The Awakening Sunni Giant
Last Friday, King Abdullah cut short his summer vacation in Morocco and flew back to Riyadh not only to meet with his national security advisors but to coordinate a new strategy for winning the war in Syria, one that encompasses a unified regional bloc of Sunni-majority powers now ranged against Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime. The Wahhabi kingdom has exhausted its patience with miscarried attempts to resolve the Syria crisis through diplomacy and it will not wait to see the coming battle in Aleppo play out before assuming control of the Syrian rebellion. State-backed regional efforts to bolster moderate Free Syrian Army elements will thus be joined with the fetid call to jihad emanating from clerical quarters in Cairo, Doha, Mecca, and beyond. The mullahs have only themselves to blame. "Nasrallah fucked up," one well-connected Syrian source told me recently. "He awakened the Sunni giant. The Saudis took Hezbollah's invasion of Qusayr personally."
Although long in coming, and evidenced in the recent contretemps between Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, this grand realignment has been unmistakably solidified in the last week. A day after the Saudi king returned to Riyadh, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi severed all diplomatic ties with Damascus and called for a no-fly zone in Syria, leaving no mystery as to reason behind this decision. "Hezbollah must leave Syria - these are serious words," the Islamist president said. "There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria."
Then, on Monday, June 17, it was Jordanian King Abdullah's turn to strike a minatory, albeit more nationalistic, note. Ostensibly addressing cadets at a graduation ceremony at Mutah Military Academy, the Hashemite monarch was in fact speaking to Barack Obama and Bashar al-Assad: "If the world does not mobilize or help us in the issue [of Syria] as it should, or if this matter forms a danger to our country, we are able at any moment to take measures that will protect our land and the interests of our people."
Unlike Morsi, who doesn't have half a million Syrian refugees to contend with, Abdullah's deterrent capability is not confined to persona non grata diktats and rhetorical posturing. Operation Eager Lion, the 12-day military exercise featuring the United States and 19 Arab and European countries, is currently underway in Jordan. Around 8,000 personnel - including commandos from Lebanon and Iraq who will no doubt be fighting some of their compatriots in any deployment into Syria - are given lessons on border security, refugee management, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism warfare. Patriot missile batteries and anywhere between 12 and 24 American F-16 fighter jets were left in Jordan as a multilateral insurance policy against Syrian, Iranian, or Hezbollah provocations. This royal Abdullah is more in sync than ever with his namesake to the south.
If further proof were needed of Riyadh's newfound earnestness about ending Assad's reign, look no further than a recent column by Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist seen as quite close to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director general of Saudi intelligence who himself has described Hezbollah and Iraq's Shiite Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade in Syria as Iran's "steel claws." On June 15, Khashoggi published "The expanding Shiite Crescent" in al-Hayat. The piece can only be described as something between a Sunni cri de coeur and a Sunni fever-dream. Khashoggi begins by warning of creeping Iranian hegemony in the Levant, which is of course driven as much by energy and commercial interest as it is by ideology. Allow Assad victory and here's what will happen, according to Khashoggi:
"The Iranian Oil Ministry will pull out old maps from its drawers to build the pipeline to pump Iranian oil and gas from Abadan (across Iraq) to Tartus. The Iranian Ministry of Roads and Transportation will dust off the national railways authority's blueprints for a new branch line from Tehran to Damascus, and possibly Beirut. Why not? The wind is blowing in their favor and I am not making a mountain out of a molehill."
As against Hafez's careful balancing of Sunni and Shiite interests, Khashoggi concludes, the dangerous Bashar has submitted completely to Iran and their Lebanese proxy. "Consequently, Saudi Arabia must do something now, albeit alone. The kingdom's security is at stake. It will be good if the United States joined an alliance led by Saudi Arabia to bring down Assad and return Syria to the Arab fold. But this should not be a precondition to proceed. Let Saudi Arabia head those on board." [Italics added.]
According to Elizabeth O'Bagy, the policy director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force and a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, the Saudis had a closed-door meeting with Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Command, a few days ago, at which they offered to do "whatever it takes" to help Idris defeat Assad and his growing army of Shiite-Alawi sectarian militias. Though, this being a Saudi promise, "whatever it takes" can still be defined relatively: the discussion was limited to weapons, more resources and logistical support, O'Bagy said, though some of the hardware has already begun to materialize.
One unnamed Gulf source cited by Reuters has claimed that the Saudis have begun running shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADs) into Syria. Furthermore, at least 50 "Konkurs," Russian-made, wire-guided anti-tank missiles, have also turned up in Aleppo in the last week, as confirmed by the Daily Telegraph's Mideast correspondent Richard Spencer (Konkurs are especially useful in destroying T-72 tanks, the most recent Soviet-era model that the Syrian Army uses.)
More intriguing still is the Western power evidently facilitating this campaign - France. Israeli Army Radio reported this week that French intelligence officials are working with their Saudi counterparts to train up rebels on tactics and weaponry, in concert with the Turkish Defense Ministry (no doubt because Turkish supply-lines to Aleppo are now even more crucial.) Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and mukhabarat head Prince Bandar bin Sultan (also the former Saudi ambassador to the United States and King Abdullah's national security advisor), have traveled to Paris in urgent fits of shuttle diplomacy of late.
"The French have been really, really pro-active in pushing for greater action," O'Bagy told me. "They have a lot of really active people on the ground." The same Gulf source who told Reuters about anti-aircraft missiles bound for Syria also said they were "obtained from suppliers in France and Belgium, and France had paid to ship them to the region." The Hollande government maintains that it hasn't decided whether or not to arm the rebels yet, but here it should be noted, as O'Bagy has elsewhere, that the U.S. was gun-running before it ambiguously announced last week that it would (maybe) begin doing so.
Indeed, the Saudi-French concord provides some much needed context for the Obama administration's adherence to the status quo ante. This has been amusingly characterized by some commentators in near apocalyptic language. The White House is still only interested in guiding a process absent direct involvement in it. Everyone from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey to the president has loudly rejected the prospect of air strikes or a no-fly zone. (These "realists" fail to realize that the surest way to limit argument to arm the FSA is to destroy the regime's own Iranian and Russian resupply capability - ah, but that would require dropping bombs and we can't have that, can we?)
Having thus determined that the Syria crisis was not in the U.S. "national interest," the administration conveniently forgot about the national interests of its allies, all of whom lament the geopolitical vacuum left by a vanishing American presence and greatly fear the elements now rushing in to fill it. So instead, Washington palavers with Moscow about "Geneva II", a conference set to resemble the last half hour of Rocky IV, as the war proceeds uninterrupted on the ground. Witness the buildup of Syrian Army soldiers and militants from Hezbollah and the Iranian-sponsored Popular Committees and the National Defense Forces in the Aleppo towns of Nubul and Zahra'a. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Hezbollah fighters, abetted by IRGC agents, are amassed in the province ready to try a repeat of their last victory in Qusayr.
Congratulations are in order. The United States has just earned a court-side seat to exactly the kind of transnational Sunni-Shiite confrontation it wished to avoid.