NEW YORK - Saudi Arabia is threatening to break with United States, its most powerful ally, and pursue a more robust and independent role in supporting the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a leading American newspaper reported Saturday.
But The New York Times said in a dispatch from Riyadh said their option to provide arms to groups fight the Assad regime were limited: Saudi Arabia is dependent on American military and oil technology, and the other countries the Saudis have courted — including France and India — can help only on the margins.
But privately, the newsaper said, Saudi officials concede that their efforts to forge an alternative strategy in Syria have run up against the same issue the Americans face: how to bolster the military might of a disorganized armed opposition without also empowering the jihadists who increasingly dominate its ranks.
Diplomats who have met with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief running the kingdom’s Syria operation, say he seems most preoccupied not with Mr. Assad’s forces, but with the number of foreign jihadists in Syria, which he estimates at 3,000 to 5,000, including about 800 Saudis whose identities his government closely tracks, according to the Times. He expects those numbers to double every six months, an American official told the paper.
The Saudis work to broaden their support to the Syrian rebels by sending money and arms to nonjihadist factions, it said. But their fear of blowback is a limiting factor, rooted in their bitter experience with Saudis who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later returned to mount deadly terrorist attacks here.
“No Saudis will be trained to fight in Syria - in fact, we don’t want any Saudis there at all,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was the kingdom’s intelligence minister when thousands of Saudis went - with the government’s blessing - to fight in Afghanistan, was quoted as saying.
Citing American officials, the Times wrote, “It is particularly galling for the Saudis to see that their regional rival, Iran, has no such fears as it carries out a far more effective proxy war in Syria.
It has deployed its Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as far afield as Yemen to recruit jihadist-style fighters for the cause, who are then trained and equipped in Iran or Syria ... The commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, visits Damascus regularly and is playing a leading role in Mr. Assad’s military campaign against the rebels, American and Arab officials say.
“In a sense, Prince Bandar is Mr. Soleimani’s counterpart, but his failure to shape a cohesive rebel force helps explain the depth of the Saudis’ anger at the Obama administration’s decision not to launch airstrikes on Mr. Assad’s military in September. They feel their hands are tied, and the recent gestures — including Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented refusal of a seat on the United Nations Security Council — are rooted in a belief that only the United States has the military power and global authority to make a difference in Syria.”
“Refusing the council seat this way, after we had won it, had more impact than if we had just withdrawn two years ago,” said Prince Turki, who gave a speech on Tuesday in Washington assailing the Obama administration for its failure to provide more support to the rebels. Prince Turki, who has no official position, said he believed the
gesture was aimed in part at a Saudi domestic audience and in part at the United States, in hopes that it could win some leverage for a more aggressive stance on Syria.
“Whether we can get Mr. Obama to change his mind, I don’t know,” Prince Turki said.