Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States.
Israel's pronouncement that it wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad toppled even if al-Qaeda-aligned rebels replace him puts into sharper focus the intensifying lobbying and P.R. campaigns underway in the United States to get President Obama to engage militarily against Syria and ultimately against Iran.
Until the declaration by Israel's Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren on Tuesday, Israel's precise position on the Syrian civil war was ambiguous, but now it is clear that Israel again is lining up with its new de facto ally, Saudi Arabia, in a regional conflict to undermine Iranian influence.
Saudi Arabia, which is spearheading the military and intelligence assistance for the Syrian rebels, is concerned itself about what is called the "Shiite crescent" extending from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah enclaves of Lebanon. The Saudis, who follow an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam, are now viewed in the region as the geopolitical bulwark against the Iran-led Shiite coalition. "The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc," Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview scheduled for publication on Friday but excerpted by Reuters on Tuesday.
Ambassador Oren, who is considered very close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is cited in the Reuters article as saying that while Israel favors the more moderate elements among the Syrian rebels, it still wants Assad's ouster even if it results in radical Sunni Islamists coming to power in Damascus.
"We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran," Oren said. Reuters added, "Oren, a Netanyahu confidant, did not say in the interview whether or how Israel was promoting Assad's fall."
However, Oren's decision to lift the veil on Israel's behind-the-scenes role in seeking Assad's removal is certain to fuel suspicions that some of the recent events in Syria may have been manipulated by the sophisticated intelligence agencies in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Saudi intelligence is now headed by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the smooth-talking former ambassador to the United States.
Though Saudi Arabia and Israel have historically been enemies, the two countries -- in recent years -- have seen their interests align, especially in their hostility toward Iran as well as in their preference for an authoritarian regime in Egypt over the populist Muslim Brotherhood. Now, it appears they also have been on the same page regarding Syria.
In complementary ways, Israel and Saudi Arabia are masters of soft-power geopolitics, both with world-class intelligence services and with the ability to influence the actions of other global players, Israel through its unparalleled propaganda and political skills and Saudi Arabia with its grip on oil supplies and financial markets.
To the degree that the two countries can cooperate, they present a fearsome coalition, rivaling the hard-power nations like the United States and Russia. President Barack Obama would have to worry about the influential Israel Lobby causing him political trouble in Washington while the Saudis could disrupt oil supplies and stock prices.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin could see pro-Israeli propagandists step up the media attacks on him while Saudi intelligence could increase support to Islamist terrorists in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Russian Federation, including against next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Israeli-Saudi Superpower."]
Masters of the Dark Arts
Israel and Saudi Arabia are masters of the dark arts of intelligence. Israel's intelligence services are legendary in their cleverness and ruthlessness, while Saudi intelligence has had deep experience in financing major covert operations, including the Afghan war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, an effort that gave rise to the scion of a Saudi fortune, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda.
The Saudis also have a history of financing violent jihadists whose actions are directed against the United States and the West. According to the 9/11 Commission report, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals and the one part of the report blacked out addressed the issue of Saudi financing for al-Qaeda.
The de facto alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia also should be factored in when evaluating evidence of the Syrian chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, just after United Nations inspectors had arrived to examine other CW attacks that the Syrian government was blaming on the rebels.
While the major U.S. newspapers and non-governmental organizations are now nearly unanimous in blaming President Assad's regime for the attack which killed hundreds of civilians, some of those assumptions -- especially regarding rebel military capabilities -- may not hold if the rebels had access to materiel from Saudi Arabia or Israel. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Murky Clues from UN's Syria Report."]
Israel is one of a handful of nations that has balked at ratifying the Convention Against Chemical Weapons, a short list of rogue states that Syria has agreed to leave by accepting international prohibitions and destroying its supplies of CW. Israel is widely believed to have a stockpile of high-quality chemical weapons as well as an undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal.