How Saudi Arabia's 'Plan B' Became a Game Changer in Syria

04/22/2013 03:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013
  • Faisal J. Abbas Editor-in-Chief, Al Arabiya English; author of upcoming book on Arab media

Saudi Arabia has always been renowned for its signature "silent treatment" on most affairs. Rarely confrontational by nature, and always extra-cautious, Saudi officials often repeat that the Kingdom's policy is not to interfere in the affairs of other countries.

Rather, things usually happen behind closed doors in Saudi Arabia. Most of the time, issues are resolved through negotiations, and the Saudis usually have the means to make them fruitful. However, striking deals is not always attainable, and there have been instances in the past where Saudi Arabia had to resort to alternatives which secured a quicker remedy.

Recent unconfirmed reports suggest that Saudi patience with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been exhausted and estimates that there could be a possible end to the Syrian regime "within months."

Over a series of interviews which I have conducted with him, a source with access to a senior Saudi official who has opted to remain anonymous, reveals that Saudi Arabia has managed to secure wide international -- albeit unannounced -- support for its initiative to end the Syrian crisis. The Saudi efforts are reportedly spearheaded by the Kingdom's recently appointed intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Ever since, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been able to operate in a more effective manner and has enjoyed a significant upgrade in its arsenal; this is mostly due to better international coordination and management of the situation.

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(Former Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was appointed head of Saudi intelligence in July 2012)

A proven track-record?

Despite a reputation for being laid back, inconsistent and ideologically restricted, Saudi Arabia has previously proven that it can be an extremely influential player when it chooses to intervene in global events.

Its role was paramount in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In addition, the Saudis have been an important -- if not the most important -- player in the global fight against terrorism falsely conducted in the name of Islam.

The common factor among those three examples of extraordinary Saudi ability is the fact that they all involved very close cooperation with the United States. More importantly, they all required very precise 'casting' on behalf of the Saudis to get the right man, or men, for the job.

When it came to the current Syrian crisis, the kingdom chose earlier on to break its silence. Since it became evident that the Assad regime had decided to make a bloody massacre of the peaceful protests that started in March 2011, Saudi Arabia has made its concerns vocal. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz recalled his ambassador from Damascus, and made very strong statements criticizing Assad.

However, when it came to logistical and military support for the Syrian opposition, most of the work was being done by the kingdom's small neighbor, Qatar.

The truth was that the Saudis and Qataris had reached an agreement, whereby Saudi Arabia outsources the logistical and military support tasks to Qatar, and confines itself to just paying the bills, the source says.

By March 2012, a year after the outbreak of the crisis, the Saudi-Qatari arrangement had achieved very little on the ground. The death toll stood at over 50,000, while hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians became displaced and sought refuge in neighboring countries.

Both the Saudis and the Qataris understand that if the situation is not contained more rapidly, then not only will there be very few Syrians left to save, but Iran will be a major step closer to achieving regional hegemony.

The issue with Iran

Unlike how some orientalists prefer to analyze the situation, the efforts to curb Iranian enthusiasm for regional domination is not due to it being a Shiite state and Saudi Arabia being Sunni.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, left, and Syrian President Bashar Assad at al-Shaab palace in Damascus on Oct. 7, 2009. (AFP)

There is also a widely-believed thought that Saudi Arabia is now acting against Assad because the latter happens to hail from the Alawite minority, while Syria is predominantly Sunni. This is laughable because the same regime has been ruling Syria for 42 years, so anyone who actually believes this is insinuating that it took the Saudis four decades to find out the Assad family's religious background.

The Saudis and the Assads go back a long way. However, the relation was much better when the late Hafez al-Assad was alive.

"Hafez rarely said yes, but when he did say yes, he meant it. On the other hand, Bashar always says yes, but he never means it," the Saudi source said.

"Bashar is politically immature and a pathological liar. He had full Saudi support when he first assumed office, but the support quickly began to vaporize until none was left at all following the assassination of (former) Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005."

Hariri was a moderate Sunni leader whom Saudi Arabia nurtured and supported. His rise to power came as a result of the Saudi-brokered Taif Accord of 1989, which effectively ended 15 years of Lebanese civil war. Syria was responsible for Lebanon's security as per the Taif Accord, which is why upon the assassination, fingers were quickly pointed at Damascus and its ally, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Albeit a purely Shiite group, Hezbollah enjoyed wide support across various Lebanese sects -- including Hariri's -- when it was regarded as a resistance movement fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Today, it is labeled a terrorist organization, and reportedly continues to receive weapons from Iran through Syria.

Upon the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah began consolidating power internally. It forced Lebanon into a war with Israel in 2006, and in 2008 it used its arsenal against its own people to occupy Beirut.

The crisis ended after a political agreement was reached, but there is nothing to stop Hezbollah taking over Beirut (or attacking Israel) again. As such, the group continues to be a double-edged bargaining chip for both the Iranians and the Syrians.

Just this week, Bahraini lawmakers voted to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The group, along with Iran, have been accused of stirring trouble and promoting sectarian strife between the Sunni and Shiite populations of Bahrain.

As such, it could be argued that the true face of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation is not a Sunni-Shiite one, but an Arab-Persian one, whereby the oil-rich successor to the Persian Empire is using its allies in Syria and Hezbollah to destabilize and control Arab nations. Needless to say, what did not help limit Iran's regional ambitions was the miserable American failure in handling post-Saddam Iraq.

Following a swift and successful military operation that toppled the long-standing regime of Saddam Hussein in less than a month in 2003, the U.S. administration at the time adopted a series of extremely ill-advised strategies that did nothing except give Tehran more influence over its partly-Shiite neighbor.

With all of this in mind, when it became clear that -- due to Iranian and Russian support -- Assad was winning the war he is waging against his own people, the Saudis decided they needed a plan B.

B is for Bandar

Throughout 2012, there were many rumors that contrary to the previous arrangement of outsourcing logistics and military support to Qatar, the Saudis were involved in arming the Free Syrian Army, but nothing was ever officially confirmed. In fact, by the end of the year, some senior FSA members were actually predicting that due to a certain "game-changer," Assad's fall was only a few months away.

Many analysts argued that what helped change the situation was that the American elections were finally over, and the road was now clear for President Barack Obama to act without restraints. Others said it was likely due to a change in the hitherto extremely pro-Assad Russian position.

Whilst both those reasons were to a certain extent true, the Saudi factor did not emerge as a publically-known reality until the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos in January this year.

"I'm not in government, so I don't have to be diplomatic. I assume we're sending weapons, and if we're not sending weapons, it would be a terrible mistake on our part," said Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief himself and a former ambassador to both London and the United States as well.

Prince Turki's statement came as part of a special panel on Syria, which was moderated by Al Arabiya News Channel at the WEF. Unsurprisingly, the statement was all over the international news wires within hours. Of course, it was significant enough that such a statement (albeit carefully worded) came from a senior figure in the Saudi royal family, but the timing of the statement was of particular importance as well.

Only six months prior to the WEF event in Davos, Prince Turki's brother-in-law Prince Bandar bin Sultan was appointed head of the Saudi Intelligence Agency (al-Istikhbarat).

As in the United States -- where the FBI focuses on domestic security, while the CIA is responsible for international intelligence-gathering -- in Saudi Arabia, the Istikhbarat handles international threats and operations, whilst another body called the Mabaheth -- whose head reports to the Ministry of Interior - handles domestic security.

Despite the fact that his "official" role has long been Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar -- especially under the late King Fahd -- has always served as his country's international man of difficult tasks.

During the Lebanese civil war, he was a personal envoy of the late king, mediating between rivals and negotiating with the Syrians. As ambassador, he brokered what was at the time the largest U.S. arms deal in history, to deliver AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia despite Israeli opposition. Furthermore, he played a significant role in assisting the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Following his tenure as ambassador, he was appointed secretary general of the Saudi National Security Agency. Prince Bandar is believed to be in his mid-60s. In recent years, he was a victim of rumors that raised questions about his health, his loyalty to the Saudi throne and suggested that he was assassinated by the Syrians, all of which turned out to be untrue!

"When Syria started looking like it's going to be mission impossible, the Saudis turned to Prince Bandar to manage the situation. Knowing him, he would never agree for anyone else to be behind the steering wheel, so Qatar was asked to take a back seat," the source said.

"Prince Bandar toured the world, gathering support for his mission to end the crisis in Syria. Many countries in Asia and Europe offered their support, and began actively arming the FSA with lethal and advanced weapons, although they might deny this publically."

The source confirmed recent stories in Western media that the weapons were being shipped to the FSA through Turkey and Jordan from countries such as Croatia. These weapons have been reaching FSA fighters since December 2012. "The Jordanians' help has been crucial. They know that if the Syrian crisis is further prolonged, then the spillover across their border will be inevitable," the source added.

According to unconfirmed reports, Jordan is supposed to be hosting an advanced joint-operation centre, where the situation is monitored. Throughout the crisis, and especially since the beginning of Plan B, the Americans have been indirectly supplying its allies with highly-sensitive and accurate information about the situation within Syria.

"Jordan has to play its cards very carefully. We're in a very delicate situation, given our proximity to Syria. Bashar can cause trouble in Amman within hours. This is probably why we haven't expelled the Syrian regime's ambassador yet," a veteran Jordanian journalist told me during a meeting in Amman in March.

So why has Plan B not worked so far? And what happened to the optimism, towards the end of 2012, that gave Assad only a few months before he would be taken down?

"There are a number of factors as to why we haven't succeeded yet. Unfortunately, we (the opposition) are partly one of them," a leading Syrian opposition figure told me in a private meeting in the Saudi city of Jeddah last month.

"Can you believe that (the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition) Sheikh Moaz (al-Khatib) declined to meet (American Secretary of State John) Kerry and senior U.S. military figures? What was he thinking? The Americans were ready to listen to us and to help us early on in the year. We're still immature politically as an opposition group," he added.

In the meantime, Al Arabiya sources say Assad's fall is imminent. How long will it take? "A couple of months, and if it doesn't happen within a couple of months, then I'm afraid it might be a very long time," said the source with access to a prominent Saudi official.

This analysis first appeared on Al Arabiya English on Friday 12 April 2012.

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