Commentary: Saudis Gain Upper Hand on Syria's Battlefields

Felix Imonti
Syrian rebels gather around a T-72 tank, captured from government forces, in the flashpoint Syrian province of Idlib near the border with Turkey.
Daniel Leal-Olivas | AFP | Getty Images

As the war in Syria moves into a third year, there are serious concerns that the violence will spread throughout the Middle East. No one seems to have the answer how to bring the war to an end, but now it appears the Saudis are going to try.

When Sunni tribes in Syria make appeals for protection from the brutality of the Al-Assad regime, their Sunni kinsmen in the Gulf States of Saudia Arabia and Qatar have a hard time ignoring them. The blood ties are broad and deep; moreover, the appeals came at an opportune moment for Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is troubled by the "Shia Crescent" that has extended from Iran through Iraq, into Syria and to the Mediterranean shores of Lebanon. The uprising in Syria created an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to use tribal bonds to destroy the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar Al-Assad. His fall would break the Shia (read as, Iranian) chain of power through the region and begin the process of pushing back its influence. The Gulf States have their own potentially volatile Shia minorities to worry about--to the Gulf States, the more limitations on Iranian influence, the better.

With Al-Assad driven out, the Saudi-based, fundamentalist Wahhabi Sect that had been established among the Syrian tribes can, the reasoning goes, secure the continuation of Sunni domination there. That would protect the security of the Kingdom and the wealth and power of all of the other rulers along the Gulf.

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Qatar agrees with the Saudis that Al-Assad has to be removed, but has a much less religiously radical vision for Syria's future. The successor regime that Qatar envisions would be a government under the leadership of the social elite that would bring a modern government and economy to the country.

Working at arm's-length through Qatar enabled the U.S. and Ambassador Chris Stevens to maintain the fairy tale that it was providing only non-lethal equipment to Syria's rebels.

At first, it was Qatar that had the tactical advantage in promoting its vision. The Emirate had sent Special Forces to Libya to remove Gaddafi. Qatar spent an estimated $2 billion to arm, train, and to lead Libyan forces against the government, which included the funding of the February 17th Martyr Brigade and its leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj.

From the time that Ambassador Chris Stevens was named liaison with the rebels in Libya in March 2011, he worked closely with the leader of the February 17th Martyr Brigade. When President Obama authorized in 2012 the distribution of heavy weapons to the rebels, it was Abdel Hakim Belhadj with his Qatari credentials who gave the ambassador an open channel.

Working at arm's-length enabled the U.S. to maintain the fairy tale that it was providing only non-lethal equipment to Syria's rebels. After the murder of the ambassador, the supply chain to the arms of Libya was broken.

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Circumstances have shifted to favor the Saudis. The United States no longer has an organization that it can use as a weapons-smuggling front and insists that Washington will provide only non-lethal materials to the rebels.

American dithering worries the Saudis, with their memories of the growth of Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden--the battlefields of Afghanistan nurtured the radicals who turned on their former benefactors. That could happen again in Syria if the war continues and more radicalized warriors are released upon the world.

Saudi Goal: End the War ASAP

King Abdullah had anticipated that the Al-Assad regime would collapse much sooner than is proving to be the case. Every day that the war continues is seen in Riyadh as a threat to the stability of the Kingdom. One means to bring the war to an end is to control the flow of weapons; the Saudis have moved in that direction by turning to an unusual source for heavy weapons that would force recipients to depend exclusively upon the Saudis for additional supplie: the former Yugoslavia.

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The former Yugoslavia had developed a major munitions industry that has survived the break-up of the Communist state. M60 recoilless weapons and M79 Osa anti-tank rocket launchers from Croatia are appearing in large quantities throughout Syria. According to an article in the New York Times, the source of these and other weapons has been traced to the Saudis. Recipients appear to be the more moderate, indigenous members of the Free Syrian Army that have objected to the influx of the more radicalized foreign Jihadists.

At the same time, the Saudis are seeking an alternate course to end the fighting through a political settlement with Syria. Riyadh has opened negotiations in Jordan with Al-Assad's government. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the son of the Saudi king, is leading the Saudi delegation.

Even Russia Has Reason to Fear Saudis

And what of Al-Assad's other big ally, Russia? Al-Assad's dependence on Russian determination is itself a weakness in his defenses. The Russians have indicated that they do not anticipate a NATO invasion. Without NATO intervening, there is the possibility for some kind of settlement that would preserve Russia's interests -- even if it excludes Al-Assad.

The Saudis may be able to get the Russians to bend. Saudi Arabia has the means to make life for the Russians dangerous. Wahhabi cadres operating in the Moslem regions of Russia are already starting uprisings. Once-peaceful areas in Russia are no longer safe, and Moscow has not figured how to deal with the problem.

Is Russia prepared to sacrifice its own stability to save Al-Assad? The Saudis are in a position to force Putin to consider seriously the answer to that question.