Lally Weymouth, senior associate editor of The Washington Post spoke this week with Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al Saud, former chief of intelligence and brother of the foreign minister.
Who made the decision to turn down the UN Security Council seat?
It is always in the end the king who makes the decision. But it wasn’t a whimsical decision. Nor was it, as some newspapers here have described it, done in a fit of pique. It was a studied and considered decision. The kingdom conducted a very high-level campaign for the seat, and many people were surprised by the decision to turn it down. Some governments take decisions that not everybody knows about it. My understanding is that [the decision was based on] the situation in the Security Council, particularly on the Syrian issue, but not just on that. You had also the issue of nuclear non-proliferation ... and then you have the issue of Palestine, which has been with us since 1947. These three issues culminated in the decision where the kingdom felt that by not taking the seat, it would make the point to the Security Council that there is a need to fix it.
What do you and your country think is the best outcome in Syria?
The best outcome is to stop the killing. We had a proposal, put forth by our foreign minister, that you have to level the playing field. And that means Bashar’s military superiority has to be checked by giving the opposition the means to defend themselves. You’re not talking about sending troops on the ground. Over the past two and half years, if anti-tank, anti-aircraft defensive weapons had been distributed to the opposition — and not all the opposition, [but] the opposition that is for an inclusive Syria — then they would have been able to checkmate the military superiority of Bashar Al Assad and force him to come to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, that did not happen. While Europe and America continued to deny the opposition the means to defend against Bashar’s lethal weapons, the Russians and the Iranians continued to supply Bashar with whatever he needed.
So it’s up to the United States and the Europeans to arm the opposition?
Absolutely. The Europeans put an embargo on arms to Syria. They could see ... that that embargo wasn’t affecting Al Assad but it was definitely denying his opponents ... weapons. It took the Europeans two-and-a-half-years to change their view and finally say, ‘OK, we can afford to sell these weapons to the opposition.’ But none of these countries did. The Americans have not only not sold them, but they have declared they have no intention of providing these weapons to the opposition. So how can you level the playing ground if one side is continually supplied with what it needs by the Russians and the Iranians, and the other side is continually denied those things?
Do you feel Saudi explanations fall on deaf ears with the Obama administration?
Every day there are more than 50 to 100 people killed in Syria. And the world sits back and watches.
Do you feel President Obama just doesn’t get it?
I don’t know if he gets it or not. But I think the world community is definitely at fault here. The Russians because they are supporting Bashar and allowing him to do the killing. The Chinese because they have vetoed any measures in the United Nations to prevent him from doing that. The Europeans for not supplying the opposition with weapons. The United States for continually not supplying the opposition with what they need. It’s a worldwide apathy — a criminally negligent attitude toward the Syrian people.
How do you see the situation in Iran?
When President [Hassan] Rouhani was elected, King Abdullah sent him a note of congratulations and expressed the wish for a fruitful relationship with Iran, and Rouhani responded in kind. Since then, he has made several statements about how he would like to see improved relations with Saudi Arabia.
Is Rouhani taking the West for a ride?
It’s too early to tell. He’s very clever. Being able to engage with Iran is a good thing. But his sweet words need to be translated into action.
How do you feel about Secretary Kerry’s talks with the Palestinians?
What we hear from the Palestinian negotiators is that the talks are substantive.
Palestine is one of the issues mentioned by Saudi Arabia as a reason for turning down the UN Security Council seat, meaning the kingdom feels the UN should do what exactly?
The UN should implement the resolutions passed by the Security Council — 242 and 338. The US keeps vetoing whatever follow-up resolutions can be put in place for 242. This was one of the complaints by Saudi Arabia. This veto system allows Russia on one side and the United States on the other to do whatever they like. Russia created the chemical weapons resolution that has allowed Al Assad to stay in power. And they continue to supply him with weapons, and they don’t get sanctioned.
Do you think it was a mistake for the US to support Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki?
I am convinced of that. Since he became prime minister, Al Maliki has pushed aside the Sunnis from any meaningful positions in Iraq. When he came up for re-election last time, it was an Iranian general, Qassem Sulaimani, who came from Tehran to Baghdad to pressure the other Shiite parties in Iraq to join Al Maliki’s coalition. Because of Iran’s pressure, Al Maliki got a majority in the parliament. The irony is that Al Maliki is supported equally by the United States and Iran. It’s as if there are blinders as far as Al Maliki is concerned. There are more people dying in Iraq today than there were at the height of the insurgency in 2006. He is doing nothing for Iraq. There is no improvement in the security situation or the economy.
Obama said the use of chemical weapons would be a red line and then Syria used chemical weapons, the president brought the issue to Congress, and Russia eventually bailed him out. Does this make the US look weak?
Absolutely. Public opinion throughout the area is that the United States is not playing the role it should play.
Do you think Russia is filling the gap in the Middle East?
I don’t think Russia will ever fill the gap. It’s costing the Russians the rest of the Muslim world. They are fighting on the wrong side.
How do you see the Egyptian situation?
I think it will continue to be uncertain. They have a road map and have put a timeline on it. They’ve finished writing the [new] constitution, which will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. If they succeed in that road map, that will put some stability in Egypt. I think they have reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Isn’t former Egyptian president Mohammad Mursi going on trial?
Yes, but they aim to reach out to the membership of the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the leadership. The Muslim Brotherhood has gone underground and will remain a subversive anti-government opposition in hiding. That’s why the situation will remain uncertain.
Do you think part of the kingdom’s anger with the United States went back to 2011, when the US allowed former Egyptian president [Hosni] Mubarak to be ousted so quickly?
I think there was some disappointment that the United States did not stand by someone who for 30 years was a very staunch ally of the United States.
Would you be in favour of military action against Iran?
No, the consequences would be catastrophic. You’re not going to stop Iran from developing its nuclear capabilities. Military action would incentivise the Iranian people to develop a nuclear deterrent. If you hit them, they will do their utmost to get one. If you don’t, you can still work diplomatically through the zone free of weapons of mass destruction.