A change in the face of the Syrian civil war is not guaranteed by the ouster of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi National Security Adviser and Head of Intelligence – or even by his possible replacement by the adversary of his policies, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
Although the Obama administration was involved in the Riyadh reshuffle, it does not herald a departure from the cautious approach to any major intervention in the Syria war it has maintained in the three years of bloodshed for the removal of Bashar Assad and his regime.
On the contrary, Washington can go back to a former plan without running into Saudi interference.
On Jan 31, DEBKA Weekly 621 carried an analysis of the US role in Syria captioned: US Military Aid Injected to Foster a Foothold in Damascus.
This process is still moving forward with the utmost care and the participation of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. Washington’s goal remains to carve out a zone of US influence in southern Syria – stretching from the Israeli-Jordanian borders to the southern and eastern outskirts of Damascus. This presence will guarantee America a dominant say on whatever may happen in the Syrian capital after the failure of Geneva-2 to reach a political resolution of the Syrian crisis.
For this plan, the Obama administration needed the cooperation of Prince Bandar, architect and manager of Saudi intervention in Syria and the key to a deal with the bevy of assorted Islamic militias coalesced in the Saudi-backed Islamic Front.
US plans for Syria stymied by Prince Bandar
The administration was warned by its Syria strategists that the implementation of its master plan for Syria was contingent on mending Washington’s fences with Riyadh.
However, US plans went awry in mid-January when the Saudi intelligence chief arranged for the Islamic Front to trounce the US-backed Free Syrian Army in northern Syria and seize a large portion of its American-supplied arms. The rest were looted by Iraqi Al Qaeda fighters.
Washington never forgave Bandar for the FSA defeat. The militia’s command broke up and Gen. Salim Idriss was forced to quit as head of the FSA’s supreme military command and flee to Qatar.
The Americans asked the Saudi prince to restore the captured weapons, so that the defeat would not be a humiliation. He turned them down.
The administration then warned Riyadh that Bandar’s conduct in Syria would lead to an irreparable rift between the US and Saudi Arabia. In the last week of January, at the Geneva 2 conference, US Secretary of State John Kerry tried interceding with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal, a key supporter of Bandar and his Syria policy, but failed to get through to him.
So, on the advice of John Kerry and CIA Director John Brennan, Washington went over their heads directly to Saudi King Abdullah and Prince Mohammed and pointed out that their relations were teetering on a precipice thanks to the standoff on Syria.
Saudi royals don’t tolerate foreign interference in succession
Their voices were finally heard. The king, who had never intended a total breakdown in relations, apparently ordered Bandar removed from the conduct of Syrian policy and its handover to Prince Mohammed.
This switch has generated three major repercussions, in the view of DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources – one internal, one for the Syrian conflict and a third in Lebanon:.
Saudi Arabia: In Issue 622 of Feb. 7, we disclosed the Obama administration’s preference for Prince Mohammed as the coming man and ideal contender to the position of next in line to the throne, i.e. Crown Prince.
But this choice may prove counter-productive.
The royal house does not tolerate foreign meddling in the sacrosanct succession issue, as more than one US president has discovered. Its heads were already seething over reports blossoming in the US media alleging that the incumbent Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz was in a state of dementia and in no state to function.
These leaks were taken as symptoms of Washington’s impatience for its favorite to be moved up. Bandar’s ouster and its blow to Foreign Minister Saud”s standing were more or less foisted on Riyadh. So any attempts by Washington to push Mohammed up the ladder will be taken as inappropriate interference in the royal family’s arcane power struggles and succession rivalries – and have the reverse effect to that intended.
Building a South Syrian base for US influence in Damascus
Syria: With Bandar out of the way, the US administration will try and reassemble the wrecked coalition of pro-American Syrian rebel factions. The Free Syrian Army’s fragments will be put together with small militias that have no Islamist ties, under the unified command of Brig. Gen. Abdul-Illah al-Bashir. He defected last year from the Syrian government army and set up a base in Quneitra, the Syrian Golan town located on its southern border.
The Bashir command HQ is situated directly opposite Israel’s Golan deployment and will operate under Israeli military protection against surprise attacks and other attempts to wipe it out.
This collaboration was symbolized by the visit Israel’s leaders paid to the Golan Tuesday, Feb. 18, the day the next round of nuclear talks opened in Vienna between the six powers and Iran.
TV cameras were invited to record the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, and Northern Division Commander Gershon Hacohen.
They were given a close-hand impression of how Israel’s cooperation with the latest American move on Syria looks from the ground up.
This how it works: The Quneitra command will take in reinforcements from the CIA training camps run for Syrian rebels in Jordan with the cooperation of British, French and Jordanian intelligence and paychecks from Riyadh. The camps process about 250 fighters a month. More than a thousand have so far come through this program.
Washington sees this plan as groundwork for the formation of a rebel enclave in southern Syria for providing the US with a powerful lever for imposing US influence on future developments in Damascus.
The impact of Bandar’s departure on Lebanon is covered in a separate article.