DEBKAfile – March 28, 2013
Syrian rebels fighting for control of the Syria’s biggest town, Aleppo, have obtained their first heavy weapons – 220-mm MLRS rocket launchers – through a large-scale supply operation run by Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, according to debkafile’s exclusive intelligence sources.
His agents scoured the Balkans nations of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo and for large wads of cash snapped up Russian-made MLRS (Smerch) and Hurricane 9K57 launchers capable of firing scores of 220-mm rockets to a distance of 70 kilometers.
The Saudis hope to expedite the rebel capture of the big Syrian Nairab air base attached to Aleppo’s international air port. The Saudi prince has personally taken the Nairab battle under his wing, convinced that it is the key to the conquest of Aleppo, once Syria’s national commercial and population center, after more than a year’s impasse in the battle for its control.
The fall of this air base would also substantially reduce the big Iranian and Russian airlifts to Assad’s army.
Russia brings down its cargo planes loaded with weapons and replacement parts for the Syrian army at Nairab after the air facilities around Damascus were targeted by rebel fire. Moscow has since warned the rebels that if they attack incoming or outgoing Russian planes at Nairab, Russian special forces will come in to wipe out their strength around the base and take over its protection themselves.
Of late, Russian and Iranian arms lifts to Nairab were doubled, after rebels seized many Alawite villages in the Aleppo and Idlib regions of northern Syria.
Members of Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, their inhabitants, mainly women and children, have been fleeing en masse from their homes in fear of rebel retribution. They are making for the coastal towns of Tartus and Latakia which are still under regime control.
The question is for how long. In the third week of March, Russian warships stopped docking at the naval port of Tartus after finding its piers and facilities crowded with Alawite refugees who came up to the Russian seamen begging for food, water and medical aid.
From March 21, Russian warships on the Mediterranean were ordered to avoid Tartus and relocate their visits to Lebanon’s Beirut port.
The Saudi operation for shipping heavy rocket launchers from the Balkans to Aleppo is complicated.
The rockets are fixed to vehicles weighing 43.7 tons each. The rockets themselves are 7.6 meters long and weigh 800 kilograms.
To arrange the transfer of this heavy artillery to the rebels in Aleppo, Prince Bandar contacted Hakan Fidan, head of the MIT-Turkish National Intelligence Organization. They agreed to set up an overland route from the Balkans via Turkey and across the Syrian border to Aleppo, under the protection of the Turkish army.
Our sources report that Ankara’s initial refusal of cooperation was overcome with a sharp reminder by Prince Bandar of the scale of Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia and the damage to the Turkish economy of their potential suspension.
The news that Saudi Arabia was supplying Syrian rebels with heavy weapons stunned the Arab League summit taking place in Doha, Qatar this week, bringing it to a clamorous end, debkafile’s intelligence and Middle East sources reveal.
Saudi and Qatari delegates were heard hurling shrill abuse at one another and exchanging blows in private meeting rooms down the corridors of the assembly hall. The conference proceedings were abruptly halted as Arab delegation members pitched in to separate them. A total blackout was quickly drawn down on the summit as it broke up in disarray.
The Saudi royal rulers and Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani have been at extreme loggerheads over the Syrian civil conflict. Riyadh – and Prince Bandar in particular – accuses the Qataris of conspiring to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Damascus, including radical groups tied to Al Qaeda.
Qatari Prime Minister and Secret Service Chief Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem has shot back with the charge that Saudi Arabia is maneuvering for control of the Syrian rebel movement.
The Saudis condemn Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s close ties with Qatar’s ruling family which they say eggs on Doha’s schemes for Syria.
For this reason, too, Bandar insisted on Turkey taking active part in facilitating the Balkan heavy arms route to Aleppo.