US Finally Sends Syrian Rebels Arms via Saudi Arabia – Only as Path to Geneva-3
A US jet with a secret consignment of arms for Syrian rebels was unloaded unobtrusively at the King Faisal Air Base in Tabuk in northern Saudi Arabia near the Jordanian border on Friday March 28. It coincided with the arrival in Riyadh of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for their two-hour date with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
This was not the first American arms shipment to the Syrian rebels, DEBKA Weekly's military sources report. The first delivery arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday March 24.
The routing of American arms via the oil kingdom attests to the complexity and the inner contradictions of the Obama administration's Middle East policy. It has two goals:
1. To conceal President Obama’s U-turn: After years of refusing to heed Syrian rebel pleas for advanced weapons, he has finally swiveled round and agreed to provide them. Washington assumes people will take it for granted that the weapons are coming from Saudi Arabia, which has consistently supported Syrian rebel groups, although it is hard to imagine the Iranian and Russian spy agencies keeping track of arms movements across the region being fooled by this ruse.
2. The use of the Tabuk air base as a regional hub for the transfer of US weapons to Syria is intended to symbolize the healing of the sharp dispute between Riyadh and Washington on the Syrian crisis and renewed cooperation.
This did not happen. Indeed, the president’s conversation with the king was an exercise in futility.
US and Russia both pump advanced weaponry into Syria
The US arms consignment is reported by our military sources to consist of large quantities of various types of anti-tank missiles and a smaller number of anti-aircraft missiles, heavy mortars of different sizes and recoilless grenade launchers. Among them were hand-held missile launchers, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 30 that he had obtained assurances from US Secretary of State John Kerry at their meeting in Paris that they would not be supplied.
Lavrov’s comment to reporters then indirectly confirmed that US arms had begun flowing to the Syrian rebels.
At the same time, Russia continues to upgrade the quality and quantity of the hardware it is shipping to Bashar Assad’s army, which started using long-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February.
From Tabuk, the American weapons move across the border into Jordan and are smuggled into Syria.
Obama and Kerry tried explaining to the Saudi king that their purpose in collaborating with the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, which are bankrolling the arms, was to rob Bashar Assad’s army of victory and so force his regime and the rebels back to the negotiating table in Geneva.
The US president never saw the Geneva-2 fiasco in January as the last word in the quest for a political solution of the Syrian conflict. His eye remains fixed on diplomatic engagement as the ultimate path to solving disputes rather than military action.
His objective gained immediacy on Tuesday, April 1 when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced UN arrangements were under way for the third international conference on Syria. Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Ban urged the international community to fully mobilize all its political will to resolve the agonizing Syrian conflict.
Geneva-2 failed, and so great pains were necessary to get Geneva-3 off to a sound footing, he said. The Secretary General used the word Geneva-3 for the first time, thus drawing a line on the abortive Geneva-2.
A confrontational royal welcome for Obama
But DEBKA Weekly's Gulf sources say that the Saudi king showed no interest whatever in America’s arms shipments to the Syrian rebels or Obama’s focus on Geneva 3. He was too busy carrying on a monologue, which listed the grave blunders the Obama administration was alleged to have committed in the Middle East. Abdullah took the president to task especially for the way he dealt with Iran’s nuclear program and his treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood as though it was a national-religious liberation movement.
The Saudi King ‘s diatribe was in no way inhibited by his great age (now determined by Western intelligence to be 90) or poor health. An oxygen tube was fixed in the royal nose.
Whenever Obama tried to interrupt, the monarch waved him aside impatiently.
The president hardly got a word in edgeways. The Saudi welcome was in any case below standard protocol. The mandatory dinner or banquet in honor of a visiting head of state was cancelled without explanation by the Saudi hosts.
Informal refreshments were offered at the king’s Rawdat al-Khariam Desert Camp near Riyadh. The encounter ended with no joint communiqués – or even separate US and Saudi statements to the media.
Obama presents Brave Woman medal to Saudi women’s activisit
Obama and Kerry snatched a few words with the high-ranking princes who greeted them at the airport, and princes who attended the king, including Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who was promoted the day before to second-in-line to the Saudi throne. Other than these brief exchanges, the American visitors had no chance for real communication with Saudi officials.
After the royal audience, President Obama presented women rights activist Maha Al-Mouneef with the Brave Woman medal for her struggle against domestic violence and child abuse. This act attested to the thorny issues still outstanding between the US and its traditional Middle East ally on human rights and other civic freedoms, in addition to regional policies.
The royal family responded Tuesday April 1 with a government statement that Saudi Arabia has officially identified atheists as terrorists in sweeping new laws that threaten up to 20 years in prison for almost any criticism of the government or Islam.
The law also applies to any Saudi citizen or a foreigner residing in the kingdom who “calls for atheist thought in any form or calls into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is founded.”
US arms for Syrian rebels come too late for Geneva-3
DEBKA Weekly's military and intelligence sources strongly doubt that the belated US arms shipments to Syrian rebels will change the balance of the Syrian war or enhance the prospects of Geneva 3 achieving anything more constructive than Geneva 2.
The Obama administration is approaching the Syrian issue as though time is standing still and nothing has changed as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and US and European sanctions and bans. Washington is ignoring the warning issued by the influential Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov in the middle of the Ukraine crisis: Russia “wouldn’t like to use these [nuclear] talks (with Iran) as an element of the game of raising the stakes” between Moscow and the West, he said. But if Russia felt forced, it would “take retaliatory measures here as well.”
With regard to the Syrian conflict too, Washington should expect Moscow and Tehran to reciprocate for US weapons deliveries to Syrian rebels with arms that are capable of out-shooting the American hardware in rebel hands.
Obama’s effort to mollify Riyadh has therefore set in motion a spiraling cycle of escalation in Syria without contributing to the international cooperation necessary for making Geneva 3 a success.
President Obama may have believed that sending arms to Syrian rebels would make Syria a more level playing ground for broader US dealings with Vladimir Putin. But Moscow is no longer in any mood to play.