- Adam Entousnational security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He wrote the recent article on longtime Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan: “A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works to Build Support to Topple Assad.” His latest is “U.S. Decided Not to Horse-Trade With Russia on Assad.”
The Wall Street Journal recently revealed new details about how Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud — Saudi’s former ambassador to the United States — is leading the effort to prop up the Syrian rebels. Intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia, the United States, Jordan and other allied states are working at a secret joint operations center in Jordan to train and arm hand-picked Syrian rebels. The Journal also reports Prince Bandar has been jetting from covert command centers near the Syrian front lines to the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime. “Really what he’s doing is he’s reprising a role that he played in the 1980s when he worked with the Reagan administration to arrange money and arms for mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and also worked with the CIA in Nicaragua to support the Contras,” says Wall Street Journal reporter Adam Entous. “So in many ways this is a very familiar position for Prince Bandar, and it’s amazing to see the extent to which veterans of the CIA were excited to see him come back because, in the words of a diplomat who knows Bandar, he brings the Arabic term wasta, which means under-the-table clout. You know his checks are not going to bounce and that he’ll be able to deliver the money from the Saudis.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: At the G-20 Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russian and China officials, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, are urging the United States not to bomb Syria in response to last month’s chemical weapons attack. The U.N.’s Ban Ki-moon said, quote, “Let us remember: Every day that we lose is a day when scores of innocent civilians die. There is no military solution.” Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly said a U.S. strike without authorization from the U.N. Security Council would be illegal. But on Thursday the Obama administration declared there is, quote, “no viable path forward” in the U.N. Security Council on Syria. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power has accused Russia of holding the U.N. Security Council hostage.
SAMANTHA POWER: I was present in the meeting where the U.K. laid down the resolution. And everything in that meeting, in word and in body language, suggests that that resolution has no prospect of being adopted by Russia, in particular. And our view—again, our considered view, after months of efforts on chemical weapons and after two-and-a-half years of efforts on Geneva, on the humanitarian situation, is that there is no viable path forward in the Security Council.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.
One nation that has been pushing for a U.S. military strike is Saudi Arabia. The Wall Street Journal recently revealed new details about how Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, Saudi’s former ambassador to the United States, is leading the effort to prop up the Syrian rebels. The Wall Street Journal reports Prince Bandar has been jetting from covert command centers near the Syrian front lines to the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime. The Journal also reports intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Jordan and other allied states are working at a secret joint operation center in Jordan to train and arm handpicked Syrian rebels.
Joining us now from Washington, D.C., is Adam Entous, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He co-wrote the recent piece, “A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works to Build Support to Topple Assad.”
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Adam. Why don’t you just start where you begin your piece, A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works to Build Support to Topple Assad”? Americans know him most famously as “Bandar Bush,” because this former Saudi ambassador to the United States was so close to the Bush family. He was the ambassador who was there, for example, September 11, 2001. What is his connection to the Syrian rebels?
ADAM ENTOUS: Well, I mean, he—he really didn’t have a strong connection to these rebels until a couple years ago, when the king of Saudi Arabia decided to put him in the job of intel chief last summer. And since then, he’s been very aggressive in arranging arms shipments and funding for these rebels. Really what he’s doing is he’s reprising a role that he played in the 1980s when he worked with the Reagan administration to arrange money and arms for mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan, and also worked with the CIA in Nicaragua to support the Contras. So, in many ways, this is a very familiar position for Prince Bandar. And it’s amazing to see, you know, the extent to which veterans at the CIA were excited to see him come back, because, you know, in the words of a diplomat who knows Bandar, he brings the Arabic term wasta, which means under-the-table clout. You know his checks are not going to bounce and that he’ll be able to deliver the money from the Saudis.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, your article provides enormous detail—for instance, the role of Jordan and the training, not only by the CIA, but by Saudi forces. Could you talk about Jordan’s role now in the training of the rebels?
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. So, what happened was, is, initially, the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey and, to a certain extent, the CIA in more of an observatory capacity, had set up their operations for arming the rebels out of Turkey. And about a year ago, a little over a year ago, you know, the Saudis were watching as these arms were flowing in, and were concerned that they were going to what the Saudis and what the Americans would consider to be the wrong rebels, and this would include Islamist groups, Muslim Brotherhood-connected groups. And so they decided to pull out of Turkey and move to Jordan.
They convinced the king of Jordan, who was a little—a little bit reticent initially to accept this being done in their territory, because they were worried about reprisals, where, for example, there are large refugee camps for Palestinians just north of the Jordan-Syria border, inside Syria, and the fear for the Jordanians was that the Syrians would literally push those refugees into Jordan and further destabilize the kingdom. What we found in our reporting is, is that Bandar spent many hours with the king and with his military chiefs, reassuring them that the Saudis would support the Jordanians through this. And then CIA Director David Petraeus was involved, as well, in helping assure the Jordanians that the U.S. would have Jordan’s back.
And last summer they created this operation center. And what would happen—what is happening now is you have actually more CIA officers now there at that base than there are Saudi personnel. They fly weapons in. The Saudis are the ones who are doing the bulk of this. They buy the weapons in—largely in places like Eastern Europe, to a certain extent Libya, and they bring them to this base, which has a landing strip and storehouses for the weapons to be stored. The Saudis and the Jordanians draw on defectors, largely, from the Syrian military, which already have a good degree of military training. And they’re brought to this base, where different intel agencies train them. And the Americans are there. The Brits are there. The French are there. The Saudis, UAE is there. And they train them, and then they send them into the fight. And this—but very, very slowly, this process has been built up over the last couple months.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you report, as well, again in a replay of Afghanistan, that the CIA is not only training some of these rebels, but actually has put key figures of the Free Syrian Army on the payroll.
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. It’s a very interesting development, which we learned of as part of the reporting, which is, you know, we are—you know, the United States is not at war with Syria, so this is obviously being done covertly with the CIA. The Saudis were instrumental in getting the CIA to agree to pay these salaries. And the idea is, if these—if these FSA commanders receive American money, the U.S. is building loyalty and building relationships that would last into the future. And that’s the main rationale with these payments that are being made.
And it’s part of, generally, an effort by the Saudis to gradually increase the extent of the U.S. investment in the war in Syria. And it’s been slow-going, as far as the Saudis are concerned, because the CIA is—remains, you know, divided and skeptical about whether or not this is—this has a chance of succeeding. And that’s why you see, for example, the number of CIA-trained rebels entering Syria is incredibly small, given the number of months that this has been going on. For example, Congressman—excuse me, Senators McCain and Graham were told on Monday by Obama that an initial group of 50 rebels trained by the CIA were getting ready to enter, and this is after months of work at this base in Jordan, and the number is incredibly small.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Saudi Arabia, Prince Bandar and the chemical weapons story?
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. So, you know, as you know, the U.S. right now is poised for military action in response to a very large alleged case of chemical weapons use on August 21st. You know, over the course of the last year, there have been these scattered reports of chemical weapons being used in much smaller quantities. Generally speaking, the U.S. intelligence community has been skeptical initially of those. The Saudis played an early and important role in trying to bring evidence of chemical weapon use to the West for analysis. And we were told, as part of the research for the story, that the Saudis had a—were brought by members of the Free Syrian Army, which is the Western-backed rebel group, a Syrian who had been exposed to an agent, a chemical agent. The Saudis arranged for that Syrian to be flown to Britain for treatment and to be tested. What the British found when they did the testing was that this Syrian was exposed to sarin gas, which the U.S. and British and French intelligence believe is only in the possession of the Syrian regime. That was sort of the first case that was—offered credible evidence that chemical weapons had been used.
And what you saw in the months that followed was, first, Saudi intelligence, so Bandar’s intelligence agency, concluded that chemical weapons were being used on a small scale by the regime. Followed by that, the Brits and the French were convinced of the same conclusion. It took U.S. intelligence agencies really until—until June to reach that conclusion. And that’s what led the Obama administration, at least publicly—it was cited by the Obama administration as the trigger for Obama’s decision to instruct the CIA and authorize the CIA to start arming the rebels at this Jordan base.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you write not only about the role of Prince Bandar, but also the current Saudi ambassador to the United States and his close connections to Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham and also to the Obama administration. Could you elaborate?
ADAM ENTOUS: Sure. So, Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir replaced Bandar as the ambassador here, and he is—you know, has the kind of access to the circles of power in Washington that few, if any, ambassadors have. He gets meetings with the president. He meets constantly with the top White House advisers, as well as members of Congress. And he sort of used the Saudi playbook from the 1980s in Afghanistan. In the case of Afghanistan, you’re probably familiar with the Tom Hanks portrayal of Charlie Wilson, Congressman Wilson, in supporting arming the rebels, the mujahideen, in Afghanistan. Well, in the case of Syria, the Saudis identified the core group as being Senators McCain, Senator Graham and former—former Senator Lieberman. That was the core group. And then Adel al-Jubeir, the ambassador—
AMY GOODMAN: We have about five seconds, Adam.
ADAM ENTOUS: —worked to expand—sure—worked to expand that out to bring more people in, and in the end built a great deal more support within Congress for arming the rebels.
AMY GOODMAN: Adam Entous, we want to thank you for being with us and ask you to stay with us an extra 10 minutes after the show so we could talk to you about your latest piece, the U.S. deciding not to horse-trade with Russia on Assad, about the G-20 meeting, and we’ll post it online at democracynow.org. Adam Entous is the national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. We’ll link to the story he wrote about the Saudi ambassador in Washington, past and present.