Yesterday [July 18], Saudi Arabia became the exclusive patron of the Syrian National Coalition [SNC]. Two weeks after removing Qatar from the leadership of one of the most prominent Syrian opposition formations and putting in place a leadership composed of tribal, secular and Muslim Brotherhood types, Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz received a SNC delegation headed by Ahmad al-Jarba.
A member of the delegation told As-Safir that the meeting lasted a little more than an hour and discussed only generalities. But the message Riyadh wanted to send was clear: Saudi Arabia is still betting on the SNC despite its repeated failures. The other message was that the coalition is no longer just a security issue run by Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, but an essential political ally in the war on the Syrian regime.
At the same time, the members of the Friends of Syria coalition are dragging their feet with regard to supporting the armed opposition. The United Kingdom and France have not yet fulfilled their promise to provide weapons. The Pentagon denied that it intends to train opposition fighters, which would change the course of fighting in southern Syria and in Daraa. That area still awaits the arrival of fighters from US training camps in Jordan. US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “The situation doesn’t allow for a no-fly zone." The British government has leaked that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may remain in power for years. Assad was not even mentioned in the discussion between the Saudi crown prince and the SNC in Jiddah.
The SNC delegation included Jarba, Secretary-General Badr Jamous and Vice Presidents Salem al-Muslit al-Jabouri, Suheir al-Atassi and Farouk Tayfur. They were accompanied by Michel Kilo, Kamal al-Labwani and SNC President George Sabra.
The Saudi crown prince met with the SNC delegation and listened to their demands. But, according to what one coalition member told As-Safir, he provided no answers because the issues raised during the meeting are not for Salman to decide. They require meetings with the Saudi “specialists” who are following up on the Syrian file.
A member of the delegation said that the Saudi crown prince, who listened to Jarba describe the Syrian people’s suffering, did not mention Assad during the meeting and did not criticize the Syrian regime. Salman told the delegation that Saudi Arabia has no special interests in Syria and all what the kingdom wants is to see a secure and stable Syria that is an ally.
When asked about Saudi Arabia’s position regarding one of the proposed settlements to be discussed in Geneva, Salman remained noncommittal.
A coalition source said that Saudi Arabia, like other countries that are helping the opposition, has no long-term strategy on how to confront the Syrian regime. The source said that — in the coming days — Jarba, Kilo and Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss will discuss relief aid and armament issues with Saudi officials.
The SNC is awaiting a Saudi decision to boost its armament aid tenfold and increase the number of joint operation rooms that are managing the distribution of weapons from Turkey and Jordan to Syria. Only the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will distribute the weapons. The SNC is asking for more pressure on Jordan so that the latter would allow the passage of weapons into southern Syria. The SNC also wants Turkey and Jordan to mobilize thousands of officers and soldiers present in the Syrian refugee camps, to reduce the number of civilians in the FSA and strengthen it.
Jarba, Kilo and Idriss are expected to meet with Bandar bin Sultan to coordinate the armament operations. According to diplomatic sources in Paris, during his trip to France, Germany and Britain, Prince Bandar sought to assure those countries that Saudi Arabian weapons will only be given to the right people in north Syria, and that some anti-aircraft missiles donated by Saudi Arabia will not fall into the hands of extremists.
Bandar urged those countries to fulfill their promise of arming the opposition. August is nearing, which frees EU states from the arming ban.
With the exception of the Jiddah meeting with the Saudi crown prince, there is no encouraging news for the Syrian opposition abroad. Kerry toured the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where some refugees asked that the United States impose a no-fly zone. Kerry replied, “I wish it were that simple.”
Kerry complained, “Many young American men were killed or disabled while fighting for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been fighting for 12 years. We are trying to help you in various ways. We are looking into establishing safe areas and other options, but it is not that simple.”
The chief of staff of US forces, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was even less positive than Kerry. Dempsey told a congressional committee that the Pentagon is not planning to train Syrian opposition fighters. “It will not happen through the Defense Department, but maybe through other ways or other countries,” he said. He also said that the United States seeks to strengthen the opposition, but asserted that the situation is tilting in Assad’s favor.
The outgoing British army’s chief of staff Sir David Richards washed his hands from the Syrian file. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph published yesterday [July 18], he said that imposing a no-fly zone will not be enough without a military intervention on the ground.
Reuters quoted sources as saying that the British government has abandoned its plans to arm the Syrian opposition, and now believes that Assad may remain in office for years — and that the Geneva II conference may not happen until next year, if at all.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that Paris’ “position has not changed” regarding not giving the Syrian opposition highly deadly weapons.
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