The US media suddenly discovered Tuesday Oct. 22 that Saudi Arabia had a serious bone to pick with US President Barack Obama over his Middle East policies, a pivotal development which DEBKA Weekly has been carefully tracking in the four months since the first major falling-out occurred over Egypt’s military coup.
It was then, after Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi booted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi out of the presidential palace in Cairo, that Saudi King Abdullah decided to break with decades of close cooperation with the United States and set a course in the region not just diametrically opposed to Obama’s but actively disrupting it.
This breach finally reached front pages in the US when Saudi Intelligence Director Prince Bandar bin Sultan called a meeting of Western ambassadors in Jeddah on Saturday Oct. 19. The US envoy was not invited.
Bandar told them that his government had resolved henceforth to head off in its own direction, away from Washington. The oil kingdom then made history by becoming the first UN member to decline an elected seat as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council.
This gesture, he said, was not directed against the world body but the US government.
To enable Syrian rebels to stand up to Assad’s tanks and planes
The Saudis followed this step up with undiplomatically blunt words for their traditional ally:
"The shift away from the US is a major one," a source close to Saudi policy-making said. "Saudi doesn't want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent."
The powerful Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief, called Obama's policies in Syria "lamentable" and ridiculed the US-Russian deal to eliminate Assad's chemical weapons. He suggested it was a ruse to let Obama avoid military action in Syria.
”The current charade of international control over Bashar's chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. And designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down (from military strikes), but also to help Assad to butcher his people" said Prince Turki.
The Saudis had meanwhile gone into action.
That same Tuesday, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources in the Gulf disclose, a small summit met quietly in Riyadh of likeminded Mideast and Gulf heads of state to determine how and from what territory heavy weapons systems would be put in the hands of the Syrian rebel militias backed by Saudi intelligence.
They decided that those militias must be given enough anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to stand up to Assad’s army – a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s resolve to keep out of rebel hands the heavy hardware capable of contending with Bashar Assad’s tanks and air force.
Saudis marshal summit to contest Obama’s Mideast course
This secret conclave was attended, according to our sources, by Jordan’s King Abdullah; Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, a princely representative of the new Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani;
the Saudi Crown Prince Defense Minister Prince Salman, and Prince Bandar, who had handpicked the gathering.
Saudi King Abdullah, who had approved the invitations, decided to put his royal imprint on the meeting by attending it in person.
Despite Riyadh’s open-handed largesse in money and diplomatic support for Egypt’s new ruler, Bandar decided that it was premature to invite Gen. El-Sisi to join this emerging Sunni lineup against Barack Obama and the Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah alliance. Although head of the most populous Arab nation, the general, in the Saudi prince’s view, needed first to stabilize his hold on power before taking his place alongside Saudi Arabia on the Sunni Arab stage.
A top priority of the Gulf summit was to get the Jordanian king to allow his territory to be used for the transfer of the heavy weapons to Syrian rebel hands, because no other route was now available.
The arms smuggling channels operating from Lebanon in the first two and-a-half years of the Syrian war, are blocked – either directly by the Syrian army or the new unwritten pact Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and the Lebanese Army have concluded with Hizballah.
(See a separate item disclosing what Hizballah is up to in recent weeks.)
Jordan’s king pushed hard for a heavy arms route to Syria
Turkey, under pressure from Washington, has shut its borders against Saudi arms transfers to Syria, willing only to let consignments be stored on its soil. Iraq is out of the picture.
With all the summit participants pointing at Jordan as the only crossing-point remaining, its king protested that he has already stuck his neck out with two major concessions:
He has allowed Saudi intelligence to pump hundreds of young Syrian rebels from Jordan into Syria to fight Bashar Assad’s army. They are recruited by Saudi intelligence from among the nearly one million Syrian refugees, many of them starving, sheltering in makeshift camps in northern Jordan. The monthly paycheck offered by Riyadh gives them their only chance to provide for their families.
The Hashemite king made his second concessions two months ago, in the moment when a US attack on Syria’s chemical weapons looked imminent. He gave French and Saudi air force planes based at the Tabuk air base in northern Saudi Arabia permission to cross through Jordanian airspace on their way to attack Syria.
In the event, they never took off, but Abdullah took the chance in the certainty that if his throne and his life were seriously imperiled, the US and Israel would be there to save him. But he feared that siding with a Saudi move directly defying the United States and President Obama might be a step too far
He was answered with persuasive arguments by the Saudi intelligence chief about the major difference heavy arms would make in the fate of the Syrian rebellion.
At present, he reported, Syrian rebel commanders say they can capture almost any Syrian army position and win battles, but all is lost when the first Syrian tank arrives on the battlefield or a Syrian air force bomber comes overhead. The rebels then abandon their gains and run for their lives.
Top Saudi priority is to smash US-led big power accords on Syria
Bandar then outlined point by point the wider impact of arming Syrian rebels with the capabilities for punishing Assad’s army:
1. The Sunni Arab world would have taken a stand against President Obama and his policies;
2. They would cut across the accords and understandings Washington, Moscow and Tehran hatched for the Syrian crisis;
3. This would be worth the candle, even if it put the rebels in a position to disrupt the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. The rebels would be able to reactivate battles that were suspended to the Syrian army’s advantage in sectors where chemical weapons are stored. This would stall the international inspection process, but also sabotage the US-Russian accord which put it in place;
4. The Saudi-led Arabian Gulf emirates would increase their distance from Tehran;
5. Geneva II for a political solution of the Syrian conflict would miss its appointed date of Nov. 23 – unless its organizers agree to Riyadh’s terms. (see separate article on Hizballah).
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the gathering approved the Saudi decision to provide the Syrian rebels with heavy weapons in principle, but Jordan’s Abdullah said he would think it over and give his final answer in a few days.
The Hashemite monarch was offered military, financial and political guarantees from all the summit participants, including an undertaking of support against potential Iranian or Syrian vengeance.
He must now make a hard choice between caution or jumping aboard a straight Saudi challenge to America.