In the past ten days, top American national security officials convened behind-closed-doors with the spy chiefs of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar and other Muslim states to reach a new consensus on the road forward in Syria. The meeting was also part of the preparations for President Barack Obama’s announced mid-March visit to Riyadh to meet with King Abdullah. As the result of the Washington meetings, led by Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the rift between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Obama’s policies towards Syria, Egypt and Iran, has been reportedly narrowed. The meeting was held shortly after Obama revived talk of military action against Syria at a press conference with French President Francois Hollande. “Right now we don’t think that there is a military solution, per se, to the problem,” Obama said, “But the situation is fluid, and we are continuing to explore every possible avenue to solve this problem.”
Within days of the Washington meeting of spy chiefs, the 30 members of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) met in Gaziantep, Turkey to implement a major reorganization of the FSA, integrating the secular armed rebel group with moderate Islamist fighters largely backed by Saudi Arabia. The two events, in combination, have greatly increased the prospects of a flow of sophisticated weapons into the armed Syrian rebels, arms flows that the Obama Administration had previously blocked out of concern for anti-aircraft “manpads” and anti-tank weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda-allied groups, including the Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Now, under the new command structure, the advanced weapons will reportedly flow—if the Geneva II talks are not revived.
According to a senior U.S. intelligence source directly involved in the Geneva II process, the Syrian government has completely balked at negotiations for a transitional government, driven by the belief that they are winning the war on the ground and there is no reason to negotiate over President Bashar Al Assad’s removal. The source confirmed that the National Security Council is now working on revised plans that could involve approval of the heavy arms flows or even a U.S.-led no-fly zone along the Jordanian border. In August, 2013 Obama ordered intensive air strikes against 75 priority targets in Syria, but withdrew the attack order at the last moment in the face of heavy Pentagon opposition and a groundswell of popular opposition.
One noteworthy aspect of the Washington meetings was the replacement of Prince Bandar bin-Sultan by Prince Mohammed bin-Nayef. Prince Bandar, the head of the Saudi intelligence service and the national security advisor to King Abdullah, had been running Saudi Arabia’s covert operations regarding Syria for the past two years. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, Interior Minister bin-Nayef has replaced Bandar. Prince bin-Nayef, a close ally of CIA Director John Brennan, is also working closely with Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the King’s son and the head of the Saudi National Guard. MEB reported last month that Prince Bandar was in the US for medical treatment and had been iced out of some critical Saudi programs.
In addition to NSC adviser Rice, the visiting spy chiefs had closed-door talks with CIA Director Brennan, Homeland Security head Joh Johnson, FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency head Gen. Keith Alexander. Participants agreed that the restructured FSA would conduct a two-front war, both against the Assad government and the Al Qaeda-linked jihadist forces, they had been unable to defeat for months.
Significant decisions were made at the SMC meeting in Turkey. A Saudi-backed commander, Gen. Abdul-Illah al-Bashir was named as the new military commander of the FSA, replacing Gen. Salim Idriss (see MEB’s accompanying story this issue). Gen. al-Bashir defected from the Syrian Army in 2013, and will lead the southern front out of his base in Quneitra. The northern front will be run by his newly-named deputy commander Col. Haitham Afiseh, from Idlib. Both will now be coordinating their military operations with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, led by Jamal Maarouf. Maarouf recently met with Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
For more than a year, the US CIA and special forces paramilitary instructors have been in Jordan to train “new commanders” for the FSA, with an emphasis on officers who defected from Al Assad’s army. Ready or not, these trainees are now being put in the field.
In addition, Assad Mustafa, the “Minister of Defense” of the Syrian opposition, a former Minister of Agriculture under the Assad government who retired in Kuwait until 2013, is to be in charge of the dispersal of new weapons to the FSA fronts.
Another sign of the Obama Administration’s new willingness to arm the rebels with more advanced weapons is the fact that the Syrian Support Group, the only non-governmental organization licensed by the US Department of State to raise funds and purchase non-lethal military aid to the FSA, will have a delegation on Capitol Hill beginning March 24, to lobby for added military aid.
One senior American diplomat expressed skepticism about the newly negotiated reorganization, warning that the underlying conflicts between Washington and Riyadh over the backing of Islamist fighters is far from settled.