West, Saudi Arabia Step Up Efforts to Arm Syrian Rebels

After the election of Ahmad al-Jarba as head of the National Syrian Coalition, the West and Saudi Arabia have stepped up arming and organizing Syrian opposition groups to change the power balance against the Syrian regime.

al-monitor A Free Syrian Army fighter sits on a sofa with a shotgun in the city of Aleppo, July 11, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman.

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us, syrian, security, saudi, salafist, missiles, hezbollah, beirut

Jul 12, 2013

Westerners have many hypotheses about the car bomb that exploded in Bir al-Abed in the southern suburbs of Beirut. One possibility is that the bombing is linked to Salafist groups and to the war against Hezbollah.

A Western diplomat who works on the file of the Syrian opposition and its jihadist groups has linked the Syrian opposition with the armed Salafist groups operating on the Lebanese arena, including Jabhat al-Nusra.

The talk about Jabhat al-Nusra has returned with the election of Saudi Arabia’s man, Ahmad al-Jarba, as president of the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul last week. The West is now betting that the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will be able to break the rise of jihadist groups and prevent them from controlling Syria’s north. So far, none of the armed groups fighting the Syrian regime have been able to establish absolute control over the areas vacated by the Syrian army.

A French diplomat who is working with the Syrian opposition in Istanbul said that none of the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Qaeda has been able to control those areas. He said that the FSA has too many battalions that do not coordinate with each other and that the jihadists have been unable to rule the north because of a dispute between the two jihadist currents: those who fight for the “Muslim Nation” [Ummah] (those are represented by Jabhat al-Nusra) and those jihadists with local “Syrian nationalist” aspirations.

With the election of Jarba, the Saudi-Qatari polarization among the jihadist factions has ended. Now there is optimism that Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan will lead the Syrian opposition out of its predicament and divisions.

The French diplomat who reorganized the Syrian opposition said, “The Marxist Christian Michel Kilo, who played a major role in reducing the influence of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in the National Coalition, is able to restore the balance within the opposition. It is not true that Kilo is Saudi Arabia’s man in the opposition.”

It is likely that Bandar’s plan, which has begun making inroads with Jarba, involves using Kilo to mobilize the secularists in the face of Qatar and the Brotherhood, and nothing more. There are many members in the National Coalition whom Saudi Arabia can work with.

It seems that the Saudis have succeeded in reducing Qatar’s influence in the Syrian opposition by gaining control of the National Coalition’s leadership then moving it closer to Saudi Arabia, politically and tribally. After three days in Istanbul last week, the National Coalition seems more like a coalition of Syrian tribes and north-east families. The tribe of al-Shimri, which is Jarba’s tribe, belongs to the area of Hasakah. Jarba’s deputy is Salem al-Maslat, a sheikh from the al-Jubur tribe in the al-Jazeera region of Syria. His other deputy is Mohammad Farouq Tayfour. He comes from a prominent Hama family and is a main Brotherhood figure. Suhair al-Atassi, despite her utter failure in her previous position and the harsh criticisms against her, was made a third vice president to the National Coalition’s president to strengthen the tribal and familial alliance and to show solidarity with besieged Homs.

The new opposition leadership is a conglomeration of Syrian tribes and Saudi Arabia enjoys significant influence among them.

A Syrian oppositionist said that tribal elders in the north have supplied the force being built by the Americans with some of their tribesmen. He added that in recent months the Jordanian position on recruiting Syrian tribesmen drastically changed. Jordanian intelligence has started impeding the American recruiting effort. Some tribal elders who went to Jordan to deliver the list of names of new fighters did not receive the amount of money that was agreed upon. The Jordanians seem to have backtracked on the deal.

If the West and the Saudis succeed in changing the balance of power by strengthening the National Coalition and the FSA militarily in northern Syria, then the future of the Geneva II conference will be in doubt. Western diplomats say that they cannot see how the Geneva conference can be held without a significant change in the balance of power between the regime and the opposition. But not all Western diplomats agree that changing that balance of power is possible.

A senior European diplomat said that the West is making a big mistake by betting on the Syrian armed groups and that the Russians will force everyone into an arms race to prevent the Western arming of the Syrian opposition from achieving a tactical advantage for the FSA. The French diplomat, who is overseeing the Syrian file, said that the recent gains by the Syrian army have been exaggerated.

Some have attributed the recent gains by the Syrian army to the help it was getting from Hezbollah. They think that it is necessary to isolate the Syrian regime from its Lebanese and Iranian allies so that the dispersed Syrian troops can be dragged into a war of attrition in the cities. According to the French diplomat, this is the reason behind the intensive campaign against Hezbollah. The West thinks that without Hezbollah’s help the Syrian regime would have collapsed last winter.

The campaign against Hezbollah has coincided with news that the armed opposition will soon undergo changes in its ranks and improve its performance by receiving more weapons and by Saudi Arabia equipping the units that take their orders from Maj. Gen. Salim Idris directly. According to the French diplomat, some combat units have started joining Idris’ unified military command.

It is not clear how much time the alliance composed of the West, Bandar, the Saudi Arabian armament body and the Western intelligence services need to achieve their goal. The time needed is hard to estimate because the National Coalition’s leadership lacks vision. It has tied its options to achieving a decisive military victory, or at least upsetting the power balance with missiles provided by Bandar bin Sultan.

Some have wondered why Syrian fighter jets have not flown over south Syria for more than two weeks or why those jets have not been used against opposition positions that received Saudi rockets.

The French diplomat refused to confirm or deny the existence of French missiles in the hands of Syrian fighters. Some websites have published pictures of French-German MILAN missiles in the hands of Syrian opposition groups. And there is unconfirmed information that they also received Russian-made Osa missiles from Libya. The Syrian opposition have also received Concourse anti-tank missiles, which they used to destroy several Syrian army tanks.

A new effort by the West, the Gulf countries and the National Coalition to alter the power balance with the Syrian regime has started.

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