Saudi Prince's Goal: Topple Assad
As the U.S. weighs its options on Syria, there’s an effort underway by Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, a longtime power player with a Washington scandal in his past, to topple the Assad regime by training Syrian rebels in Jordan.
And, as The Wall Street Journal reports, with “more CIA personnel at the Jordan base than Saudi personnel,” Prince Bandar’s efforts have already drawn the U.S. into what is a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its arch-rival Iran.
Prince Bandar is the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and current intelligence chief for Saudi Arabia, and a player in the Iran-Contra arms scandal of the 1980s.
- Adam Entous, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He tweets @adamentous.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Let's continue our conversation about Syria. Senator Bob Corker just told us he expects the Obama administration to release more intelligence that the U.S. has about the deadly chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs last week, an attempt to make the case for military action. He says that action is imminent.
Wall Street Journal national security correspondent Adam Entous joins us now, and Adam, first of all, what do you make of what we just heard from Senator Corker, that an attack is imminent and that there's very little that can be done to avoid it?
ADAM ENTOUS: Yeah, certainly it's been very clear over the weekend that there was a hardening of the administration's views and that the administration, while last week looked like it might await the U.N. inspectors to be able to go in, that changed pretty dramatically over the weekend, and the administration has been on this course, which it's unclear how it will get off of, which could lead to military strikes we think as early as the end of this week.
HOBSON: The end of this week, that's what your reporting is telling you?
ENTOUS: Yes, that's right. It's pretty clear that, you know, that the administration is no longer looking at going to get a U.N. Security Council resolution that would authorize these strikes, and that's a pretty good indication that they intend on doing this through a coalition. In other words, they would - Mr. Obama and Secretary Kerry have been on the phones with not only NATO partners but also Arab League partners.
And the idea here would be to try to get - pull together some supporters that would then provide support and backing to this effort, rather than seeking formal U.N. Security Council backing.
HOBSON: Do you expect Congress will be called back, as Senator Corker said he would like?
ENTOUS: I expect that the administration is going to probably provide briefings and send letters of notification to Congress seeking - letting them know what the plan is. But I'm not sure whether or not there's an opportunity to bring Congress back in.
HOBSON: Now it's worth noting that in his remarks yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry did not definitely blame the chemical attack on the Syrian government. He said the evidence so far, quote, "strongly indicates that chemical weapons were used in Syria." He said, we know the regime maintains custody of these weapons. We know that they have the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition, and we have become witness to what has happened.
But not an outright accusation yet, it appears. What do you make of that?
ENTOUS: Right, so what happened was is the administration says that there is no doubt that chemical weapons were used but that there is little doubt that the regime was behind it. And what's going on here is the intelligence community comes up with assessments, and they've been tasked by the White House to do so in this case.
The conclusion that chemical weapons were used - that's a relatively simple process for the intelligence community, which has a network of informants that provide them with samples of body - of tissue that's been exposed to a chemical agent. Likewise, they have a lot of video that you and I and everybody else has seen on the Internet, on YouTube.
But also intelligence agencies have their own informants with their own video that they then match up. And so they can tell that there actually was an attack on this day, and it wasn't staged. So it was very easy for the administration to quickly come to a conclusion that chemical weapons were used.
More difficult is figuring out who used it. The - that is something that this assessment, of which we're expected to get an unclassified version or summary of released as early as today, maybe tomorrow, that would lay out how the administration will reach a firmer conclusion, which they believe they will be able to do, that the regime was actually responsible for it.
HOBSON: And Adam, you report that the evidence gathering has been going on for months now.
ENTOUS: Right. So what happened was, is earlier this year, there were some initial cases, reports that were brought to Western intelligence agencies that chemical weapons had been used. And very quickly, the British and the French concluded, their intelligence services concluded, that chemical weapons had been used in small quantities by the regime against the opposition.
It took U.S. intelligence agencies really until June, months later, to catch up and to reach the same conclusion. And what - the reason why this took so long was because of what U.S. officials call a chain of custody. What that is is a system where samples are taken directly at the site of an attack. They are - those samples are then securely transferred to laboratories in the West for testing.
That didn't really exist, that system wasn't in place a year ago or even six months ago. And - but over the last six months these parallel networks have been set up by the CIA and by other intelligence agencies, and that's what's allowing the U.S. this time, and what's allowing the Brits and the French and pretty much everybody else who has a spy network inside of Syria, to reach very similar conclusions in such a short period of time.
HOBSON: Meanwhile, you are reporting on some pressure that's coming from other parts of the region for action by the U.S., specially from Saudi Arabia. Tell us about that.
ENTOUS: Yeah, so, you know, the Saudis have made a decision very early on, in mid-2011, that they were going to work very aggressively to bring down Assad, much more so, much more aggressively than the United States. And they joined forces with their rival in the region, Qatar, as well as the UAE and Turkey and set up a system to deliver arms to the rebels.
And the Saudis decided on a parallel effort that would be led by its ambassador here in Washington to try to convince the Obama administration to join this effort by providing arms to the rebels. And so what we found was that there was a very - there was a collection of very influential Saudis who worked very closely with the CIA in the 1980s in Nicaragua but also in Afghanistan and helped provide arms to those fighters to at that time fight the soviets.
This time what the Saudis were doing was trying to get the Obama administration onboard with their efforts to arm the rebels, this time out of a base in Jordon, in order to try to take on Assad more directly in the very suburbs that Assad allegedly attacked last week.
HOBSON: And what would they like Assad to be replaced with?
ENTOUS: Well, the endgame is harder to see, and the Saudis at no point - you know, they are in sort of agreement with the United States that this is going to be a long, drawn-out affair. Their idea here is to gradually build up the strength of more moderate elements within the opposition so that they are able to challenge Mr. Assad more directly. But also they're looking to strengthen them so that they are able to be - have a larger voice in a post-Assad Syria compared to the hard-line al-Qaeda-linked groups like the Nusra Front
HOBSON: Adam, just have about 20 seconds left, but are there any forces in Washington being listened to that don't want the U.S. to strike?
ENTOUS: Certainly there is - there are many, including many within the administration, who are very concerned that what you'll see after a strike, if Assad decides to push back, and he decides to retaliate, then the U.S. is going to be under tremendous pressure to double down again and attack again. And this could be a cycle that continues.
HOBSON: Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal, Adam thank you so much.
ENTOUS: Thank you.
HOBSON: Well, what do you think of military intervention in Syria? Should the U.S. wait until U.N. inspectors have completed their work, or does Washington know enough at this point to strike? Let us know at hereandnow.org or Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. The latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.