New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 26, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 2:22 a.m. HST, Oct 26, 2013
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia » Saudi Arabia has abandoned its traditional policy of discretion in recent weeks, signaling deep anger at the Obama administration's Middle East policies and threatening to break with its most powerful ally and pursue a more robust and independent role in supporting the rebellion against President Bashar Assad of Syria.
But privately, Saudi officials concede that their efforts to forge an alternative strategy in Syria have run up against the same issue the Americans face: how to bolster the military might of a disorganized armed opposition without also empowering the jihadists who increasingly dominate its ranks.
And while Saudi officials have hinted at a broader diplomatic shift away from the United States, their options are limited there, too: Saudi Arabia is dependent on U.S. military and oil technology, and the other countries the Saudis have courted — including France and India — can help only on the margins, analysts say.
Diplomats who have spent time recently with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief running the kingdom's Syria operation, say he seems most preoccupied not with Assad's forces, but with the number of foreign jihadists in Syria, which he estimates at 3,000 to 5,000, including about 800 Saudis whose identities his government closely tracks. He expects those numbers to double every six months, said a U.S. official who knows him well.
The Saudis work to broaden their support to the Syrian rebels by sending money and arms to nonjihadist factions. But their fear of blowback is a limiting factor, rooted in their bitter experience with Saudis who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later returned to mount deadly terrorist attacks here.
"No Saudis will be trained to fight in Syria. In fact, we don't want any Saudis there at all," said Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was the kingdom's intelligence minister when thousands of Saudis went — with the government's blessing — to fight in Afghanistan.
It is particularly galling for the Saudis to see that their regional rival, Iran, has no such fears as it carries out a far more effective proxy war in Syria. It has deployed its Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as far afield as Yemen to recruit jihadist-style fighters for the cause, who are then trained and equipped in Iran or Syria, U.S. officials say. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, visits Damascus regularly and is playing a leading role in Assad's military campaign against the rebels, U.S. and Arab officials say.
In a sense, Prince Bandar is Soleimani's counterpart; but his failure to shape a cohesive rebel force helps explain the depth of Saudi anger at the Obama administration's decision not to launch airstrikes on Assad's military in September. They feel their hands are tied, and the recent gestures — including Saudi Arabia's decision to take the unprecedented step of refusing a seat on the U.N. Security Council — are rooted in a belief that only the United States has the military power and global authority to make a difference in Syria.
"Refusing the council seat this way, after we had won it, had more impact than if we had just withdrawn two years ago," said Prince Turki, who gave a speech Tuesday in Washington assailing the Obama administration for not providing more support to the rebels. Prince Turki, who has no official position, said he believed the gesture was aimed in part at a Saudi domestic audience and in part at the United States, in hopes that it could win some leverage for a more aggressive stance on Syria.
"Whether we can get Mr. Obama to change his mind, I don't know," Prince Turki said.
Syria is not the only Saudi grievance against the Obama administration. With Egypt, the Saudis were angry that Washington turned on its longtime ally, President Hosni Mubarak, and accepted the election of an Islamist, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis were again upset that the United States suspended some aid after the military overthrew Morsi in July.
While Washington may have felt it had no choice but to support the millions who poured into the street calling for Mubarak's ouster and to show some displeasure with a military takeover, the Saudis saw the United States having let down an ally in support of the Islamists, twice.
The Saudis also feel slighted by Washington's seeming eagerness to reach a nuclear deal with Iran — negotiations they feel they should be a part of. Iran is Saudi Arabia's nemesis in the region, and the Saudis are worried that Washington is again being naove in trusting that Iran will offer a sincere and verifiable compromise with its nuclear program.
But Syria has been a special concern for Saudi Arabia's monarch, King Abdullah, Saudi officials say, for two reasons. He feels responsible for halting the wide-scale killing of his fellow Sunni Muslims. And Syria has become the most important battleground, in Saudi eyes, for the perennial conflict with Iran, which is seen here as almost an existential threat to the kingdom because of its goal of exporting its own brand of revolutionary Shiite Islam across the Muslim world.
"Saudi Arabia cannot afford to be encircled by Iran, from Iraq and Syria. That is out of the question," said Khalid al-Dakhil, a political sociology professor at King Saud University who has called for Saudi Arabia to become less dependent on the United States.
The Saudis were initially reluctant to provide military support to the rebels in Syria after the uprising turned into an armed opposition movement in 2011. Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef was against it, and cited the concern that money and arms could flow to jihadists, according to a Western diplomat who spoke with him at the time.
The Saudis began funneling arms to the rebels in 2012 but provided light weapons only, largely out of concern about heavier weapons getting into the hands of jihadists. They mostly worked through middlemen, including Lebanese political figures who had long been part of their patronage network. But that approach hampered their effectiveness, with much of the money landing in foreign bank accounts instead of buying weapons for the rebels.
One of those intermediaries was Ukab Saqr, the Lebanese member of Parliament who fled to Europe because of death threats after his role was exposed, although some in the Syrian opposition say he is still involved. Wissam al-Hassan, the Lebanese security general who was killed in an explosion in Beirut last year, also helped to coordinate military support to the rebels, according to a Lebanese official and a Saudi adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations.
The Syrian opposition's political arm complained about the intermediary role of the Lebanese, and asked the Saudis to deal with them more directly.
In late 2012, Saudi Arabia grew frustrated with Qatar, which had been financing Islamist rebel brigades, and shifted its focus to Jordan, where it began working with the Jordanians and the CIA in an effort to vet and train the more secular rebel groups. The Saudi effort was largely in the hands of Prince Bandar's younger half-brother, Prince Salman bin Sultan, with Prince Bandar supervising from Riyadh.
Last weekend, Prince Bandar hinted that he would downscale this joint effort, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, and that he might work more through the French and Jordanians. But French, Jordanian and Saudi officials dismissed those prospects, saying Prince Bandar's comments were meant to show anger at U.S. inaction on Syria, not an actual plan.
"We can't punish America," said the Saudi official, adding that while the sense of grievance was strong, no specific steps had been taken to break with the United States. "We don't have the tools."
Some Saudis expressed doubts that the kingdom could easily decrease ties with the United States.
"Move to what?" asked Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist with close ties to the royal family. "There is no alternative. It is just a tactical pressure on the American administration when it comes to Syria," he said. "But Saudi Arabia has so much of value in the relationship with America, in security exchanges and the war on terror. We benefit more from this than the U.S. does from us."
For the Syrian opposition, the Saudi outbursts have been encouraging, but they say they have not seen any signs of a new direction that might benefit them.
"If all this Saudi anger translates into more support for us, great," said Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. representative of the Syrian Coalition, the opposition's main political arm.