As the war in Syria moves into a third year, there are serious concerns that the violence will spread throughout the Middle East. No one seems to have the answer how to bring the war to an end, but now the Saudis are going to try.
When the appeals for protection from the brutality of the Al-Assad regime came from the tribes in Syria, their kinsmen in the Gulf States could not ignore them. The blood ties are broad and deep; and the appeals came at the opportune moment for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was troubled by the Shia Crescent that was extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria to the Mediterranean shores of Lebanon. The uprising in Syria was an opportunity to use the tribal bonds to destroy the minority Aliwites regime of Bashar Al-Assad. His fall would break the Persian chain through the region and begin the process of pushing Iranian influence from the Gulf States with their potentially volatile Shia minorities. It was a part of the Saudi offensive to maintain their hegemony.
With Al-Assad driven out, the Saudi based Wahhabi Sect that had been established among the Syrian tribes would create a strict Salafi society to secure the continuation of Sunni domination. That would protect the security of the Kingdom and the wealth and power of all of the other rulers along the Gulf.
Qatar agreed with the Saudis that Al-Assad had to be removed, but that was as far as Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani could support his Saudi ally. The Muslim Brotherhood was on the move in Egypt and Tunisia and had an opportunity to achieve power in Syria. The successor regime that the Emir envisaged would be a government under the leadership of the social elite that would bring a modern government and economy to the country. The Emir of Qatar views the Brotherhood as a moderate movement as opposed to the extremist Wahhabi Sect and other Salafis movements that reject much of the world after the 8th Century.
It was Qatar that had the tactical advantage in promoting its vision. The Emirate had sent Special Forces to Libya to remove Gaddafi. The Emir spent an estimated two billion dollars to arm, train, and to lead Libyan forces against the government which included the funding of the February 17th Martyr Brigade and its leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj. When the fighting ended, Belhadj continued to receive aid from Doha. He traveled to Turkey in November 2011 as the head of the Tripoli Military Council to establish a link between the revolutionary government in Libya and the Free Syrian Army.
Related article: Be Careful: Russia is Back to Stay in the Middle East
From the time that Ambassador Chris Stevens was named liaison with the rebels in Libya in March 2011, he worked closely with the leader of the February 17th Martyr Brigade. When President Obama authorized in 2012 the distribution of heavy weapons to the rebels, it was through Abdel Hakim Belhadj with his Qatari credentials and his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood that gave the ambassador an open channel.
A shipment of four hundred tons of arms that included anti-tank weapons and even anti-aircraft shoulder fired missiles from the Gaddafi arsenals arrived in Turkey on September 6th. The Turks required that such arms would have to be handled by the Syrian National Council that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Working at arm’s-length through the Brotherhood enabled the U.S. to continue the fairytale that it was providing only non-lethal equipment. After the murder of the ambassador, the supply chain to the arms of Libya was broken and former Secretary of State Clinton in November abandoned support of the unpopular SNC. The Turks too withdrew support for the Syrian National Council in favor of the newly formed Syrian National Coalition.
By working with Qatar, Washington had taken a position opposing the Saudis. Unlike the Qataris, the Saudis did not have ready access to the vast supplies of looted Gaddafi arms and had to acquire theirs on the open market. They were blocked from transferring their American arms to the rebels.
Circumstances, however, have shifted to favor the Saudis. The United States no longer has an organization that it can use as a shield and insists that Washington will provide only non-lethal materials to the rebels. Washington has contributed 385 million dollars in aid over the past two years. Since Saudi Arabia has revealed that it is supplying heavier weapons to groups in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to increase the American aid in quantity and variety. The additional aid will include military training for the approved groups and armored vehicles so long as the recipients can certify that they equipment will be employed for the protection of civilians, but not many in the Middle East consider the United States a reliable participant.
While Washington seeks to restore is fading credibility, Qatar has to deal with the Muslin Brotherhood that has suffered the loss of popularity in the streets of Cairo. The arrest of members of the Brotherhood in the United Arab Emirates has added to the strains between Qatar and Saudi allies.
Not quite certain which group to support, the American dithering worries the Saudis with their memories of the growth of Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden. The battlefields of Afghanistan had nurtured the radicals that turned on their former benefactors.
That could happen again in Syria if the war continued and more radicalized warriors are released upon the world. King Abdullah had anticipated that the Al-Assad regime would collapse much sooner than is proving to be the case.
Every day that the war continues is seen in Riyadh as a threat to the stability of the Kingdom. One means to bring the war to an end is to control the flow of weapons; and the Saudis have moved in that direction by turning to an unusual source of heavy weapons that would force recipients to depend exclusively upon the Saudis for additional supplies.
Related article: Syria, L'Enfant Terrible of Foreign Politics
The former Yugoslavia had developed a major munitions industry that has survived the break-up of the Communist state. M60 recoilless weapons and M79 Osa anti-tank rocket launchers from Croatia are appearing in large quantities throughout Syria. According to an article in the New York Times, the source of these and other weapons have been traced to the Saudis and seem to be coming into Syria through Turkey and Jordan. Recipients appear to be the more moderate indigenous members of the Free Syrian Army that have objected to the influx of the more radicalized foreign Jihadists. Salman Anwah, a prominent Saudi clergyman has been urging Jihadist not to go to Syria where their presents will only serve the regime.
The Omari Brigade and other organizations with the new weapons are finding the effectiveness on the battlefield has improved. Regardless, there are serious doubts that they can in a short period of time force Al-Assad to surrender.
At the same time, the Saudis are seeking an alternate course to end the fighting through a political settlement with Syria. Riyadh has opened negotiations in Jordan with Al-Assad’s government. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the son of the Saudi king, is leading the Saudi delegation. The discussions are being overseen by Jordanian intelligence.
Jordan too is shifting its stance. The Jordanians fear that a radical regime in Syria will threaten the monarchy. Already, the king is feeling pressure from Doha and from the Muslin Brotherhood.
What is becoming all too clear among the Arab states is that Al-Assad with his Russian and Iranian supporters is not going to fall in the near future. A million refugees are placing strains upon the resources of surrounding countries. Violence is spreading into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. Somehow, living with Al-Assad is becoming a better option than living with whatever radical regime follows. Now, the solution is to find how to bring the war to an end. So much blood has been spilled and so much of the country has been destroyed that it is hard to imagine that either side will be much in the mood to compromise.
The weak point in Al-Assad’s defenses is the strength of the Russian determination. The Russians have indicated that they do not anticipate a NATO invasion. Without NATO intervening, there is the possibility for some kind of settlement that would preserve Russia’s interests even if it excludes Al-Assad.
The Saudis do have the means to make life for the Russian’s dangerous. Wahhabi cadres operating in the Moslem regions of Russia are already arousing uprisings. Once peaceful areas are no longer safe and Moscow has not figured how to deal with the problem.
Is Russia prepared to sacrifice its own stability to save Al-Assad? The Saudis are in a position to force Putin to consider seriously the answer to that question. Peace in Syria may depend upon war in Russia.