image Hitting the pro-Iranians ever so lightly, going into the vault to glean intelligence nuggets. Photo: Reuters, Flash90

Diplomacy, Drones and a DNI who does not deny

The lessons of Biden’s first Syria strike and the one against MBS

By Amir Oren

Within one day, February 25, the Biden Administration has undertaken two significant actions vis-a-vis the Middle East. Seemingly seperate, they point to a common thread.

First, American drones struck buildings, described as “Infrastructure targets”, used by Ketaib Hezbollah and another pro-Iranian militia, in the border region where Western Iraq (Anbar province) and Eastern Syria (Deir-el-Azor) meet. The strikes were carefully depicted as defensive, precise, retaliatory – for attacks on U.S. and Coalition air bases in Iraq – yet de-escalatory and only backing up diplomacy.

A few hours later the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, made good on her pledge during her Senate confirmation hearing to declassify and publish the American Intelligence Community’s assessment of the Saudi Government’s role in the killing of journalist-dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The Trump Administration, whose President and his son-in-law were close to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, aka MBS, blocked the report’s release for as long as it was in power.

“We assess that (MBS) approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Khasoggi,” reads the damning first line of DNI’s executive summary, followed by details regarding MBS’ responsibility to murder by henchmen. Perhaps not first-degree murder, but rather a more permissive definition of manslaughter, as the “wanted, dead or alive” instruction stopped short of an unambiguous kill order, but nevertheless heading a homicidal chain of command.

The strike in the logistical transshipment point of Qaim and BuKammal signaled Biden’s will to reinforce his Iran, Iraq and Syria policies by power. Diplomacy first, but drones closely behind. The American wish to redeploy troops from the Levant and vicinity has not changed from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden, but airpower in various forms will always be around to add punch to palaver.

But there is another mixture, of power and principle – even if principle shares its root with prince. The Biden Administration champions human and civil rights at home and abroad. It rejects a double standard of the sort used by Presidents during the Cold War regarding right-wing, anti-Communist dictators – “He is a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our SOB”. Apparently, MBS is no longer Washington’s SOB.

On the personal level, Biden was careful to note that his own counterpart was King Salman and not his favourite son. Gone are MBS’ days as the de-facto ruler in high-level exchanges. His opposite number is not the U.S. Crown Princess, Vice-President Kamala Harris, but rather Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as MBS holds the Defense portfolio in his government. It all obviously aim to cut him down to size, losing face – a terrible toll in his world – and being virtuaaly blocked from visiting Washington and shaking his blood-stained hands with senior Americans when they travel to the Kingdom.

There is no use downplaying the significance of this move. Biden is in effect telling Salman to remove MBS from his position as heir apparent, or else U.S.-Saudi relations will suffer should MBS be elevated to the throne, at Salman’s passing away or abdicating. A momentous decision, because MBS controls the entire security apparatus and took pains – or more accurately, administered pain – to neutralize competing princes. The choice, nevertheless, of almost Biblical proportions, is now Salman’s, assuming he is still in control of his powers.

In his effort to distance himself from his predecessor, placate the Progressive wing of his Democratic Party and the Washington Post (where Khashoggi published his articles) and make a statement at the start if his term, Biden could not have acted otherwise. He has also sought to re-assure the Intelligence and Law Enforcement Communities that their professional work will be processed unvarnished, with policy-makers let the chips fall where they may.

As for the Intelligence capabilities indicated by the definitive judgments in the DNI report, one may easily assume that the U.S. is spying on its allies – it has intercepted calls between the Saudi squad at Istanbul and Headquarters, all the way up to MBS. But “spying” is an outdated term. There may or may not be human sources reporting to CIA handlers on Riyadh intentions, or occasionally stealing documents. The bulk of information collected, however, is done by Sigint, Signal Intelligence, and thus the province of the NSA rather than CIA.

A tantalizing peek into how raw data is turned into intelligence items and then into finished products with authoritative assessments was provided by Ambassador Bill Burns, nominated by Biden to head CIA, in a Senate Committee hearing. Burns described the method employed in targeting an American person, rather than a foreign official, but the process is surely similar and perhaps identical.

When a need arises to establish the facts of a matter – MBS’ culpability is a good (or bad) example – CIA does not set out on a trail to collect leads. The trail is already there, waiting for visitors. This is the vast repository of data scooped up from telephones and computers and all other sorts of communication media. It sits there like an ocean bed waiting for deep-sea submarines. When there is a justifiable need, a query is sent to the archive. It unlocks the vault and out comes the information, which still has to be checked and refined. Presumably, this also holds true for Israel, as an American target, a friendly one, to be sure, but one never knows. In the era of Covid-induced Zoom cabinet conferences, supposedly encrypted and secure, surely the best Intelligence agencies in the world are investing their resources in tapping this unsurpassed channel of information about intentions and decisions at the highest national levels.

Stung by earlier disappointments and decades-long quagmires, the U.S. government does not rush to attempt regime change. But short of assistance to a coup, such as against Mossadegh in Iran and around South Asia and Latin America in the 1950’s and 60’s, there are ways to bring about personnel changes in democratic regimes. Whether by design or inadvertantly, it happened in – or to – Israel on several occasions. In 1963 President Kennedy put such enormous pressure on Prime Minister Ben Gurion regarding visits by American inspectors at the Dimona nuclear reactor that Ben Gurion resigned. In 1992 President George H. W.  Bush clashed with Prime Minister Shamir on the issue of loan guarantees to such an extent that voters preferred Rabin over him. On a lower level, the Israeli government, under an American ultimatum, fired two senior officials from their industry and Air Force positions, respectively, for their roles in the Pollard affair.

It will be up to the House of Saud to re-assess the MBS problem, even if the White House did not explicitely ask for his removal. Congress may yet act independently of Biden to sanction the Saudis until they remove MBS. If he shows up in the U.S. demonstrations against him are expected. Saudi Arabia’s policies are considered more benign than Iran’s, but when the means are just as nefarious, the accountability demanded will be similar.

The Biden Administration is still feeling its way around the region, but all local actors should learn the lessons of its first moves. The 2016-20 order is gone, and yesterday’s President’s pets could easily turn out to be today’s pilloried and punished.