A Sunni Rapid Response Force Available to Muslim Regimes
For the second time in its short history, the Saudi royal house is raising an army of several thousand young Muslims dedicated to the Saudi brand of Sunni Islam for beating back alien and competing influences and interlopers.
Whereas in 1985, Saudi Arabia worked hand in hand with the American Central Intelligence Agency, this time Riyadh is acting on its own for an enterprise frankly designed to frustrate and delimit the pro-democracy uprisings the Obama administration is espousing in the Muslim world, the Middle East and North Africa.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the leading Muslim financial powerhouse rated no mention in the Middle East vision US President Barack Obama unveiled May 19. The president only disparaged (nameless) military intervention in Bahrain. Riyadh too left the implied aspersion without comment.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and counter-terror sources point to the striking differences between the Muslim jihadi force the Saudis enlisted in the 1980s and the fighting force they are mustering in 2011, symptoms of the striking changes which have since overtaken the strategic thinking and actions of the most conservative of Arab regimes and the radical somersault in Saudi-US relations.
In 1985, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz bin Saud placed his director of intelligence, Prince Turki bin Faisal bin Saud and a bright young Saudi talent, an engineer called Osama bin Laden, in charge of raising a new force for vanquishing the Red Army and ending its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. CIA Director William Joseph Casey provided with a $1 billion war chest led the American side of the enterprise.
Prince Bandar builds Muslim Army No. 2 as the architect of No. 1 is terminated
Then, the US and Saudi Arabia were as one for a common cause. But already, Riyadh was entertaining the notion of developing a Sunni army able not just to contain Soviet expansion but also to eventually confront the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran and its aspiration to export Shiite revolution beyond its borders and offset Iran’s first offshoot, the Lebanese Hizballah.
In the meantime, Osama bin Laden’s early start in the service of the United States and Saudi Arabia evolved into a terrorist organization dedicated to destroying both – al Qaeda.
A cynical quirk of history led the CIA and US Seals commandos to terminate the architect of Muslim Army No. 1 at a villa in Pakistan at the very moment that the Saudi impetus for establishing Muslim Army No. 2 was in full flight.
The architect of the new enterprise is Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, head of the Saudi National Security Council, whom King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has entrusted (as we reported in previous DEBKA-Net-Weekly issues) with managing the kingdom’s current military, political and intelligence strategy in the face of the seven-month old Arab Revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
His duties are extensive and varied and take him as far as South Asia and the Far East.
Thursday, May 26, Prince Bandar embarked on his second visit in three months to China, Pakistan and the Muslim nations of Asia and Central Asia.
Recruiting in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, training in Central Asia
During his first visit to Beijing on March 18, he brought with him a two-part proposition: Saudi Arabia and China would sign a military pact making Beijing the oil kingdom’s primary arms provider. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 489 of April 14: Saudis Buy Advanced Nuclear-Capable Missiles in China)
As relations evolved, Saudi Arabia would grant China a naval base or bases in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea in lieu of partial payment for its arms purchases.
The Saudi prince’s tour also took him to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia (from whose universities the original US-Saudi Muslim army raised its recruits). There, he whipped out draft contracts for military collaboration for establishing the units of a Saudi-funded rapid response force.
As outlined by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the deal called for the Islamabad, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur governments to hold these special forces on call for intervention in any part of the Arab and Muslim world which Riyadh deemed at risk after consulting with those governments.
According to intelligence estimates, this mixed bag force would number 5,000 men under arms in the first stage – structured very much on the lines of the original Muslim army of the 1980s.
Recruitment centers would be established in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, while the new volunteers would receive military training at facilities the Saudis plan to erect in the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan.
A fully mobile, trained Muslim rapid response force
Pakistan and Jordan have undertaken to run in the training centers and provide instructors. Riyadh has still to persuade Beijing to send weapons instructors, a step that would expand China’s military presence in Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East and move a key block onto the big powers’ regional game board.
Bandar and his team calculate that if the combined effort moves forward as planned, it will take two to three years to muster 10-15,000 combatants; the Saudi-led multinational Muslim legion will be ready to go in 2014 at latest.
Their plan provides for the graduates of the special courses to remain at their training facilities with three tasks:
To provide assistance to local forces called on to shield their governments against Arab Revolt-style uprisings;
To combat Iranian incursions in the three republics. They will be taught tactics for repulsing the intruders and covert cells planted in those countries by the al Qods Brigades, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ external terror and intelligence arm.
They will be on call at all times for the rapid transfer at short notice to other countries on orders from Saudi or its treaty co-signatories. Air transports chartered by Riyadh will carry them to threatened locations.
For its airlifts Riyadh routinely charters the Soviet-made air transports readily available in Central Asian republics.
Saudis go forward with Muslim legion after taking stock
Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies in the Persian Gulf are therefore providing themselves with a standing, highly mobile, paramilitary force to be at their disposal on short notice for dealing with crises in their countries and aiding any Muslim centers in trouble.
Our military experts note that the conception and organization of the new Muslim legion are clearly the products of a close Saudi study of the revolts threatening other Arab regimes. They have evaluated the outcome of Saudi intervention in the unrest and closely analyzed Iran’s thrusts for footholds in the Bahraini, Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian arenas.
The next article sums up Saudi Arabia’s military and clandestine activities thus far in ten Arab and Muslim countries.
More than any other Arab or Muslim nation, Saudi Arabia is getting involved – whether militarily, politically or in undercover operations – in 10 Arab and Muslim countries – 11, if the Palestinians are counted in.
Never in the House of Saud’s 70-year reign have its military and foreign policies been so assertive or its goals so clearly-defined. They are:
1. To buttress its rule solidly enough to defy any Muslim or Arab threat;
2. To provide crowned Arab heads and conservative rulers with a cure against the Arab Revolt’s spillover into their countries.
Riyadh is resolved to fight with all its strength to save all and every friendly regime and ruler from sharing the fate of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak.
Had a rapid response force, like the international Muslim legion the Saudis are now building (see first item in this issue) in cooperation with Asian Muslim governments, been deployed in Cairo last February, Riyadh believes Mubarak could have been saved;
3. At all costs, Saudi Arabia is determined to block Shiite Iran’s expansion into Arab-Muslim countries – even if a military attack outside the kingdom is called for. The new Sunni Muslim legion is being carefully tailored for this role. Riyadh is equally determined to halt Iran’s advance toward a nuclear bomb even at the price of a full-blown Saudi-Iran war.
Second-generation royals bent on thwarting Obama’s policies
It is obvious from the second two goals that the Saudi throne has planted itself on a course of collision with US President Barack Obama and resistance to his administration’s support for the anti-regime protest movements in Arab countries and the Middle East at large, as our sources have been reporting since last February.
The second-generation Saudi royals running the show today on behalf of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz are not anti-American per se – especially, despite appearances, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the Saudi National Security Council, who manages the kingdom’s current military, political and intelligence strategy in the face of the seven-month old Arab Revolt.
For more than two decades, Bandar served as a friendly and popular Saudi ambassador to the United States and he still has friends in Washington. However, the next-generation members of all the main Saudi royal clans and branches are united with the king in a consensus that the time has come to break with the long tradition of strategic and military dependence on America and forge an independent path in keeping with Saudi Arabia’s national objectives and interests. Now, especially, Saudi rulers see danger in the Obama White House’s promotion of the Arab Spring for overturning the status quo in favor of democratic reform and, still more, in US advances to the oil kingdom’s arch enemy Iran for engagement in diplomacy.
These US policies have finally brought the Saudis out of their isolationist shells for a proactive display, which many find surprising, to thwart the dangers they see lurking against the kingdom, regardless of whether they do or don’t emanate from Washington’s policies.
This tectonic switch in allegiances is far less dramatic than the uprisings against Arab autocracies – but holds no less significance.
Bandar preaches non-reliance on Washington in Muslim capitals
Until recently, administration officials handled this hot potato gingerly, careful not to confirm the crisis with Riyadh in so many words: “… the United States and Saudi Arabia are certain to maintain their basic understandings and arrangements,” was a typical statement, or “We believe that the Saudi will not go so far…”
However, this week, Washington was jerked into admitting that matters had gone too far to gloss over: The Wall Street Journal quoted Prince Bandar as “warning…Pakistani military officials that the US could not be counted on to restore stability in the Middle East or protect Pakistan’s interests in South Asia.”
The background to the WSJ quote is instructive, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources note.
The Saudi prince made the comment in Islamabad shortly before the arrival Friday, May 27 of Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to smooth over the crisis in US-Pakistani relations. Washington had just discovered that its diplomatic efforts to ease tensions with Riyadh had been countered by Bandar going around Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian and Central Asian capitals warning their leaders to beware of relying on the US.
The Saudi prince was also passing the same warning to Muslim or Arab political, religious and military leaders.
Rather than brushing US-Saudi differences under the carpet, Bandar was flaunting them, while also disparaging Obama administration policies on every possible occasion, a hurdle which US diplomats are finding it hard to overcome when promoting those policies.
First signs of Washington opening up to Saudis
Egypt is the most prominent US-Saudi wrestling arena.
Until very recently, the US and Saudi Arabia clashed head-on over post-Mubarak Egypt.
Washington worked hard to make sure the Supreme Military Council honored their pledge of elections in September as proof that the democratic process resulting from the regime’s overthrow was safely on track.
US strategists refused to see the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood were secretly in league for the latter to come out on top of the poll – either as leading contender for government or at least kingmaker.
Riyadh pulled in the opposite direction to get the elections postponed and defeat the Muslim Brotherhood’s drive for power.
Riyadh feared to see this radical group ruling the biggest Arab country and, still more, one that would most likely open Egypt to Iranian influence and place it on the radical pro-Iranian Middle East bandwagon alongside Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas.
To break up the pact between the generals and the Brothers, the Saudis made the Supreme Military Council in Cairo lavish offers of financial assistance for restarting the wheels of the stalled Egyptian economy and maintaining the army in place of US military aid.
But this week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources discovered the first sign of the administration ready to retool its policy in Egypt and possibly open up to some sort of accommodation with Riyadh.
Assad’s survival is first Saudi fiasco
Iraq is another arena of competing US- Saudi interests:
The Saudis have gone back to their bid to unseat the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they regard as an Iranian stooge, and replace him with the pro-Saudi former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi.
Sudan. There, the Saudis have been egging President Umar al-Bashir on to make a grab for the oil-rich Abyei province. This week, the Sudanese army threatened to attack any Southern Sudanese troops found in the northern border states of southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Riyadh is arming and funding Bashir’s army for three reasons:
- The Sudanese president has severed his military and intelligence ties with Iran and entered into similar ties with Saudi Arabia;
- Riyadh is loath to see a new oil republic with a largely Christian population rising in July as a result of the referendum which gave the South independence;
- Dominant influence in Khartoum will give Saudi Arabia a chokehold on the Nile headwaters before the great river flows north into Egypt. This would be a strong card for determining the outcome of the contest in Cairo.
Syria. Here, the Saudis have run into their first important fiasco.
Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to be coming out as the victor of his brutal showdown with popular protesters. (See debkafile story of June 31and an item in this issue on the regional connotations of this victory)
Jordanian army as provisional rapid response force
Prince Bandar personally commanded the covert operation for boosting the Syrian opposition and providing it with arms and funding. Assad’s overthrow would have knocked a vital component out of the Iranian-led axis, cut short its drive for dominance in Damascus and Beirut and diminished Hizballah and Hamas.
Riyadh blames the Obama administration for its Syrian setback, accusing Washington of soft-pedaling the pressure for Bashar Assad to step down and reducing it to harmless verbal condemnation and painless sanctions for the sake of preserving an open window of engagement with Tehran.
Because Washington held back, the Syrian middle class stood aside and let the protesters sink.
Nothing of the kind, say US sources. The Saudis are too hasty. The Obama administration has not finished with Bashar Assad. It believes that the stronger personal sanctions against him now in the pipeline will finally bring the Syrian middle class out on the streets.
Still, the Saudis are sure the Americans have missed the train.
Jordan. Riyadh has assigned the small Jordanian army (120,000 conscripts plus 60,000 reservists) and its intelligence agencies a prime role in the rising international Muslim legion. Until the new force is up and running – some time between 2012 and 2014 – Jordan is provisionally shouldering its rapid response functions. That was why the Saudis were in such a hurry to bring the Hashemite Kingdom into the GCC as a member with full privileges including a Saudi military shield against attack.
Without waiting for Jordanian membership to be formalized, the Saudis opened their borders for the first time in their history to the passage of Jordanian armored and mechanized infantry units on their way to Bahrain to join the Saudi-led GCC effort to prop up the island-republic’s throne.
Pakistan slides towards embracing Saudi plan
Yemen. For two months, Riyadh backed the beleaguered Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the face of a major revolt against his regime and American pressure for him to step down. Suddenly, this month, the Saudis changed course. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 494 of May 27: Saudis Have Big Plans for a Divided Yemen)
Saleh became superfluous to the new Saudi plan for a new republic to rise in southern Yemen with control of the country’s oil and the highly-strategic Red Sea approaches. As far as Riyadh is concerned, northern Yemen can sink into interminable civil warfare. This week, the violence took a heavy toll.
Here, too, Saudi Arabia struck out against a Washington’s objective, which is to quell strife in Yemen lest it open the door to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP seizing the advantage.
Pakistan. The Saudi master plan would integrate the armies of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Jordan in the future Muslim rapid response force. It would be bolstered by Riyadh’s financial might and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The outcome, Riyadh believes, would be a modern military machine so mighty that no Middle East armed forces, including Iran’s, could hope to contest it now or in the future.
Prince Bandar accordingly brought Islamabad a similar proposition to the one relayed to the military rulers of Egypt: As the US-Pakistani alliance fades, Riyadh will make up for every aid dollar withheld by the United States as well as providing generous military assistance.
According to our intelligence sources, Pakistan’s rulers appear inclined to accept the Saudi proposals.
This acceptance would bear heavily on the chances of the quiet negotiations in train with the Taliban reaching agreement for ending the Afghan War. Pakistan’s change of strategic partners would also impinge on America’s standing in southwest Asia.