Is the United States leaning toward increasing its support for the Syrian rebels? Saudi Arabia, the largest funder of the Syrian opposition, has replaced its long-time intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, previously described by American officials as “erratic” and “hot headed”, with a prince better suited to mitigating U.S. concerns over Syrian weapons transfers.President Obama has been hesitant to provide the Syrian opposition with advanced weapons systems out of fear that they could fall into the hands of extremist groups within the Levant. However, Bandar’s replacement, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef has proven himself in counterterrorism strategy before. He also stands in the good graces of both John Kerry and CIA Director John Brennan. The prince plans to show up to the Syrian party with a full keg. Will Obama bring the cups? The WSJ reports:
The Saudis now plan to provide rebels with shoulder-fired missiles, or manpads, that can bring down jets and antitank missiles, an Arab diplomat and several opposition figures said recently. If the transfer takes place, it would be the first time rebels have such powerful weapons in any significant quantity.Prince Mohammed, as a leading counterterror figure globally, is in a position to assuage American fears that if the West supplies weapons, they will wind up in the possession of radicals, said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with the Gulf Research Center who is close to Saudi security and intelligence circles.“The Americans have to change their policy, and Prince Mohammed is the right person to take this mission.…He’s the one who can calm their worries,” Mr. Alani said.
So far, the United States has provided limited support for small factions of the Free Syrian Army, including CIA training in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and salary payments for some of the rebels. This support hasn’t struck the Saudis as nearly enough. They see Syria as an important battleground for their long cold war with Iran. As a result, U.S.-Saudi relations are at an all time low.The United States hasn’t issued any go aheads on the Saudi weapons transfer, but as the WSJ notes, it still isn’t clear how far Washington would go to prevent the transfer if Riyadh went ahead without America’s blessing.One thing is clear. If Prince Mohammed’s leadership eases White House fears enough, it could lead to a major shift in the Obama Administration’s Syria policy.