Saudis and CIA agree to Arm Syrian “Moderates” with Advanced Anti-aircraft and Anti-tank Weapons

Saudis and CIA agree to Arm Syrian Moderates with Advanced Anti-aircraft and Anti-tank Weapons
by Joshua Landis

The news that the “Saudis Agree to Provide Syrian Rebels With Mobile Antiaircraft Missiles,” as reported by the Wall Street Journal (article copied below), will change the battle field in Syria.

The newly formed “Southern Front” led by Bashar al-Zoubi, will be the main recipient. The WSJ says Zoubi has a direct line to Western and Arab intelligence agencies in a military operations room in Amman. He will be the primary recipient of these new, more lethal weapons. He went to Geneva for the talks with the Assad regime.

Zoubi was included in my “Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders.” He was #5. That ranking will now likely change. Here is what I wrote about him on Oct. 1, 2013:

5: Bashar Al-Zoubi, the Commander of Liwa al-Yarmouk in the south of Syria around Deraa. The Supreme Military Command (the US backed leadership of the Free Syrian Army) has named him the commander of the Southern Front. He is the only member of this top-five who has not expressed a wish to see an Islamist Syria.

Jamal Maarouf and the norther Syria Revolutionaries Front

Jamaal Maarouf is the other commander that the US and Gulf Arabs seem to be bettering on. He is presently the commander of the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front in Norther Syria. This group was made out of remnants of the FSA after Idriss and the Supreme Military Council was expelled from Syria. This is what I wrote about him last Oct.

Jamal Maarouf (Abu Khalid) of Shuhada Souria, Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, Idlib governate, FSA. Jamal claims to have 18 ,000 fighters between Idlib and Aleppo, but like all troop estimates, this should be taken with a grain of salt. He’s a non-Islamist leader. He is both religious and conservative, but not Ikhwan and not salafi, just not ideological.

Aron Lund wrote this on Dec 13 about Maarouf and his The Syria Revolutionaries’ Front

On December 9, a group of Syrian rebel factions created yet another alliance, called the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF). According to the SRF’s first statement, it includes fourteen different factions….. Some of these groups are well-known and have a strong presence in their local areas, but most seem to have their glory days behind them.

Jamal Maarouf’s Syria Martyrs’ Brigade was also once a formidable force in the Idlib region and a primary recipient of Saudi support. But Maarouf has been widely accused of diverting resources for his own use rather than deploying them to the front lines. Islamist rivals disparage him as a warlord and “a highway robber.” From early 2013, the Syria Martyrs’ Brigade seems to have lost much of its support, and Maarouf’s influence has dwindled.

Ahrar al-Shamal is another very active group in the Idlib region, while Afif Suleiman’s Military Council has long been a foreign-backed player in arms distribution. He, Maarouf, and the Ahrar al-Zawia Brigades have all been viewed as local rivals of the Idlibi Islamist leader Ahmed Abu Issa, whose Suqour al-Sham Brigades have now joined the Islamic Front.

Even if most of these groups are now second-tier actors and the SRF has a strong Idlibi flavor, real unity between them could create a significant force on the ground, especially if backed by strong foreign funding.

Rania Abouzeid wrote this about Jamal Maarouf last week:

Maarouf, the most public face of the SRF, has declared war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a move that has rehabilitated his image in the eyes of those who also describe themselves as FSA. By the end of 2013, he was looking like a spent force. Many of his colleagues had long taken to calling him Jamal Makhlouf, pinning him with the surname of Assad’s cousins who hold business monopolies in the country thanks to nepotistic corruption. Commanders frequently complained that Maarouf was more of a showman and warlord than a fighter, promising to participate in a particular battle, securing the funding for it from sponsors (mainly Saudi Arabia), and then withdrawing soon after the fight began after filming enough footage to upload to YouTube to boast of his group’s participation. It was a common complaint. Now, many of those same men speak with admiration of how Maarouf is personally fighting and how his men are pushing back ISIS with vigour.

Maarouf has always been in Saudi Arabia’s orbit, but to date the Saudis haven’t markedly stepped up their assistance to their people, according to a Syrian weapons distributor responsible for dishing out Saudi state-sponsored guns and money to rebels in the north. The SRF is a natural recipient, as is one of the components of the Islamic Front (IF), the Army of Islam, which is increasingly looked at by other Islamists as a Saudi project to potentially weaken more conservative Islamists.

Maarouf’s second wind, however, hasn’t won him many friends among the more hardcore Islamists, even those who have their quarrels with ISIS, like the IF and Jabhat al-Nusra. “Maarouf won’t live long”, a senior JAN fighter in Turkey said. “Everybody wants his head.”

Will the Islamic Front accuse the new “moderate” groups cooperating with the CIA as Sahwa?

Western and Arab support for the new groups will not go over well with the Islamic Front, an alliance of conservative, religious rebel factions that recently coalesced as the biggest fighting force in Syria. The Islamic Front is mainly a Qatari-Turkish supported coalition. Saudi Arabia might not be as keen on them as many at first thought. Saudi Arabia does seem to favor Zahran Aloush’s Islam Army, one of the more prominent militias that joined with the Islamic Front in December.

Trying to keep these advanced weapons out of the hands of Islamists will be difficult because everyone works with everyone to some extent – and they need to in order to defeat the Syrian Arab Army.

The new targeted funding will open up bitter feuds among the militias. Those that get Western and Saudi largesse and work closely with Western officials will be accused of becoming Sahwa. It is not known if an Israeli is included in the  operations room in Jordan. The WSJ only had this to say:

The operations room hosts officials from the 11 countries that form the Friends of Syria group, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, France and the U.K. Mr. al-Zoubi was also among a select group of rebel commanders who joined the political opposition in Geneva for the latest round of peace talks.

But even if Israel is not represented directly in the room, its influence will be felt. Ehud Ya’ari writes of the “operations room” in Amman where “Jordanian military and intelligence officers coordinate military assistance to local rebel groups alongside Saudi and Western advisors.” He adds, “the Israeli part of the effort should be viewed as complementing but not necessarily coordinated with the Jordanian endeavor.”

All the same, he writes that Israel has developed “a system of communications and frequent contacts have been established with the local rebel militias that operate near the Golan.”

Jordan and Israel share an interest in keeping the region around their borders with Syria friendly and under local supervision. Both are concerned lest Islamists and particularly Jihadist groups become ensconced along their borders.

Saudis Agree to Provide Syrian Rebels With Mobile Antiaircraft Missiles
U.S. Also Giving Fighters Millions of Dollars for Salaries
By Maria Abi-Habib and Stacy Meichtry
Feb. 14, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan—Washington’s Arab allies, disappointed with Syria peace talks, have agreed to provide rebels there with more sophisticated weaponry, including shoulder-fired missiles that can take down jets, according to Western and Arab diplomats and opposition figures.

Saudi Arabia has offered to give the opposition for the first time Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia, according to an Arab diplomat and several opposition figures with knowledge of the efforts. Saudi officials couldn’t be reached to comment.

The U.S. has long opposed arming rebels with antiaircraft missiles for fear they could fall into the hands of extremists who might use them against the West or commercial airlines. The Saudis have held off supplying them in the past because of U.S. opposition. A senior Obama administration official said Friday that the U.S. objection remains the same. “There hasn’t been a change internally on our view,” the official said.

The U.S. for its part has stepped up financial support, handing over millions of dollars in new aid to pay fighters’ salaries, said rebel commanders who received some of the money. The U.S. wouldn’t comment on any payments.

The focus of the new rebel military push is to retake the southern suburbs of Damascus in hopes of forcing the regime to accept a political resolution to the war by agreeing to a transitional government without President Bashar al-Assad.

But if the Manpads are supplied in the quantities needed, rebels said it could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favor of the opposition. The antiaircraft and Russian Konkurs antitank weapons would help them chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor.

“New stuff is arriving imminently,” said a Western diplomat with knowledge of the weapons deliveries.

Rebel commanders and leaders of the Syrian political opposition said they don’t know yet how many of the Manpads and antiaircraft missiles they will get. But they have been told it is a significant amount. The weapons are already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey.

Earlier in the conflict, rebels managed to seize a limited number of Manpads from regime forces. But they quickly ran out of the missiles to arm them, the Western diplomat said.

Rebel leaders say they met with U.S. and Saudi intelligence agents, among others, in Jordan on Jan. 30 as the first round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva came to a close. That is when wealthy Gulf States offered the more sophisticated weapons.

At the meeting, U.S. and Gulf officials said they were disappointed with the Syrian government’s refusal to discuss Mr. Assad’s ouster at the talks and suggested a military push was needed to force a political solution to the three-year war.

President Barack Obama this week acknowledged that diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict are far from achieving their goals.
“But the situation is fluid and we are continuing to explore every possible avenue,” Mr. Obama said.

The weapons will flow across the border into southern Syria from the warehouses in Jordan and across the northern border from Turkey, the Western diplomat said. Rebel leaders said the shipments to southern Syria are expected to be more substantial because opposition fighters are more unified in that area and there is a lower risk the weapons will fall into the hands of al Qaeda-inspired groups—a big concern for the U.S.

With the rebels still deeply divided and infighting growing, the new aid is aimed squarely at the more moderate and secular rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that the U.S. has always favored.

The plan coincides with the reorganization of rebel forces in the south, where 10,000 fighters have formed the Southern Front. The new front aims to break the government’s siege of the southern suburbs of Damascus.

Last month, rebels in the north unified into the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, turning their weapons on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most deadly al Qaeda-inspired rebel faction. The SRF, along with other groups, forced ISIS to retreat from key territories across the north. Both the northern and southern forces are technically under the FSA’s umbrella.

Western and Arab support for the new groups won’t go to the Islamic Front, an alliance of conservative, religious rebel factions that is helping the northern front rebels fight the more radical ISIS.

The Southern Front is under the leadership of Bashar al-Zoubi, who has a direct line to Western and Arab intelligence agencies in a military operations room in Amman, rebels say.

The operations room hosts officials from the 11 countries that form the Friends of Syria group, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, France and the U.K. Mr. al-Zoubi was also among a select group of rebel commanders who joined the political opposition in Geneva for the latest round of peace talks.

The Southern Front has captured a string of government-held areas and military bases since it launched its first offensive in late January.

But any push toward the capital from the south faces formidable challenges. An arc south of the capital is the domain of the army’s Fourth Division, elite troops led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. Closer to the capital, Syrian forces are fortified by elements of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia from Lebanon.

The regime has been ruthless in snuffing out any hint of escalation by rebels in the south.

“The Saudis and Emiratis at the same meeting said that their priority is to lift the siege on the entire southern area of Damascus,” said an aide to a rebel leader who attended the meeting in Amman on Jan 30. Once we reach this stage, it will become political pressure and Assad will have to listen to the international demands,” the aide said.

At the meeting between leaders of the Southern Front and Western and Arab intelligence agencies last month, rebel leaders said they were given salaries for their fighters and equipment such as military rations and tents.

Rebels said the U.S. spent $3 million on salaries of fighters in the Southern Front, delivering the payments in cash over two meetings in Jordan—one on Jan. 30 and the other late last year.

The opposition will also ask Congress next week for weapons to help rebels fight al Qaeda. That mandate would give the opposition a better shot at securing arms than previous requests for support to topple the regime.

Congressional aides confirmed there are scheduled meetings with opposition leaders next week to discuss their request for more advanced weapons. But Congress remains sharply divided about the conflict in Syria. Some lawmakers favor stepped-up support to moderate opposition groups, but others question the wisdom of providing heavy weapons.

“We’re trying to assure the international community that they can support moderates without the threat of arms falling into the hands of al Qaeda,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition.

—Sam Dagher and Suha Ma’ayeh contributed to this article.

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