Western and Arab intelligence services that support Syria’s struggling opposition gathered for a two-day strategy meeting in Washington last week that appears to signal a stronger effort to back the rebels.
The spymasters’ conclave featured Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s minister of the interior, who will now supervise the kingdom’s leading role in the covert-action program. He replaces Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, who has been suffering from a back ailment and whose leadership of the program was seen as uneven.
Susan Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, met with Prince Mohammed to discuss strategy. But sources caution that President Obama is still wary of any major escalation in Syria that might involve U.S. forces directly. The U.S. opposes no-fly zones, for example, although the administration’s call for secure corridors to provide humanitarian assistance may lead it to embrace de facto safe zones if the U.N. can’t agree on a formal plan.
Prince Mohammed’s new oversight role reflects the increasing concern in Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries about al-Qaeda’s growing power within the Syrian opposition.
The Washington gathering was also attended by spy chiefs from Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and other key regional powers that have been supporting the rebels.
It’s too early to tell whether this makeover is cosmetic or signifies real changes on the battlefield. But it’s an attempt to bolster the chronically weak moderate opposition, which lost ground over the past year to both President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the jihadist fighters close to al-Qaeda.
The intelligence chiefs discussed whether to supply more advanced weapons to the rebels, such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Saudis have stockpiles of such weapons and are ready to ship them, but they want support from the Obama administration, which remains reluctant to give a formal OK.
The Syrian rebels have reshuffled their command structure, which should fit better with the new intelligence alliance. Gen. Salim Idriss has been forced out as head of the Free Syrian Army’s supreme military command. Idriss was backed by U.S. officials because he was an articulate proponent for preserving the Syrian army and state structure, but he had limited support.
The new commander is Brig. Gen. Abdul-Illah al-Bashir, who defected from the Syrian army last year and is based in Quneitra, on Syria’s southern border. He lost a son in fighting against Assad’s forces, which gives him credibility among rebels. His deputy will be Col. Haitham Afiseh from Idlib province in the north.
These newly appointed commanders are said to be working closely with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a moderate group headed by Jamal Maarouf.
Underlying these tactical changes is the fact that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are working together again on Syria policy after a year of increasingly bitter disagreement. The revived U.S.-Saudi alliance won’t topple Assad, but it will reduce what had become a dangerous regional feud.
David Ignatius’ email address is email@example.com.