quneitra front faltered as Assad managed to retake control without having to reinforce his own troops. Less than two weeks later, the joint Assad-Hezbollah-Iraqi forces swept through Yabroud.
Even if Jordan takes its orders from Washington to shut down its borders, Turkey might be a different story. Gulf sources believe that Turkey has an interest in preventing a linkup between the Alawis of northern Syria and those in its southern province of Hatay, and thus has facilitated a rebel advance to the strategic border crossing of Kasab, which overlooks the coast. Sources also argue that the Syrian MiG shot down earlier this week was brought down not by Turkish ground fire but an F-16—moreover, Gulf sources say, the Syrian jet was targeted not in Turkish airspace, but Syrian and when the pilot ejected he went down in Syrian territory. In other words, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be eager to revive his pro-Syrian revolution credentials and play a more active role in the crisis—to cut Turkey’s Alawi community off from their Syrian brethren, and perhaps in order to deflect attention away from corruption scandals that are hitting him hard at home.