Trump’s support of MBS all the more Important amid Syria withdrawal

Washington has had its disagreements over human rights abuses and other matters with other current allies. The Saudis are crucial to US interests in many areas.

Dr. Ted Gover, | updated: 23:51

OpEds Dr.Ted Gover
Dr.Ted Gover
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President Trump’s December 19 declaration of ISIS’ defeat and order for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria highlights the importance of his support for Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

More than before, Washington will need to rely on Riyadh and other partners to protect regional interests given the stakes at play amid its exit from Syria. 

Those down on the U.S.-Saudi relationship need to remember that Riyadh has been a bulwark in the push back against Iranian aggression in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.
This makes the need to repair the damaged U.S.-Saudi alliance all the more urgent. 

The tragic murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by a team of Riyadh-directed Saudi operatives at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul has understandably left many in Washington concerned about the U.S.-Saudi alliance. In separate resolutions, the U.S. Senate voted on December 13 to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and condemned the killing of Khashoggi, blaming his death on MBS. 

The Senate’s resolutions and public rebuke of MBS served a useful role of preserving American credibility on the issue of human rights, particularly when Washington confronts other autocrats who run afoul of civil liberties, i.e., Putin, Xi, Kim, Assad, Khamenei, Maduro, et al. 

Now, Washington must double down and recommit to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. There is work to do, and the U.S. must now provide Saudi Arabia and other partners with what they will need for the struggles against Iran, IS and Al Qaeda amid America’s withdrawal from Syria.  

Those down on the U.S.-Saudi relationship need to remember that Riyadh has been a bulwark in the push back against Iranian aggression in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. It has worked closely with Washington, select Gulf Arab states (Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain) and even Israel in intelligence sharing, the training and funding of proxy groups and other security channels. 

In recent months alone, Iran has continued its maligned behavior. Its ballistic missile program development advances at a steady clip, as does its bankrolling and equipping of Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shia militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the 'West Bank' and Hamas in Gaza. Weeks ago, on November 24, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for Muslims worldwide to unite against the U.S. 

Beyond this, Hezbollah has continued efforts to penetrate Israeli territory through the construction of underground attack tunnels and both Islamic Jihad and Hamas have engaged in rocket attacks against Israel during the last few months of 2018. 

Riyadh’s cooperation is also needed in other areas:

1)to help stabilize oil market prices;

2)to reform the country’s religious establishment of clerics who bear the guilt of spreading Wahhabism, the fanatical and intolerant strain of Sunni Islam that is identified as the main source of global terrorism ideology;

3)support for an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, however distant.   

For critics of Trump’s support of MBS, some historical perspective is needed. The October 2 assassination of Khashoggi is far from the first crisis affecting American-Saudi relations, yet the alliance has endured for decades. Past disputes have involved oil production quotas; the role of Saudi nationals in 9-11; terror funding; the spread of Sunni Wahhabi Islam’s extremist ideology; Obama’s overtures towards Tehran; Riyadh’s ongoing diplomatic spat with fellow U.S. ally Qatar; and the human tragedies (famine, civilian casualties) associated with the war in Yemen.  

Nor is Riyadh the only partner with whom Washington has worked to pursue common interests despite marked differences over values. Some of the larger examples include the USSR’s Joseph Stalin in the cause against fascism as well as China’s Mao Zedong against Imperial Japan and again during Nixon’s Cold War diplomacy to gain leverage over Moscow. 

Others include Egypt’s Hosni Mubarik; South Korean strongmen Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan; Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines; Indonesia’s Suharto; and Pakistan’s Zia-ul-Haq, among others.  

Washington has also had its disagreements over human rights abuses and other matters with current allies, namely Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-ocha and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 

Yet, different U.S. administrations have rightly continued to work with these regimes to pursue common strategic interests while at the same time staying true to American ideals and advocating for improvements to human rights, corruption, etc. Despite the dangerous tendencies of Crown Prince MBS, it should be no different with Riyadh. 

Detractors of Riyadh need to come to grips with the reality that the necessity of working with Saudi Arabia will involve a messy process of ups and downs over the course of years - - decades, likely. Given the stakes involved, perseverance is the order of the day for maintaining both the U.S.-Saudi alliance and a working relationship with the kingdom’s impulsive 33-year-old Crown Prince. 

Ted Gover, Ph.D., is the Director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.