With the Russian-Syrian operations to close off the Turkish border, backers of Syria jihadi rebels are moving to supply them from Lebanon instead.
We yesterday described what looks like a Turkish-Saudi plan to raise a Salafi-Sunni militia in north Lebanon to then attack nearby Syrian regions held by the Syrian government. Such a new front of the conflict in Syria would necessarily involve fighting in Lebanon as the Lebanese Shia Hizbollah movement is actively supporting the Syrian government. The plot would destabilize Lebanon, probably throwing it back into the brutal times of the Lebanese civil war.
There was no confirmation of such a plot yesterday, just several signs for it like the ship with weapons from Turkey that was caught by the Greek coastguard on its way to north Lebanon.
The existence of such a plan was confirmed today. We still can no say for sure that the plot is part of a U.S. “Plan B” to achieve a violent “regime change” in Syria, but we know that the U.S. is informed about the plan.
In his Washington Post column today the unofficial CIA spokesperson David Ignatius writes about the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman:
The young Saudi has sometimes been more bold than wise, as in his war in Yemen, his decision to break diplomatic relations with Iran and his new effort to destabilize a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.
Syria is not mentioned in that part of the Ignatius column but any capable Sunni militia in Lebanon, created from Salafist groups in Tripoli and Syrian Sunni refugees in Lebanese camps, would extend itself into Syria and become a threat to the government held western Syria.
Ignatius, as surely also the U.S. government, was informed by the Saudis themselves. The above quoted paragraph continues:
But his role as a change agent is unmistakable. He “wants to transition Saudi Arabia very quickly,” said Adel al-Toraifi, the Saudi information minister, who’s just 36 himself, in a visit to Washington last week.
My hunch is that this plan is too bold to have grown solely in the minds of the Turkish and Saudi regimes. The U.S. is likely not only informed about it but deeply involved. The possibility of such a plan to counter the recent Syrian and Russian successes on the battlefield was first mentioned in a piece published in early February by the Washington Institute, a think tank founded and funded by the Israel lobby.
Last week Secretary of State Kerry mentioned a “Plan B” should the recent cessation of hostilities in Syria fail:
US Secretary of State John Kerry provoked widespread speculation when he referred in testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee last week to “significant discussions” within US President Barack Obama’s administration about a “Plan B” in Syria. The speculation was further stoked by a “senior official” who told CBS News that options under consideration included “‘military-like’ measures that would make it harder for the regime and its allies to continue their assault on civilians and US-backed rebels.”
A violent Salafi militia from Lebanon storming into Syria would certainly be a “‘military-like’ measures that would make it harder for the regime and its allies”.
The author of the last linked text, Gareth Porter, dismissed the chance of a real “Plan B” but had not yet included the Lebanon plot scenario in his considerations. He continued:
Kerry suggested that the US was still a player in the Syrian contest for power. Regarding Chairman Bob Corker’s comment that the Russians had been “accomplishing their ends” in Syria, he argued that the Russians and the Syrian government could take control of Aleppo, but that “holding territory has always been difficult”. Kerry claimed that the Russians could not prevent the opposition from getting the weapons needed to continue the war, as long as the US and its allies were supporting them. He offered no explanation for that claim.
The Turkish-Saudi weapon smuggling into Lebanon is an explanation for the claim Kerry made. Syria and Russia are in the process of closing off the Syrian-Turkish border. If the Saudis can build a weapon pipeline into north Lebanon it will become quite difficult for Syria and its allies to hold the Syrian territory near the Lebanese border.
In a speech yesterday Hizbullah chief Nasrallah discussed the general Saudi threat to Lebanon at length but did not mention the Sunni militia plot:
“Saudi which treats Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain like that, treats Lebanon the same way,” Sayyed Nasrallah concluded, addressing the Saudis: “Your problem is with us, it is not with the country or with the Lebanese…”
Nasrallah is right, but the Saudis will not care when the Lebanese people or their country get hurt due to some nefarious scheme to attack Syria and Hizbullah. Nor will the United States.
There are obvious signs for a plan to use Saudi controlled Sunni militia from Lebanon against the Syrian government and its supporters. The U.S. is, in my view, very likely involved in this plot. But we still do not know if this plan will ever be implemented. The recent Saudi threat to send its army into Syria turned out to be a pure (dis-)information campaign to unsettle the Syrian government’s side. The recent revelations about the plot in Lebanon and the “Plan B” may also be pure deception and illusionary to gain some leverage for the coming negotiations.
But the ship the Greek coastguard caught was real and such a plan would have a good chance to create lots of troubles for Syria and its supporters. My advice to the Syrian government and its allies is to prepare now to eventually counter it.