Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman
For the first time in the five-year Syrian conflict, Saudi Arabia is preparing to supply Syrian rebel groups with anti-air and anti-tank missiles in an attempt to stall Russia’s military efforts to extend Bashar Assad’s days in power. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister, is choreographing this escalated Saudi intervention in the Syrian war. He plans to arm Syrian rebels militias with missiles capable of striking the new Russian T-90 tanks, which debkafile’s intelligence sources disclose were shipped directly to the Syrian army’s armed divisions in the last two weeks from the Russian Black Sea base of Novorossiysk.
The big Russian landing craft Novocherkassk, which unloaded a further supply of tanks at Tartus port on Thursday, March 3, also delivered a consignment of MLRS rocket launchers.
A second Russian vessel is heading for Syria with more hardware.
This is in line with Moscow’s decision to upgrade the Syrian army’s armaments and rebuild the units severely ravaged by five years of combat. For Riyadh, this is tantamount to the indefinite and unacceptable prolongation of Assad's days in power.
Most Western and Middle East observers think the Saudis may be bluffing about their plan to arm Syrian rebels with missiles, as a ploy to get Washington and Moscow to treat them seriously as a player on the Syrian stage and take their interests into account. Ideally, Riyadh would hope to break up American cooperation with Iran in Iraq and Russian cooperation with Iran in Syria.
The Saudis have so far pitched into this endlessly complex scenario with two tangible steps:
1. The deployment last week of four Saudi Air Force F-15 bomber fighters at the Turkish base of Incirlik near the Syrian border, to be followed by a contingent of ground troops for operations in Syria.
2. A direct challenge to Iran’s fighting arm in Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, by cancelling the $4 billion defense package Riyadh had pledged for the rehabilitation of Lebanon’s armed forces. The Lebanese high command is collaborating increasingly with Hizballah and a large slice of Saudi assistance funds would most certainly have reached its hands.
According to a high-ranking Saudi source, the decision to arm Syrian rebels with missiles is final. He said, “The Syrian opposition might soon acquire surface-to-air missiles, which will raise the wrath of Russia and Iran.” He added:: “No Saudi official will own up to these consignments but, just as 30 years ago, Saudi Arabia was not deterred from intervening in Afghanistan against the Russian army – and we came out the winners” – we will not hesitate to take on the Russian army in Syria too.
debkafile’s military sources point out that in the Afghan war, the Saudis acted with the full support of the United States, whereas in Syria, the Americans are solidly opposed to any Saudi intervention. That is a huge difference between the two cases.
The introduction of Saudi missiles in support of the anti-Assad opposition would create a new situation in the Syrian conflict, whereby Riyadh also has a say – not just Washington, Moscow and Tehran. And that is exactly what Defense Minister Mohammed was after. Saudi willingness to give the rebels missiles takes the oil kingdom’s intervention in the Syrian conflict a lot farther than Israel, the Gulf emirates, Jordan or Turkey have been ready to go until now.