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Toby Jones: Saudi Arabia is interested in ousting Assad but not a popular government taking his place

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Syria and the United States have agreed to a Russian plan to put the chemical weapons of Bashar al-Assad’s regime under international control.

Now joining us to discuss Saudi Arabia’s role in the region moving forward is Toby Jones. He’s the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Thank you so much for joining us.


NOOR: So what do you think is going to be Saudi Arabia’s role going forward? They certainly can’t be happy with this deal that would at least temporarily avert a U.S. strike in the region. Saudi Arabia has backed many of the opposition groups in Syria, specifically the Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan.

JONES: Over the last [incompr.] years, the Saudis have backed and have called very persistently for military efforts on the part of the West, the United States and NATO in particular, to pursue regime change in Syria. So the use of chemical weapons seemed to create an opening in which both Obama and other backers, France and elsewhere, seem to recommit themselves or to commit themselves for the first time to the use of military force and to pursue an outcome that the Saudi’s believed would be favorable.

The deal that seems to have been brokered between the Russians, the Syrians, and the United States to put Syria’s chemical weapons under some kind of international oversight is a bit of a hiccup as far as the Saudi’s are concerned. They’re not interested in a peaceful outcome in Syria that allows Assad to stay in power. They’re very much committed to seeing him fall.

NOOR: Talk more about the Saudi agenda in Syria and the region as well, specifically in light of the Arab Spring, which at least pushed for more democratic regimes across the region.

JONES: Right. Well, the Saudis were unnerved over two and a half years ago when Mubarak fell from power, when the uprising in Bahrain started. They see all of this as a potential threat to a particular kind of geopolitical order that has more or less dominated in the Middle East since the middle of the 20th century. But it’s been a club of autocrats that have tightly held onto power and that have used their positions of authority to build up layers of privilege and access to both the West and to various networks in the region.

The Saudis have been committed to seeing that preserved, and they’ve helped restore a similar kind of order in Egypt. Of course they sent their military resources into Bahrain to make sure the revolution wasn’t successful there.

While they would like to see Assad fall in Syria, they don’t necessarily want to see a democratic outcome there. They worry about the empowerment of their peoples and the possibility that, you know, sort of the Democratic winds of change might spread more effectively across the region.

Now, in addition to their anxieties about democracy in the Middle East, of course, they also have a more basic kind of geopolitical balance of power concern. They’ve long been engaged, or at least over the last two generations or so, have been engaged in a regional struggle with Iran for supremacy in the Gulf and for supremacy in parts of the Arab world, because Assad and Syria are a client and have been a client of Iran for quite some time. The Saudis see Syria as a particularly important prize that, if they can win, they might be able to set the table, if you will, or to stack the regional balance of balance of power more in their favor and at the expense of Tehran.

NOOR: And can you talk about the role of the Saudi prince, Prince Bandar, in backing the Syrian opposition and just how he’s been doing this? The Wall Street Journal had an interesting exposé on this, and they quoted some U.S. officials in the Obama administration, which kind of saw some parallels in Prince Bandar backing the Syrian opposition as when he secretly helped back the Contras in Nicaragua in the ’80s.

JONES: Yeah. Bandar, of course is a long-time, a long-serving Saudi ambassador to the United States, ingratiated himself, been–particularly the conservative political establishment, the Republican Party. But more importantly, built, you know, sort of networks of friendship and corruption in the U.S. arms industry in the military establishment. He’s long favored military strikes across the region that served Saudi interests and that, frankly, would allow him to empower himself. He stepped down or was removed as ambassador to the U.S. a few years ago, and now he sees himself where he’s taken over responsibility of the Saudi intelligence services.

He’s a bit of a wheeler and dealer. He’s a cowboy. He has advocated for military action against Iran. He advocated for us a strong response to Shiite militias in Iraq at the height of the Iraqi Civil War back from 2004 two 2007 or so and threatened regional catastrophe if it didn’t happen. So, of course, he’s been committed to the use of force in Syria as well in a way that he claims would serve Saudi and Syrian interests.

But really but we have to be very skeptical of this. Bandar is a man who’s committed to privilege and to profit it and is looking for a way to stamp his own authority and his own interest on things. So I think very much he’s committed to a kind of personal politics in Syria, and we should be very skeptical of anybody who approaches that conflict this way.

NOOR: Now, the Israel lobby and Israel itself’s influence on U.S. foreign policy is fairly widely discussed now. But can you talk about what kind of influence Saudi Arabia has on U.S. foreign policy? We know they buy massive amounts of weapons from the United States. And, you know, there’s been reports like–I’m looking at one from The Guardian in 2008, where Prince literally threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London unless a corruption investigation into their arms deal was halted. That’s according to secret court documents that were eventually released in the United Kingdom.

JONES: Right. So Saudi influence has been quite extensive for a long period of time. And, of course, we can talk about it historically. It dates back to the late 1930s, when the U.S., when an American oil company this discovered oil there, you know, a conglomeration of mobile, Exxon, Texaco, and Chevron. The amount of wealth that the sale of Saudi oil has generated over time has profited a number of different sectors in the United States in addition to the Saudis. This has been a lucrative, meaningful relationship. From the 1970s, particularly from the fall of the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s and 1979, the Saudis have not only been important because they produce oil and because American oil companies profit, but also because they recycle. They reinvest a lot of the money they generate from weapons sales into the American economy. And, of course, that’s lucrative for all kinds of actors, not just companies who make weapons, but also for their brokers and go-betweens who negotiate these deals.

Because so much money is spent, sometimes on the order of anywhere between $30 and $60 billion for any particular weapons package, the Saudis have a great deal of influence, both in the U.S. Congress, but also in the Pentagon and elsewhere and the intelligence services.

So the Saudis don’t have a lobby, per se. That is to say, there’s no real organized effort. They don’t have a representative base in the United States like Israel might. But they nevertheless have significant influence and are able to encourage the Americans to act in a certain way.

But it also bears mentioning, and it’s important, and I think you’re absolutely right to point out the Saudis often don’t come under the kind of critical scrutiny that the Israelis do–they should–but that their interests actually overlap in important ways with Israel. I think they see both the Israeli intelligence services as well as the conservative Israeli political establishment as allies and cotravelers in trying to pursue and create a particular political outcome of the region. So the Saudis don’t need to have the PR machine or the lobby that the Israelis do, because they see the Israelis as doing their work for them.

NOOR: I think it’s beyond dispute that Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of his own people just to cling to power. What do you say to those that would argue that, you know, it’s okay for foreign powers to intervene and to send weapons and money to the Syrian rebels because they are fighting this horrible dictator?

JONES: Well, first of all, we have no no clarity about who on the ground is acting in a particular way, right? I mean, the groups in Syria that are armed are a mixed bag that represent a wide range of interests. And I mention this not because it presents a strategic or a tactical problem as we don’t know who to arm, we don’t know who not to arm, there might be jihadis or terrorists involved. That’s all true, but it seems secondary to me to the broader issue that there’s no way to effectively expand the terms or means of violence in Syria with the objective of reducing violence. I mean, you can’t expand something into this conflict on the particular sort of course that this has taken and make it better. So I might, you know, invoke the Hippocratic oath, the first do no harm. And pursuing a military outcome in Syria, pursuing a military option, it seems to me, would almost immediately expand the scale of violence and would likely create a longer-lasting legacy in which violence would become a more or less, at least over the medium-term, permanent feature and characteristic of the Syrian political order.

The second thing is that, you know, we all too often, and particularly the Hawks and those who favor intervention, liberals and conservatives alike, turn to the militarized or the violent option very quickly without seriously engaging in or seeing political will committed to nonviolent options. I know that there has been an effort at various times to engage the Russians and to talk to NATO and others about a potential diplomatic or negotiated solution. It was attempted over the course of several years. But we don’t see a real commitment or, you know, sort of a demonstration of political will. But the various Western actors or patrons are really committed to this outcome. If they were, I think we might see more energy and more effort. And I would like to see that happen first before turning to violence. You know, maybe it’s banal and maybe it’s not very meaningful in the end, but violence should always be the last resort. The problem is we haven’t given the alternatives a real option, including talking to Iran.

NOOR: Toby C. Jones, thank you so much for joining us.

JONES: Good to be with you.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Toby Jones is a historian of the modern Middle East. His interests are varied. Jones' scholarship focuses primarily on the political intersections between science, technology, the environment, knowledge production, and the state formation, war, and Islamism. Before joining the history department at Rutgers University, Jones taught at Swarthmore College. During the 2008-2009 he was a fellow at Princeton University's Oil, Energy and the Middle East project. From 2004 to early 2006 he worked as the political analyst of the Persian Gulf for the International Crisis Group where he wrote about political reform and sectarianism.