On the Ground in Syria: Prince Hussein’s Visit Is A Beginner’s Guide to America’s New Enemy

Queen Rania of Jordan/Instagram

“Both serious and silly, neither country has proven itself a place for serious serious talks,” tweeted Sawa, Jordan’s social media-based broadcaster, after Crown Prince Hussein — whose family is that of the late King Hussein — visited Turkey. The timing, of course, is not coincidental: This week’s trip, billed as a “special detente,” comes a month after both sides agreed to free their two citizens kidnapped by the Syrian rebels. Those Americans, Terry Davis and William Garrido, had been working with the Saudi Arabian-funded Relief International to help more than 1,000 Syrian refugees and were nabbed in May by Syrian rebels who were angered by the Saudi’s involvement with the United Nations to maintain aid to Syrian civilians, by keeping him and Garrido in prison and securing their release in exchange for a Lebanese Islamic preacher’s release. The Americans’ transfer did not, however, appear to wipe away the damage from the killing in the Ein Al Arab refugee camp of an American contractor, Rhonda Varney, earlier this month, in which a bomb planted inside her car set off a fire nearby that destroyed several homes.

Blessed is the Syria expatriate who have been able to return home | Toussaint Louverture / Peace and Courage PBF. IMAGE: From the south west of Deir ez-Zor city, Deir ez-Zor governorate, Syria, at the Syria Media University | Photo: via alhurra

At times, of course, it has looked as if royal royals were being dispatched to destroy American embassies and overthrow American presidents. In 1998, for example, when a young Saudi princess married a young governor of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, public debate would later focus on whether a relationship between a leader of a Saudi princess and her right-hand man — the former secretary of the Saudi foreign ministry, Yusuf al-Qaradawi — constituted treason. (Saudi media alleged that Qaradawi received the wedding purse of King Abdullah from the ex-wife of the late Saudi dictator, Saud al-Faisal. Nonetheless, the couple performed their marriage ceremony outside Saudi Arabia, in Baden-Württemberg.) And in 2002, Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, the richest man in Saudi Arabia, sold most of his holdings in American companies such as Citigroup and Hewlett-Packard because he was unhappy about American foreign policy. According to The Wall Street Journal, the prince saw his assets slashed by a third as a result.

Yet it appears, at least publicly, that Prince Hussein is there primarily to engage with Ankara in the fight against the Kurds in the north and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in the east. This is a marked change from Prince Faisal’s time as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, when he viewed Turkey as a bulwark against Soviet Communism and “the strategic trump card against a Soviet-backed anti-Saudi Middle East.” But Prince Faisal will be remembered for his unhappy dealings with the Turkish leader Turgut Ozal, who was less than supportive of Saudi plans to improve relations with Iran. It was believed at the time that this was one of the reasons for Faisal’s sacking of the crown prince.

In a meeting in the 1980s, Faisal said that the Turks wanted to “eat the hearts and spines of Arab Arabs and Turks,” and that “what matters to Turks is their own economy, not that of the Arab world.” Turkish tanks did enter Lebanon during the 1978 Lebanese Civil War, and troops continued to position along the border. Turkish officers did battle with Greek Cypriots; tensions between Ankara and Jerusalem rose; a ceasefire agreement fell apart; tension rose between Turkey and Israel.

Given these details, it seems that King Abdullah, whom U.S. officials describe as personally committed to improving relations with Turkey, had the correct idea. As David Rohde, the journalist who was jailed for six months while covering events in Syria — where he wrote of the ghastly and bloody war — wrote in 2015, “the strategic problem facing Turkey’s once-warring neighbor Israel and Arab leaders alike is how to tackle Islamist extremism, the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the region’s chronic political conflicts and the messiest of disputes, the Syrian civil war.”

Also on N.Y. Times:

‘On the Ground’ in Syria. 2016

Arab Spring. 1999

Arab Spring: Sirens of Rebellion of a Century

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