George W Bush meets Prince Bandar bin Sultan in Texas in 2002
Washington, Aug. 2: Speculation is sweeping the US and Israel about the fate of Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s spy chief, who is said to have planned the July 18 “Damascus Volcano” that killed Syria’s defence minister Dawoud Rajiha.
The attack killed several members of President Bashar al Assad’s inner circle, including Assad’s brother-in-law and deputy defence minister Assef Shawkat. It was the most daring act so far by those who want regime change in Damascus.
The next day King Abdullah named Bandar as chief of general intelligence in addition to his post-2005 job of secretary-general of the kingdom’s National Security Council. The new appointment was seen as a reward for the successful Damascus bombing operation.
Three days later, according to reports which have gained currency here and in Israel, Prince Bandar was killed in an equally daring bomb attack on Saudi Arabia’s intelligence headquarters in Riyadh.
Strategic analysts with a sense of history here are comparing Bandar’s killing, if it is true, to the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria which was a trigger for World War I four weeks later.
The murders of his brother-in-law and his defence minister have hardened Assad’s resolve to go all out in fighting the opposition, whom he describes as Saudi and Qatari-funded terrorists. So far, the President had largely played the “good cop”, leaving it to Maher al Assad, his younger brother and commander of the elite Republican Guards, and some other openly hardline members of the Assad clan to play the “bad cops” and lead the fighting.
Yesterday, even as Assad openly urged his army to be “the shield, the wall and fortress of our nation”, Sausan Ghosheh, the UN spokeswoman in Damascus, said: “For the first time, our observers saw firing from a fighter aircraft. We also now have confirmation that the opposition is in a position of having heavy weapons, including tanks.”
This week, the Syrians managed to capture a Saudi army colonel who is said to have spilled plans for an attack on Damascus by the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, Iranian dissidents based in Iraq and supported by the Saudis and the US. The assault to take over parts of the Syrian capital would have involved 20,000 men.
Israel, now convinced that Assad will not survive, has prepared plans to invade Syria, not as an occupation force, but to take possession of Syria’s chemical weapons so that they do not fall into the hands of an unstable and unpredictable successor government in Damascus.
The Israelis also want to ensure that Syrian stocks of missiles or chemical weapons are not handed over by a falling Assad regime to Tel Aviv’s deadly enemy, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the only force in the region which has so far stood up to Israel’s military might.
Israel’s defence minister Ehud Barak has not been coy about his country’s plans. “I have instructed the military to increase its intelligence preparations and prepare what is needed so that... we will be able to consider carrying out an operation,” he said on television 10 days ago.
All in all, therefore, West Asia may be heading for another war. Hence the worry that if Bandar has indeed been killed, his assassination may be a trigger like the Sarajevo assassination of the presumptive heir to the Austrian throne in 1914 started a World War.
Bandar, unlike Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was not considered to be in the line of succession to the throne, but his father, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud, was. Prince Sultan died late last year.
Extensive news reports that Bandar was assassinated on July 22 have been met so far by Riyadh with a silence reminiscent of the grave. The prince has not been seen in public and the kingdom is not responding to reports of his death.
But curiously, Arab News, a major Saudi newspaper, on Sunday published an opinion article in praise of Bandar and his record in the kingdom’s service for no apparent reason.
Without addressing reports about his assassination so as not to break Saudi Arabia’s tenets of media censorship, the article said foreigners only had to “watch Saudi TV and they would see Prince Bandar among other royals and officials chatting with each other when receiving the King.
“If we Saudis can see him, then why can’t the western think tanks see him?”
But the newspaper did not publish any picture clips in support of sighting Bandar. Nor did it offer any evidence or example of anyone seeing the prince since the bomb attack on the Saudi general intelligence headquarters, which is not in dispute. It is known that the attack killed Bandar’s deputy, Mashaal al-Qarni.
Syria, which is believed to have swiftly taken revenge for “Damascus Volcano” with a Riyadh reprisal, is also not commenting on any aspect of the entire episode. There is speculation here that Iranian contacts in the kingdom may have been used by Assad in pulling off the assassinations at the nerve centre of Saudi intelligence, but officially Tehran is also silent.
If Bandar has been killed, it would mark the loss of one of the most colourful personalities in global diplomacy for more than two decades.
The 63-year-old prince was Saudi ambassador in Washington for 22 long years and played an insider role in two American wars in the Gulf: the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s occupation and the 2003 invasion of Iraq that overthrew that country’s Baathist regime.
Despite being the son of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Bandar’s reputation has been that of a self-made prince. That is because his mother was a commoner, assuring his half-brothers born of royal pedigree from both parents higher claims within the al Saud family.
Because his mother was an outsider, Bandar’s childhood was not spent in a royal palace, but in an ordinary Riyadh neighbourhood. His sense of humour is well known in this city where he called himself “the peasant prince” to emphasise his semi-commoner status.
It was a ploy that went down well with the Americans who are ambivalent about royalty except their own brand of famous families such as the Kennedys, for instance. Bandar’s familiarity with the Bush Presidents, both father and son, earned him the nickname of “Bandar Bush”.
After accounts of his influence on the American presidency became widely known here and a biography with graphic details of his White House access was published, King Abdullah recalled him to Riyadh in 2005.
Unlike many members of the al Saud family, Bandar realised that he had to work to make a mark.
He joined his country’s air force when he was 19 and rose to head its aerial acrobatics squadron.
He was Saudi defence attaché in Washington before being made ambassador.
The biggest reward for the “working” prince came when Princess Haifa Bint Faisal, daughter of the late King Faisal married him, cementing his place in the house of Saud.
Haifa has said that their marriage was not arranged Saudi style.