MbS to Blinken: ‘No’ to Israeli normalization, ‘yes’ to Syrian reconciliation

Hasan Illaik, The Cradle, July 10, 2023 —

Despite the threat of US economic sanctions, MbS tells Blinken that Saudi Arabia will financially invest in Syria as it is in Riyadh’s interest to do so.

In his interview with CNN on 9 July, US President Joe Biden announced that “we are still far away” from reaching agreements to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations, establish a Saudi civilian nuclear program, and a Washington guarantee for Saudi security.

What Biden revealed was based primarily on his feedback from a 7 June post-midnight meeting held in Jeddah between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

During their tete-a-tete, the two men spent an hour and forty minutes discussing various issues of mutual interest. But the first goal of the meeting was to improve US-Saudi relations, which have not yet reverted to pre-2018 levels when the US accused MbS of masterminding the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

New US ‘rules’ on engaging with Saudis

US Ambassador to Riyadh Michael Ratney is the policy architect leading the charge to improve bilateral relations. Sources familiar with the contents of Saudi diplomatic reports tell The Cradle that Ratney has previously sent the US State Department a set of “rules” which he believes will help improve relations between his country and Saudi Arabia.

The first of these rules is to stop targeting MbS personally. There is a longstanding Saudi tradition of zero tolerance for disparagement of the country’s ruler, whoever he may be, by any external state. Ratney noted that while MbS can live with US criticism of Saudi politics, he will not tolerate criticism of him personally because he sees it as an attempt to undermine his rule and destroy his image. The US ambassador made clear that continued attacks on bin Salman will hinder the improvement of relations between Washington and Riyadh.

Ratney’s second rule is to change the way US officials communicate with the crown prince. American envoys have typically been very reserved when holding talks with the Saudi rulers (king or crown prince), not delving into the details of vital issues, which they reserve for discussions with ministers and advisers. Ratney advised that discussions with MbS should be detailed and that US proposals should be clear.

Blinken came to Saudi Arabia having adopted his ambassador’s recommendations. In his meeting with MbS, he outlined the issues clearly. The Cradle reviewed part of the content of their discussions pertaining to two US policies: the project to normalize Israeli-Saudi relations, and Washington’s desire to thwart improved ties between Riyadh and Damascus.

The American demands were direct: We want a normalization agreement between you and Israel; your rapprochement with the Syrian regime is useless at this stage.

‘No’ to normalization with Tel Aviv

According to The Cradle’s Arab and western diplomatic sources, Blinken asked his host: “Why don’t you do with Israel what you did with Iran?”

MbS’ response was equally direct. On the issue of a ‘peace agreement’ with Israel, he replied with three points, which Blinken later reported were unclear in terms of their order of importance:

First, the Saudi crown prince clarified that King Salman bin Abdulaziz still opposes an agreement with Tel Aviv. Second, MbS reported that fruitful communication continues between Saudi and Israeli authorities – such as allowing the passage of civilian aircraft into Saudi airspace and lifting the ban on Israeli players in international sporting events – with the following caveat:

“But these contacts will not soon lead to a peace agreement and normalization. We remain committed to the Arab Peace Initiative (the 2001 Beirut Summit Initiative), which is to grant the Palestinians an independent State in exchange for a comprehensive peace. Israel has treated the Abraham Accords as an incentive to ignore the Palestinians and undermine the foundations of the peace process with the Palestinians, rather than seeing them as an opportunity to enhance the chances of reaching a lasting peace. The Israeli government is approving more settlement projects, compounding the obstacles to any future solution.”

Therefore, from MbS’ perspective, Saudi Arabia has yet to see a reason to abandon its own Arab peace initiative. Third,  the sources say, the Saudi crown prince asked his American guest:

“Why should we give you an agreement with Israel? For what? You refuse our having a peaceful nuclear project. Since your administration came to power, you have revoked the Houthi designation as a terrorist organization. You are demanding a reduction in the price of oil to the detriment of our interests. So why do you expect us to give you a peace agreement with Israel? We are ready to go even beyond normalization with Israel, and achieve regional integration for Tel Aviv, but only if it serves the interests of our country.”

MbS: ‘We will invest in Syria’

On Syria, MbS stressed two things in his discussion with Blinken. The first was Saudi Arabia’s direct security interest. He said that the illicit flow of drugs to the kingdom is a threat to the security of its people:

“This is one of our priorities. We know as well as you that the number one source of Captagon is Syrian territory. You have issued a special law to combat the export of Captagon from Syria, and you have considered that the smuggling of this drug harms the interests of the United States. We believe that a solution to this crisis is not possible without communication and coordination with the Syrian government. In this sense, we see it as in our interest to improve our relationship with the Syrian government.”

MbS’ second point addressed future Saudi investments in Syria, which Washington seeks to prevent in order to uphold and deepen its economic siege on the country. The Cradle’s diplomatic sources say Blinken was told point blank:

“The war that was aimed at toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is over. You know our orientation to ensure stability throughout the region. We are ready to invest in Syria to prove to the Syrian people who secure their interests and the prosperity of their country. This is beneficial to regional stability, as it will weaken non-Arab forces in Syria,”  – a possible reference to Iran, Turkiye, and Russia.

Sources familiar with the content of US-Saudi meetings say that Saudi officials no longer use anti-Iranian rhetoric in their meetings since the signing of the Beijing-brokered Iran-Saudi rapprochement agreement on 10 March, 2023.

US-Saudi differences magnified

On both issues – normalization with Israel and reconciliation with Syria – Blinken had clear points of disagreement with MbS. The US secretary of state reiterated that his country still believes in a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, rejects plans to expand settlements in the West Bank, and continues to seek a solution to the conflict while upholding Israel’s security needs.

Blinken pointed out that the Biden administration is pressuring the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, citing the US president’s refusal to receive him in the White House since his return to power. And he has praised the Saudi advances with Israel, pointing out that these must be strengthened in order to reach a peace agreement ultimately.

Regarding Syria, Blinken stressed that any openness to Assad means granting him a pass on all the crimes that he has committed, and strengthens Iran’s position in Syria. Opening up to Damascus without a political solution, he argued, makes the Syrian government, and behind it, Iran and Russia, more intransigent in the face of its opponents.

US pressure will continue

But Blinken did not hesitate to put his own spin on his private discussion with MbS two days after the meeting, again pushing the issue of Saudi-Israeli normalization, this time in public: “We will continue to work  for it to push it in the coming days, weeks and months.” In saying so, he eliminates any deadlines for when this could happen, just as Biden did in his CNN interview.

Regardless of what MbS relayed to Blinken, it appears that Washington will continue to pressure its allies to reach normalization agreements with Israel, a policy crafted to isolate Palestinians and their demands for a just, negotiated solution.

The US will also continue to seek to tighten its devastating economic blockade of Syria in order to prevent the government in Damascus from extending its authority over all of its territory, to obstruct the post-war reconstruction of the country, or to force Syria to change its strategic direction. Despite the war’s end, Washington still hopes to extract concessions from Syria that it could not force through military means.

It appears, however, that these US policies do not line up with MbS’s current ambitions and vision of Saudi interests, particularly given the monumental geopolitical shifts taking place both in West Asia and the rest of the world.

But do not mistake this for a Saudi rebellion against US decisions. While Washington wants a comprehensive agreement for normalization and peace quickly, MbS is merely slowing the process down, demanding high prices for any concessions. At the same time, he has granted Israel liberties in various fields, free of charge, in a way that guarantees him protection from US pressure on the one hand, and on the other hand, continued Israeli support for him in US decision-making circles.

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