BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia, having largely abandoned hope that the United States will spearhead international efforts to topple the Assad regime, is embarking on a major new effort to train Syrian rebel forces. And according to three sources with knowledge of the program, Riyadh has enlisted the help of Pakistani instructors to do it.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the CIA, also supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet-backed government during the 1980s. That collaboration contains a cautionary note for the current day: The fractured Afghan rebels were unable to govern after the old regime fell, paving the way for chaos and the rise of the Taliban. Some of the insurgents, meanwhile, transformed into al Qaeda and eventually turned their weapons against their former patrons.
While the risk of blowback has been discussed in Riyadh, Saudis with knowledge of the training program describe it as an antidote to extremism, not a potential cause of it. They have described the kingdom’s effort as having two goals — toppling the Assad regime, and weakening al Qaeda-linked groups in the country. Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Washington, said in a recent interview that the mainstream opposition must be strengthened so that it could protect itself “these extremists who are coming from all over the place” to impose their own ideologies on Syria.
The ramped up Saudi effort has been spurred by the kingdom’s disillusionment with the United States. A Saudi insider with knowledge of the program described how Riyadh had determined to move ahead with its plans after coming to the conclusion that President Barack Obama was simply not prepared to move aggressively to oust Assad. “We didn’t know if the Americans would give [support] or not, but nothing ever came through,” the source said. “Now we know the president just didn’t want it.”
Pakistan’s role is so far relatively small, though another source with knowledge of Saudi thinking said that a plan was currently being debated to give Pakistan responsibility for training two rebel brigades, or around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Yezid Sayigh first noted the use of Pakistani instructors, writing that the Saudis were planning to build a Syrian rebel army of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers.
“The only way Assad will think about giving up power is if he’s faced with the threat of a credible, armed force,” said the Saudi insider.
A State Department official declined to comment on the Saudi training program.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to move forward with training the Syrian rebels independent of the United States is the latest sign of a split between the two longtime allies. In Syria, Saudi officials were aggrieved by Washington’s decision to cancel a strike on the Assad regime in reprisal for its chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburbs this summer. A top Saudi official told the Washington Post that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan was unaware of the cancelation of the strike. “We found about it from CNN,” he said.
As a result, Saudi Arabia has given up on hopes that the United States would spearhead efforts to topple Assad and decided to press forward with its own plans to bolster rebel forces. That effort relies on a network of Saudi allies in addition to Pakistan, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and France.
As Sayigh laid out in his Carnegie paper, Saudi Arabia is attempting to build “a new national army” for the rebels — a force with an “avowedly Sunni ideology” that could seize influence from mainstream Syrian opposition groups. In addition to its training program in Jordan, Saudi Arabia also helped organize the unification of roughly 50 rebel brigades into “the Army of Islam” under the leadership of Zahran Alloush, a Salafist commander whose father is a cleric based in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s Shadow War