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Saudis Seek to Funnel Arms to Syria Rebels (WSJ) WALL STREET JOURNAL) By MARIA ABI-HABIB 03/30/12)Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304177104577311572820862442.html WALL STREET JOURNAL WALL STREET JOURNAL Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Gulf Kingdom Is Pressing Jordan for a Route to Border, Officials Say; Iraq Warns of ´Regional and Global Proxy Wars´

Saudi Arabia has pressed Jordan to open its border with Syria to allow weapons to reach rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad´s regime, officials from both countries say, a move that could buoy Syria´s opposition and harden the conflict in the country and across the region.

In a March 12 meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia´s King Abdullah asked his Jordanian counterpart to permit weapons shipments into Syria in exchange for economic assistance to Jordan, these officials say. Jordan hasn´t yet agreed, they said.

The U.S. has opposed furnishing arms to the rebels, fearing that weapons could end up in the hands of al Qaeda or other extremist groups. But late Thursday, a top U.S. defense official suggested such a policy could potentially shift. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military´s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Syrian opposition appeared to be taking steps to unite as a group, a development he said could help clear the way for international aid including arms.

Such international support, he said, may hinge on assurances from a "coherent, credible" opposition that it would form an inclusive government and not fan sectarian flames. But some fear arming the opposition could escalate prospects for a broader regional conflict. Syria´s fighting has already added to the rancor between Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies, who support the country´s largely Sunni opposition, and Shiite Iran, whose government backs Mr. Assad.

Saudi Arabia has argued strongly for weapons supplies to Syrian rebels despite U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was traveling Thursday to Saudi Arabia to meet with the king and other senior Saudi officials, was expected to raise any Saudi plans to arm the Syrian rebels, U.S. officials said. The officials said the Obama administration remains opposed to introducing more arms into the conflict.

Gen. Dempsey´s comments suggested the rebels could change that. "They´ve been listening to what we´ve been saying—not only us but the international community—that there has to be some coherence to their effort," he told reporters with him aboard a military aircraft after a four-day trip to Latin America. But he said he wasn´t currently recommending that the rebels have come far enough to support giving them weapons.

The Saudi request to Jordan adds to sentiment that Arab leaders have hit the wall in their efforts to resolve Syria´s impasse diplomatically. Top officials from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations were notably absent from Thursday´s Arab League summit in Baghdad, where leaders called on Damascus to adopt a United Nations plan to stop fighting and begin political dialogue. The plan doesn´t call for Mr. Assad to step aside, as the Arab nations had sought. Mr. Assad said Thursday he would support the U.N. plan, but only once foreign countries stopped aiding rebels.

Many Middle East officials view Saudi Arabia´s arming of Afghan jihadis in the 1980s, through official and unofficial channels, as a prime contributor to the Afghan civil war and the rise of violent Islamic jihad. That has led to worries in many countries over the prospect of Saudi Arabia arming Syrian rebels now.

In Baghdad, Iraq´s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that arming the Syrian opposition could invite a repeat of the insurgency and sectarian strife that consumed Iraq for years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. "It will lead to regional and global proxy wars in the Syrian arena," he said.

Jordanian officials said they are unlikely to resist Saudi pressure for long. "We are a non-interventionist country. But if it becomes force majeure, you have to join—this is the story of Jordan," said a top Jordanian official.

An arrangement between Saudi Arabia and Jordan, even if informal, would mark the first attempt to send in large quantities of weapons to Syria´s rebels. Limited, individual smuggling efforts have so far supplied Assad opponents with light arms, say rebels and locals near the Syrian borders with Lebanon and Iraq.

Rebel fighters fleeing escalating regime attacks on anti-Assad strongholds, including Idlib and the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, have said they are running out of ammunition, arms and supplies of medicine and other aid. They have said that the Syrian government has blocked traditional smuggling routes.

The officials didn´t say what sort of arms Saudi Arabia would propose sending.

The United States has long been Saudi Arabia´s leading weapons supplier, and the kingdom has high-end U.S. weaponry such as F-15 fighter jets, Patriot air-defense systems and Abrams main battle tanks. Such weapons are unlikely to end up in the hands of Syrian rebels; even smaller U.S.-made weapons, such as anti-tank missiles, are typically covered by strict terms that prevent re-export. Saudi Arabia´s arsenal also includes rocket and missile systems, grenades and field artillery.

Syria´s government—led by Alawites, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam—has been at odds with the Sunni kingdom for a decade. Saudi leaders believe Mr. Assad is repressing his majority Sunni population.

During last month´s Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia, which brought together opposition supporters including Saudi Arabia and the U.S., Saudi´s Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal said arming the rebels was "an excellent idea."

Jordanian officials point to Iraq as a precedent, saying they would expect to support the rebels at the last minute, when sentiment to arm them peaks.

Jordan at first denounced the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq but later aided the war effort, despite the lucrative oil deals it held with Iraq. "We have to have both feet on the ground. Do you think we could have turned the tide against the U.S. [Iraq] invasion? Why would Syria be different?" another Jordanian official said.

Jordan bought Iraqi oil at well below market values for over a decade before 2003, receiving much of it free in exchange for keeping diplomatic relations strong. Now, Jordan is incurring big budget losses as it buys increasingly expensive oil that it subsidizes at home. These expenditures are contributing to a budget deficit that by international estimates will run 7.5 percent to 10 percent of gross domestic product this year.

Jordan remains nervous about arming the rebels, worried that a larger conflict in Syria could engulf the region. Adding to these concerns are beliefs by several governments that extremist groups such as al Qaeda are now actively fighting against Mr. Assad´s government, and that they may have been behind bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria´s two largest cities. In 2005, Amman was hit by three bombings in one day, seen as retaliation for its support to the U.S. in the Iraq war.

"You have to be very careful who you arm and don´t arm. We don´t quite know who this opposition is," said a third Jordanian official.

The Syrian crisis is already affecting Jordan´s economy. Before the conflict, about 70% of Jordan´s imports and about 25% of its exports were routed through Syria, according to the country´s Transport Ministry, which didn´t provide dollar figures. Now those imports and exports have fallen to virtually zero, the ministry says.

To help alleviate economic woes, the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have pumped billions of dollars into Jordan´s coffers. Saudi Arabia alone gave nearly $1.5 billion in grants to help Jordan manage its deficit last year, while the U.S. government says it earmarked $660 million in assistance to Jordan in 2012.

Jordan, which abuts Saudi Arabia and shares a border of nearly 250 miles with Syria, would be the most direct conduit for Saudi arms to the rebels.

Lebanon and Iraq also border Syria, but influential blocs of these countries´ governments are sympathetic to Mr. Assad. Turkey supports Syria´s opposition, but any Saudi arms delivered through Turkey would have to cross land, seas or airspace of countries that support Mr. Assad´s government.

Jordan may argue it needs additional aid to help it support the influx of Syrians since the bloodshed began a year ago. More than 90,000 Syrians have crossed into Jordan since then, the government says, more than to any other country. More than 6,000 Syrians have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to receive aid, while the rest live in cramped apartments, with several families sharing a few rooms.

Earlier this month, according to refugees and a Jordanian border police officer, a pregnant Syrian woman was fleeing across the rolling green hills of the border with her husband and eight-year-old son when Syrian snipers fired on the family.

The officer said he opened fire on the snipers to provide cover for the family. "This was for humanity. It came from the heart, not orders from above," the officer said.

The officer said he took the family to the hospital. Some refugees staying in homes near the border say she died during labor.

Several of these refugees said the Jordanian border police have helped them return to Syria with medical supplies, informing them when Syrian snipers are stationed in their towers or when troops are on patrol.

The government of Jordan—which, like Syria´s opposition, is largely Sunni—hasn´t cracked down on such actions.

"You´ll see it´s quiet now," the police officer said, gesturing to the open field dotted with dandelions and Syrian guard towers. "But they´ll start running over the border once its dark."

—Adam Entous, Summer Said, Suha Ma´ayeh, Nour Malas, Nathan Hodge and Jay Solomon contributed to this article. (Copyright © Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) 03/30/12)

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