This week, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan gave Qatar ruler Emir al-Thani Emir al-Thani and his son and heir apparent Qatari intelligence chief Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, a lesson or two in the creative use of television for shaking up Arab rulers and crisis manipulation.
For eighteen months, the Al-Thanis have bent all the resources of the Al Jazeera TV network which they own to a comprehensive propaganda campaign for cutting short Syria President Bashar Assad’s rule and sustaining the insurrection against him.
Still, after an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 victims lost their lives in the brutal civil war, Assad remains firm in the saddle regardless of Al Jazeera’s efforts.
The weak spot in those efforts, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, is Al Jazeera’s blind and unquestioning acceptance of Syrian rebel communiqués – however dubious – especially when they are put out by the Free Syrian Army, the FSA. They are broadcast as statements of fact, even though the data and figures offered are often unfounded and heavily inflated.
While its imagery is widely disseminated, Al Jazeera’s reporting has therefore lost credibility inside Syria and among the Arab public. Some would say that the Qatari-backed disinformation campaign on behalf of the Syrian rebels has backfired, benefiting Assad and his regime more than his opponents.
The Saudi prince uses conspiracy for propaganda
Prince Bandar thought he could do much better than Al Jazeera with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV network. Dark conspiracies, he decided, were a more effective and resonant propaganda medium than flimsy reporting scarcely related to real events.
As to why the Saudi secret service chief decided to launch his propaganda effort at this late time, some Western and Arab intelligence sources speculate that he may have been provoked by a comment last week by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon quoting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin had said, according to Ban, that whereas Libyan resources covered the cost of NATO’s military operations, in Syria, there isn’t enough “pay dirt” to cover the expenses of direct or indirect military operations by NATO – through Turkey or others – by imposing a no-fly zone or otherwise.
The Russian president was also said to have wagered on the “stinginess” of Arab countries for bearing the burden of financing such an expensive war. His mind was therefore reconciled, he said, to a prolonged conflict in Syria – so long as “the United States does not have the boldness or the Arabs the unified will to foot the bill for a NATO intervention.”
Angered by Putin’s comment, which dismissed Saudi Arabia’s investment of more than $2 billion in the Syrian revolt, Prince Bandar weighed his options for payback.
Bandar spreads a wide net, implicating Assad and many others
Russia was in his sights as well as certain regional leaders, especially Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf intelligence sources reveal.
On Saturday, Sept. 29, Al-Arabiya began screening classified Syrian intelligence documents, which revealed that after shooting down the Turkish aircraft over Latakia on June 22, Syria captured the two Turkish pilots alive. Assad ordered them first to be treated as prisoners of war and later “eliminated,” basing his decision on “information and guidance from the Russian leadership.”
The Russians advised him, said the highly-classified documents, to make the deaths look natural by planting their bodies at the crash site in international waters.
The leaked files also mentioned an earlier plan discussed between Syria and Turkey to hand the two pilots over to the Lebanese Hizballah.
With this sensational account, the Saudi prince sought to kill three birds with a single Al Arabiya TV exposé: First, to goad Turkey into attacking Syria; second, to discredit Erdogan if he failed to do so – in revenge for his hooking up with Egypt, Iran and Iraq to resolve the Syrian conflict while defaulting on cooperation with
Riyadh; and, third, to muddy Moscow’s waters with Arab governments.
Assad deliberately instigated sectarian turmoil in Lebanon
The follow-up came Monday, Oct. 1, in another Al-Arabiya exposé from the hundreds of “secret Syrian files” in its possession.
This one claimed Assad’s clandestine agents were behind the fire at the Villagio Mall in the Qatari capital of Doha on May 28, in which 20 people died, including 13 children.
The official Investigation attributed the fire to an electrical fault.
However, by this disclosure, the Saudi secret service chief was taking aim at Qatar's Sheikh Al-Thani and his call for direct Arab military intervention in Syria at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 27. Bandar used his trove of leaked Syrian documents to show up Qatari rulers as two-faced, because when a Syrian agent murdered Qatari children, they had had ducked out of hitting back.
More confidential Syrian documents spilling out Tuesday, Oct. 2, continued to expose the record of Assad’s murky relations in the Arab world.
According to a file dated April 5, Maj. Gen. Bassam Merhej, Director of the Syrian Presidential Security Office, instructed Brig. Gen. Hassan Abdel Rahman, Chief of the Syrian Special Operations Unit in Foreign Intelligence, to start eliminating anti-Assad personalities in Lebanon and killing religious figures in order to instigate sectarian turmoil in the country.
At the end of May, violent sectarian clashes erupted in Tripoli and its neighboring villages, and a Sunni cleric, Ahmad Abdel Wahed, known for his support of the anti-Assad uprising, was killed at a Lebanese army checkpoint.
Al Arabiya promised to continue airing its “exclusive series of newly-leaked Syrian security documents.”
Obama still rejects intervention in Syria, as US intelligence gropes in the dark
As the inter-Arab propaganda war over Syria heated up, American policy-makers were reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and Washington sources as at a loss on Syria for lack of a clear intelligence picture of what is happening there.
US clandestine agencies find it hard to procure informants in rebel ranks capable of providing them with credible information. They know by now that the Free Syrian Army rebels’ accounts are unreliable and the reporting of the two Arab TV networks, Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya heavily slanted.
US policy planners have settled on six facts which they believe they have gleaned from trustworthy sources:
1. Syria has approximately 200 rebel factions, most of them unrelated to the Free Syrian Army or opposition groups based outside the country.
2. Only three live up to the definition of militias by virtue of their organization and proper leadership command. Those three operate in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
3. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood element is not as powerful as portrayed in the Arab and Western media. Syrian rebels by and large regard the Muslim Brotherhood as traitorous and ready to come to terms with Assad for a share in power.
4. The Syrian conflict will attain closure only through the resolution of the current contest between the Syrian army and the rebel movement.
5. No Western or Arab intelligence agency is thought to have discovered any outstanding military figure among the rebels endowed with the requisite qualities for assuming power in Damascus after Bashar Assad.
6. US intelligence leaders stand by their conviction that military intervention in Syria is unnecessary because Assad will in any case be gone in another six months at most.