David Ignatius: Regional spymasters make tactical changes to bolster Syrian moderates

David Ignatius
Opinion writer February 18

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.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

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 United States 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 United Nations 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. As interior minister, he coordinates the kingdom’s counterterrorism policy, which gives him close ties with the CIA and other Western intelligence services.

The Washington gathering was also attended by spy chiefs from Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and other key regional powers that have been supporting the rebels. Sources said these countries agreed to coordinate their aid so that it goes directly to moderate fighters rather than leaching away to extremists of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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.

Coordination of assistance among the different donors will be especially important. In the past, aid flows have been disrupted by political infighting between Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Jordan, on the other. The situation has been especially chaotic in northern Syria, south of the Turkish border, where the al-Qaeda affiliates have taken advantage of the confusion.

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 okay.

The CIA has organized the training effort. Currently, the camps, mostly in Jordan, can handle about 250 fighters a month, and many more than 1,000 fighters have come through this program. Though the camps are said to be supervised by CIA paramilitary operatives, the effort involves representatives of the other intelligence services. Arab countries have urged the United States to double this training capacity, but U.S. officials want to be sure the rebels can absorb these additional fighters.

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 among fighters.

In a sign of continuing disunity among fighters on the ground, some of Idriss’s backers issued a statement Wednesday protesting his dismissal as “elected” commander. This kind of infighting has plagued the rebels in the past and, if it isn’t resolved, could quickly undermine the new command structure.

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. U.S. observers credit Afiseh for leading attacks that routed ISIS jihadists from his home town. It’s hoped that Bashir in the south and Afiseh in the north can better coordinate the two fronts.

These newly appointed commanders are said to be working closely with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a moderate group headed by Jamal Maarouf. He met last week inside Syria with Ahmad al-Jarba, the Saudi-backed leader of the Syrian opposition coalition. Arab sources argue that Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of both the political and military wings of the opposition is another positive sign, after so many months of discord.

Underlying these tactical changes is the fact that Saudi Arabia and the United States 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.

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