In a round of phone calls to Middle East leaders on Tuesday, Nov. 21, President Vladimir Putin put in a call to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The Saudi official readout said the two leaders had “reviewed bilateral and mutual efforts to stabilize energy markets and means to promote such joint actions in addition to the latest regional developments.”
Behind that gobbledygook, DEBKA Weekly’s Middle East sources reveal that the prince took the president aback by announcing his plan for a Saudi de-escalation in southern Syria, to rival the two established by Russia and the US. This news floored not only Moscow but Washington too.
In all their recent dealings on Syria, neither power imagined that the Saudis would attempt a comeback to Syria after withdrawing their support from the anti-Assad movement earlier this year. According to our sources, in early September, the Crown Prince secretly ordered Saudi intelligence agencies to re-establish ties with the 50 or so rebel militias of the “Southern Front.” This alliance was disbanded around six months ago, when President Donald Trump abandoned hope of toppling the Assad regime and ended the clandestine US program for providing them with arms and supplies. Some groups surrendered their weapons to the Syrian army for safe conduct guarantees, some joined Assad’s army, and others fled to refugee camps in Jordan.
This “deniable” CIA program, authorized by President Barack Obama, was never publicly announced any more than its breakup.
In the first stage of the program, Saudi agents ran to ground some of the Southern Front commanders and gave them funds for re-recruiting their fighters. The agents next reactivated the Front’s command centers, providing them with money, arms and logistical assistance. Our sources report that, in the early stages, Saudi officials made contact through back channels with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to notify them of the Crown Prince’s plan to set up a Southern Syrian de-escalation zone with details of its implementation.
Riyadh did not let either Moscow or Washington into the secret – until now
The Saudi de-escalation zone is designed to stretch 40km from the borders of Jordan and Israel, starting from the northern edge of the Syrian Golan opposite Israel-held Mt Hermon slopes and ending in southeastern Syria in the Suweida district of Jabal Druze.
When the Saudis were asked how this would fit in with the de-escalation zones agreed between Presidents Trump and Putin on July 7 in Hamburg, they replied simply that the US-Russian zones would have to go by the board and be replaced by the Saudi plan.
This planned project may explain why the Jordanian king and Israeli prime minister are not making a bigger fuss over the US-Russian de-escalation plans for the Syrian regions along their borders. They are confident that neither Iran nor Hizballah, implacable Saudi enemies, will be allowed to get a look-in to the Saudi zone and were, moreover, assured by Riyadh that it would be manned by a military force. This force would tackle the Khalid ibn al-Walid militia, which swore allegiance to the Islamic State after wedging itself into the Syrian-Jordanian-Israeli border triangle.