Syria conflict: A shift for fading insurgency as foreign backers look to reverse months of military defeats at the hands of government soldiers

The removal of Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief may signal an effort to reorganise the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad

In the wake of a series of battlefield defeats for the Syrian rebels over the past few months, there are signs that the opposition’s foreign backers are trying to reverse the tide and salvage what is left of the waning insurgency.

The removal of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the architect of Riyadh’s efforts to overthrow the Syrian government over the last three years, shows frustration within Saudi Arabia – one of the biggest backers of the rebels – at the failure of his policies.

The royal decree announcing the removal of Prince Bandar, for 22 years the highly influential Saudi ambassador in Washington, said that he had stepped down at his own request and was being replaced in the job he has held since 2012 by his deputy General Youssef  al-Idrissi as “head of general intelligence.”

Western experts on Saudi Arabia had variously reported that Prince Bandar is genuinely ill or has been discredited by the failure of Syrian rebels to make headway against President Bashar al-Assad. What is clear is that his policy of funding and supplying the rebels fighting against Assad has failed to have a meaningful impact.

The uncertainty about developments in Riyadh shows that few outsiders know what is happening in the upper ranks of the Saudi royal family as it prepares the ground for a smooth succession to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz who is believed to be aged about 90.

While Syria remains at the top of Saudi Arabia’s list of priorities, there have been many distractions over the past year that may have detracted from the effort in Syria. It has been feeling under threat from turmoil across the region since the Arab uprisings of 2011. It faces hostile governments in Syria, Iran and Iraq with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently blaming Saudi Arabia and Qatar for funding making terror attacks in his country.

It is unpopular in Yemen which has long resented its northern neighbour, which has been deporting tens of thousands of Yemeni workers from the Kingdom. It is also at loggerheads with Qatar, from which it has withdrawn its ambassador, and it is critical of Oman’s friendly relationship with Iran.

The view from a rebel held position in Aleppo (Getty) The view from a rebel held position in Aleppo (Getty)

The Saudi government has been clamping down on all signs of domestic dissent, and in February made it a serious offence – to be punished with sentences of three to 20 years – for Saudis to go to fight abroad as jihadists. Some 2,500 Saudi jihadists are estimated to be in Syria, some in leadership roles in groups like the al-Qa’i da-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.  

The government is targeting almost all types of political activity by the Muslim Brotherhood which it has declared a terrorist organisation, as well as by Shia activists, liberal reformers and civil rights advocates, in what one activist was quoted as saying was an “undeclared state of emergency”. New decrees define terrorist crimes  as any act that “disturbs public order, shakes the security of society, or subjects its national unity to danger, or obstructs the primary system of rule or harms the reputation of the state”.

Perhaps the most important foundation for the support of Syria’s rebels and preserving the status quo in Saudi Arabia is its close alliance with the US. This has come under strain because of the refusal of the US to launch a military assault to overthrow President Assad last August when he is alleged to have used chemical weapons against his own people in Damascus.

Prince Bandar was particularly vocal in criticising the US administration while the US Secretary of State John Kerry privately expressed anger at Prince Bandar’s support for al-Qa’ida-type groups in Syria.

A two hour meeting between President Obama and King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia on 28 March, the first since 2009, did not warm up relations between the two countries. The Americans and Saudis speak of increasing aid to Syrian rebel groups hostile both to President Assad and to al-Qa’ida, but these movements, in so far as they exist, are very weak.

The US refuses to supply Manpad shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles on the grounds that they might fall into the hands of jihadist fighters.

Some American-made anti-tank missiles have been seen in the hands of rebels in northern and southern Syria in recent days, going by on-line videos. It is unclear if these BGM-71 TOW anti-tank rockets shown in the videos were supplied directly by the US or via a US ally such as Saudi Arabia.

Jihadist rebels have reportedly come into possession of anti-tank weaponry supplied by the United States Jihadist rebels have reportedly come into possession of anti-tank weaponry supplied by the United States

A Syrian rebel activist in south-east Turkey, who identified himself as Samer Muhammad, told Reuters news agency that a small moderate rebel group called Harakat Hazm received 10  anti-tank missiles from the US earlier this month near Aleppo and  Idlib, two cities torn by heavy fighting near the northern border with  Turkey. He said that Harakat Hazm had launched five of those rockets to destroy four tanks and win a battle in the Idlib suburbs of Babulin and Salheiya, and this was the first time American arms had figured in fighting in Syria.

The resignation of Prince Bandar together with the arrival of US-made weapons in Syria for the first time may signal an effort by rebel backers to reorganise the opposition. But it will take more than a few anti-tank rockets – or even anti-craft missiles – to give the divided factions of the opposition superiority in the battle for Syria.

Syrian government forces have recently been wiping out the last rebel strongholds along the border with Lebanon while the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continues to fight an intra-rebel civil war with other factions. 

As if to reinforce that point, it was reported today that Syrian army troops entered rebel-held neighbourhoods of the central city of Homs after laying siege to the districts for nearly two years. Government troops entered areas of the Old City in Homs that had been under rebel control throughout the siege.

“They have entered into one area, Wadi al-Sayeh, which lies between Juret al-Shiyah and the Old City,” said Abu Bilal, an activist trapped inside the blockade, who spoke to AFP news agency.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable