Advertisement

U.S. relies on Saudi money to support rebels in Syria

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in May.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in May.
Published Jan. 24, 2016

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama secretly authorized the CIA to begin arming Syria's embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the CIA has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the New York Times reported Saturday, citing unnamed current and former administration officials said.

Since then, the CIA and its Saudi counterpart have maintained an unusual arrangement for the rebel-training mission, which the Americans have code-named Timber Sycamore, the newspaper reported. Under the deal, current and former administration officials told the paper, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the CIA takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles.

The joint arming and training program, which other Middle East nations contribute money to, continues as America's relations with Saudi Arabia — and the kingdom's place in the region — are in flux. The old ties of cheap oil and geopolitics that have long bound the countries together have loosened as America's dependence on foreign oil declines and the Obama administration tiptoes toward a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran.

Although the Saudis have been public about their help arming rebel groups in Syria, the extent of their partnership with the CIA's covert action campaign and their direct financial support had not been disclosed.

From the moment the CIA operation was started, Saudi money supported it.

"They understand that they have to have us, and we understand that we have to have them," said Mike Rogers, the former Republican congressman from Michigan who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when the CIA operation began. Rogers declined to discuss details of the classified program.

U.S. officials have not disclosed the amount of the Saudi contribution, which is by far the largest from another nation to the program to arm the rebels against President Bashar Assad's military. But estimates have put the total cost of the arming and training effort at several billion dollars.

The White House has embraced the covert financing from Saudi Arabia as well as from Qatar, Jordan and Turkey.

Spokesmen for both the CIA and the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment.