With President Obama scheduled to visit Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the middle of March, war plans are being accelerated for regime change in Syria once again. According to one senior U.S. intelligence official, the Saudis are attempting to create the impression that they are once again “aligned with Washington” to pave the way for King Abdullah to make a strong pitch for regime change when the U.S. President sits down with him in several weeks. According to the source, the Saudis are promoting the idea of merging the Riyadh-backed “moderate” Islamist fighters with the secularist Free Syrian Army, to be able to wage war on both the Assad regime and the radicals of ISIS and Nusra Front at the same time.
Over the past week, some significant meetings have taken place to advance this agenda. Today, David Ignatius reported in the Washington Post that last week, a number of Middle East spy chiefs were in Washington for secret meetings on the Syria situation with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The key visitor was Prince Mohammed bin-Nayef, the Saudi Minister of Interior who has now replaced the ailing Prince Bandar bin-Sultan as the chief of the Saudi covert operations program in Syria. Intelligence chiefs from Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and other regional allies also attended the two days of meetings. Ignatius reported that “Sources said these countries agreed to coordinate their aid so that it goes directly to moderate fighters rather than leaching away to extremists of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)… The intelligence chiefs discussed whether to supply more advanced weapons to the rebels, such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Saudis have stockpiles of such weapons and are ready to ship them, but they want support from the Obama administration, which remains reluctant to give a formal okay.”
Last weekend, a two day meeting took place in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border, of 30 leaders of the Free Syrian Army who make up the Supreme Military Command. The meeting, coordinated with the events in Washington, reorganized the military command of the FSA, replacing General Salim Idriss with Abdul-Illah al-Bashir. Gen. al-Bashir is based in Quneitra in the south of Syria. He defected from the Syrian Army in 2013. His deputy is Col. Haitham Afiseh, from Idlib province in the north of Syria. The two commanders, according to Ignatius, are working closely with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, headed by Jamal Maarouf. Maarouf met last week inside Syria with Ahmad al-Jarba, the Saudi-backed head of the Syrian opposition coalition.
According to a report in today’s Washington Post, Idriss was ousted because of his close ties to Qatar. Al-Bashir is Saudi backed, as is the opposition’s “Minister of Defense,” Assad Mustafa. Mustafa, a former Minister of Agriculture in the Assad government who retired to Kuwait, joined the opposition last year and is now in charge of coordinating the arms flows to the rebels.
Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that, according to “Saudi royal advisers,” Prince Bandar bin-Sultan has been replaced as head of the Syria covert war effort by two leading princes, Prince bin-Nayef and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of King Abdullah and the head of the Saudi National Guard. The Journal reported that Prince bin-Nayef is close to both Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director John Brennan, who first met bin-Nayef in 1999 when he was completing his tour as CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia.
To further boost the Saudi-led effort to draw the U.S. back into the regime change camp, the Syrian Support Group, a U.S. and Canada-based NGO that has the exclusive State Department license to raise funds and provide non-lethal aid to the FSA, will be lobbying next week for increased U.S. engagement to arm and train the Syrian rebels.