Saudi Arabia has been quietly involved in the Syrian civil war since its beginning. The Saudis found Hafez al-Assad to be a reasonable man to work with (which is an interesting comment on Saudi Arabia, given that Hafez was a Baathist who ordered the massacre of the entire city of Hama to put down a rebellion), but find his son Bashar to be too inconsistent.
Reportedly, the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, for the Saudis, was the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri by Hezbollah in 2005. The Saudis had sponsored Hariri, and with Hezbollah being a close partner with Damascus, Bashar al-Assad and his allies were seen as responsible. Given that Lebanese security was a Syrian responsibility under the Taif Accords of 1989, that also pointed to Assad being at least complicit in the assassination. As such, early on the Saudis began to support the Free Syrian Army.
The Saudis have a history of keeping a low profile in their international affairs, often acting in partnership with the United States, especially since the 1st Gulf War in 1991. Most of the royal family are fairly passive, perhaps because of a plethora of health problems. At first, Saudi support to the FSA largely consisted of sending funds through Qatar, with whom the Saudis had an agreement. The Qataris did most of the heavy lifting as far as logistics and getting weapons into Syria for the FSA.
The primary focus of Saudi Arabia’s defense is Iran. From the Britam emails (the legitimate ones, not the fakes inserted to try to implicate Britam and the Saudis in chemical weapons smuggling into Syria), it quickly becomes clear that the focus of the Saudi Armed Forces’ training is a war with Iran. While Al Arabiya dismisses the Sunni-Shia conflict as the cause, citing instead an Arab-Persian rivalry for regional domination, the sectarian differences cannot be denied. While the Saudi royal family may be hedonistic and somewhat Westernized, they are entirely aware of the fact that they rule over a country with the majority of its citizens being Wahhabi Sunnis. The House of Saud has to tread a careful line between the West and their own people in order to stay in power.
In recent months, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a member of the royal family, ambassador to the United States, and head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, has become more and more involved in Syria. As the Assad regime’s offensives in Qusayr and Homs began to make the civil war look impossible to the rebels’ backers, Bandar effectively told the Qataris to take a back seat, as he took a more forward position.
Syria is not Bandar bin Sultan’s first military adventure. In 2006, he got 0ver $200 million from the House of Saud to bankroll and train a paramilitary force for Saad Hariri. The force was utterly defeated in less than 20 hours of combat, but bin Sultan hasn’t given up.
In addition to now coordinating FSA units and weapons shipments through Jordan and Turkey, bin Sultan earlier traveled to Moscow to offer economic and oil concessions if Russia ceased its support for Assad. Bin Sultan admitted to supporting and supposedly controlling Chechen terrorists–according to Al Akhbar, Bin Sultan was effectively negotiating as “Prince of the Mujahideen”–even offering to ensure the security of the Winter Games in Sochi by keeping the Chechens away. His overtures were rejected by President Putin.
Bin Sultan has complained publicly about how many of the weapons he has brought into Syria have ended up in Al Qaeda’s hands. Given his admission of controlling the Jaysh al Muhajireen wal-Ansar, these complaints smack more of political posturing for the sake of the West than anything else.
Bin Sultan’s stated goals are to see breakthroughs in Aleppo in the north, as well as convincing the Jordanians to allow fighters across the border into Daraa and the Golan. Reportedly, he wants to see the balance of power shifted enough for the Saudis to reach a political solution with Russia over Syria’s future, leaving Bashar al-Assad out of it.
In recent days, a report has arisen out of the Ghouta area of Damascus, claiming that the chemical weapons that killed over 300 people were in fact in the possession of the rebels, supplied by Bandar bin Sultan, and had in fact been mishandled due to a lack of training, resulting in the exposure and deaths. The report has only come from an AP-affiliated reporter named Dale Gavlak, and was not picked up by AP, but was rather printed by MintPressNews. So far it is a single-source report (read-rumor), and as such should be taken with a large grain of salt until some corroborating reporting comes up.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Alalam)