Bandar, the Prince of Jihad: Expect a Syrian Shift in Power
By: Hassan Illeik
Published Tuesday, August 6, 2013
In theory, Syrian opposition fighters now have one single commander: Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The man, who had a failed military adventure in Beirut, is vying today to alter the balance of power in Syria. But his foes say they will not let him win this time either.
Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, is no ordinary policymaker in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom ruled by his family. According to sources familiar with his history, Bandar is “at once the solution and the problem in his country’s diplomatic crisis.”
To be sure, the “legendary” ambassador in Washington has compensated for the total absence of senior decision-makers in the ruling family, who are either passive by nature, or are incapacitated because of their illnesses – from King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, to Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, all the way to Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz and the Second Deputy Prime Minister Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz.
Bandar is essentially the only member of the House of Saud to have a proactive diplomatic approach, with access to the major decision-making capitals of the world, from Washington to Moscow.
Bandar recently visited Moscow to negotiate in his capacity as the “Prince of the Mujahideen” in Syria, including those who hail from Chechnya, Dagestan, and the Caucasus in Russia’s backyard. From Dagestan alone, more than a hundred fighters are enlisted in the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which is active in northern Syria.
Many of these Russian fighters and their Syrian comrades are (theoretically) under the command of a single man: Bandar bin Sultan. For one thing, the top Saudi security man is their main financier, arms source, and their virtual political spokesperson, whether directly or through his deputy, the head of the Syrian National Coalition Ahmad al-Jarba.
But Bandar himself represents a problem for Saudi. Unlike the calm diplomacy pursued by Riyadh – even if only superficially – Bandar usually has very unrealistic expectations.
His most recent experience of a military nature took place in Lebanon, after 2006, when Bandar convinced the Saudi king to bankroll a militia for Saad Hariri. Some observers familiar with that experience say that Bandar spent more than $200 million to build this paramilitary force, only for the whole plan to meet a catastrophic defeat in less than 20 hours of fighting, in May 2008.
In Syria, Bandar bin Sultan did not deviate from his usual approach. He has set very high expectations, and today, according to some who met him over the past few weeks, he sees no issue more important than Syria. For instance, Bandar rarely mentions Yemen, Iraq, or Lebanon, except from the standpoint of defeating Iran and Hezbollah in the Levant.
Bandar is optimistic about Syria, and has told those who met with him recently that he has been given up to eight months to arm and consolidate the rebel ranks to tip the balance of power on the Syrian battlefield. Bandar did not say that he wants to dramatically reverse this balance of power, but only to alter it to deny the Syrian regime the upper hand in any upcoming political negotiations.
Bandar has purported that the coming two months will see the efforts to train and arm the opposition start to bear fruit. But the Saudi intelligence chief also spoke to his visitors about the difficulties he is facing, including the fragmentation of the fighters and the inability to train more than 300 rebels each month. Concerning arms, Bandar complained about how the weapons he sends often ends up in the hands of al-Qaeda fighters and their ilk.
Nevertheless, these concerns did not prevent Bandar from wagering on his fighters’ achievements over the next few months. For instance, the Saudi prince wants to see breakthroughs by the rebels in northern Syria, starting in Aleppo, and in the south, where he will try to convince the Jordanian regime to allow fighters and weapons to flow into Daraa and the Golan.
Bandar believes that such breakthroughs would prompt Moscow to accept a political solution in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have no role to play. However, it seems that Bandar’s plans, as per what has been attributed to him, ignore the fact that the other side is not sitting idly by.
In Damascus, Beirut’s southern suburbs, Tehran, and Moscow, there are those working relentlessly to thwart Bandar’s plans. No efforts are being spared to this end, including weapons, funding, planning, training, and even personnel.
The Syrian regime’s plans “after the liberation of the central region” will receive the full support of all its backers. The latter, who have been apprised of Bandar’s plans, react by saying, “What Damascus’ enemies have done in the past two years at all levels, would have been enough to topple Assad. They did not lack money, weapons, fighters, or plans. Their problem did not lie in this aspect, but in the fact that we resisted and knew how to prevent them from achieving what they wanted.”
The pro-regime camp asserts that the next phase of the Syrian conflict will be just like the previous rounds, stressing that altering the balance of power would be very difficult – if not impossible – and that Bandar bin Sultan will be driven out of Syria just as he was driven out of Beirut in 2008.
Retribution for Qusayr and Homs
The Syrian opposition is fighting four primary offensives: Aleppo’s northern countryside, where the opposition has more or less taken control of the Meng military airbase; al-Raqqa, where the opposition has laid siege to a base of the army’s 17th brigade; Latakia’s northern countryside, where the opposition has launched attacks on a number of villages and military posts; and in the eastern countryside of the city of Salmiyah, east of Hama.
According to high-ranking officials in Damascus, the opposition is able to achieve progress in Meng against the 17th brigade. But in Latakia and Salmiyah, all the opposition is going to achieve, they say, will be massacres against civilians, after which the Syrian army will inflict heavy losses on the militants.
The same Syrian officials say that the real goal of all four offensives is to achieve a “public relations victory, to suggest that the opposition has avenged the defeats it suffered in the Damascus countryside, Qusayr, and Homs, and attempt to exploit this in the political negotiations being prepared between Moscow and Washington.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.