Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, now Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, meet in Moscow in 2007. (AFP)
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday warned that Saudi Arabia’s shift away from a longstanding relationship with the United States could severely hurt US interests.
Reuters reported Tuesday that Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan says his nation — perhaps Washington’s second-best friend in the Middle East after Israel — is poised to make a “major shift” away from its relations with the US.
Saudi officials are upset about the Obama administration’s decision to avoid military action in Syria, as well as extending diplomatic olive branches to Riyadh’s top rival, Iran.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, warns a weakened or severed US-Saudi relationship would breed “significant negative consequences” for Washington and the region.
Rogers called for US officials to quickly take steps to convince Saudi officials to not “walk down that path.”
But with the US trying to pivot strategically toward Asia, and with energy experts predicting a major American natural resources boon to begin soon, it’s unclear whether the US-Saudi relationship will ever return to its peak.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the same Foreign Policy Initiative-sponsored conference here that America’s interests in the Middle East “are shifting.”
Still, Engel said, the US “needs to, I think, remain engaged” there.
Finding a solution in Syria would be a start to mending fences with Saudi leaders, the two lawmakers said.
They agreed the Obama administration needs to re-assess its approach and do more to end the civil war and remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
The United Nations has expressed support for a proposed multinational conference that would include the Assad regime and opposition leaders known as “Geneva II.”
But Rogers said the situation in Syria has only gotten worse since US President Barack Obama opted against military strikes this year. So much worse, he said, that all momentum is moving toward failure at a “Geneva II” conference.
Rogers repeatedly warned that there are more “foreign fighters” in Syria than there ever were in Iraq, and warned those fighters would eventually return to their home nations. He cast Syria as a “regional conflict” and not a mere “civil war.”
The House Intel Committee chairman said chaos is almost inevitable in Syria after Assad’s regime is removed. To help tamp down a chaotic situation that would hurt US interests and negatively impact Washington’s allies in the region, Rogers said US officials should consider “covert action.”
Engel said he would have voted in favor of a use-of-force resolution for a US strike in Syria because Iran “was watching.” And only a credible threat of force by Washington will ensure that any diplomatic deal with Tehran over its nuclear arms program “is a good deal.”
Notably, Engel said a final vote in the House to give Obama Congress’ blessing to bomb select Syrian targets would have been “iffy.” Engel said Obama would have only gotten “a majority” of Democrats, indicating a sizable chunk of members of the president’s own party opposed US intervention in Syria.