They believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver what the CIA couldn't: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout.
Prince Bandar—for two decades one of the most influential deal makers in Washington as Saudi ambassador but who had largely disappeared from public view—is now reprising his role as a geopolitical operator. This time it is to advance the Saudi kingdom's top foreign-policy goal, defeating Syrian President Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.
Prince Bandar has been jetting from covert command centers near the Syrian front lines to the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime, according to Arab, American and European officials.
Meanwhile, an influential protégé, current Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir, is leading a parallel campaign to coax Congress and a reluctant Obama administration to expand the U.S. role in Syria.
The conflict there has become a proxy war for Middle East factions, and Saudi Arabia's efforts in Syria are just one sign of its broader effort to expand its regional influence. The Saudis also have been outspoken supporters of the Egyptian military in its drive to squelch the Muslim Brotherhood, backing that up with big chunks of cash.
The Saudi lobbying is part of the calculus as the U.S. weighs its options in the wake of a suspected chemical attack last week. Damascus suburbs allegedly targeted are at the heart of what the Saudis now call their "southern strategy" for strengthening rebels in towns east and south of the capital.
As part of that, intelligence agents from Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Jordan and other allied states are working at a secret joint operations center in Jordan to train and arm handpicked Syrian rebels, according to current and former U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.
The CIA has put unspecified limits on its arming efforts. But the agency has been helping train rebels to better fight. Earlier this year it also began making salary payments to members of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, U.S. and Arab officials said. There are now more CIA personnel at the Jordan base than Saudi personnel, according to Arab diplomats.
Jordan denied any training or arming of Syrian rebels was taking place in the country, something Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad Momani said would be contrary to Jordan's national interest and policy "to remain neutral" on Syria.
"There are no military bases in Jordan for the Syrian opposition…There are no bases of any sort. This is inconsistent with the Jordanian position that calls for a political solution to the Syrian crisis," Mr. Momani said. He added that Jordanian King Abdullah has said firmly "Jordan will never be a base of training to anyone and will never be the launching base of any military action against Syria."
For decades, wasta has been Prince Bandar's calling card. The prince also wins U.S. officials' trust in part because his background is, in its own way, so American. Though his father was a Saudi crown prince, his mother was a commoner, and he rose through the crowded royal ranks by force of will.
He attended U.S. Air Force officer training in Alabama, did graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University and worked his way into the good graces of several U.S. presidents. He has painted his personal airplane in Dallas Cowboy colors, and his son attended the pro-football draft this year at the table of owner Jerry Jones. Prince Bandar declined to be interviewed for this article.
Not everyone in the Obama administration is comfortable with the new U.S. partnership with the Saudis on Syria. Some officials said they fear it carries the same risk of spinning out of control as an earlier project in which Prince Bandar was involved—the 1980s CIA program of secretly financing the Contras in Nicaragua against a leftist government. The covert program led to criminal convictions for U.S. operatives and international rebukes.
"This has the potential to go badly," one former official said, citing the risk weapons will end up in the hands of violent anti-Western Islamists.
Many top U.S. intelligence analysts also think the Syrian rebels are hopelessly outgunned by Assad allies Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, according to congressional officials and diplomats.
Prince Bandar and Mr. Jubeir have told the U.S. they don't necessarily expect a victory by the Syrian rebels anytime soon, but they want to gradually tilt the battlefield in their favor, according to American officials who have met with them.
The Saudi plan is to steadily strengthen carefully selected groups of rebel fighters not in the radical Islamist camp, with the goal of someday seeing them in control in Damascus. Difficult as such an effort is proving to be, the Saudi thinking goes, not trying would risk a future in which Syria was dominated either by extremist Muslims from among the rebels or by Iran, Riyadh's arch rival in the quest for regional dominance.
In Jordan, officials said they couldn't yet tell whether the joint operation has reaped success in sifting moderate Syrian rebels from the extremists. Some said they couldn't rule out the possibility some Saudi funds and arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar. U.S. officials said they couldn't rule out that mistakes would be made.
Saudi King Abdullah, whose mother and two of whose wives hail from a cross-border tribe influential in Syria, tried for a decade to woo Mr. Assad away from Iran's sway. He failed. The king's attitude hardened in 2011 after the Assad regime, rebuffing the king's personal advice on how to ease tension, cracked down brutally on political opponents and did so during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The king then decided to do whatever was needed to bring down Mr. Assad, American and Arab diplomats said.
Qatar also wanted the autocratic Assad regime out. While the Saudi princes initially were divided about how to proceed, some worrying that armed insurgents in Syria could later threaten Saudi stability, Qatar intervened quickly and gained influence with the rebels, according to Arab and American officials.
The Saudis stepped up rebel support in early 2012, at first by joining forces with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to fund what was then the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council. Saudi Arabia quickly soured on the effort because the Council wasn't buying arms with the money, diplomats said, and began to push for directly arming the insurgents. It also began to work with Qatar through a command center in Turkey to buy and distribute arms.
But tensions grew over which rebels to supply. Both Saudi and American officials worried Qatar and Turkey were directing weapons to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Qatari and Turkish officials denied they favored certain rebel groups.
The Saudi king also was uncomfortable at sharing control with Qatar, a Persian Gulf rival. At a meeting to coordinate arms shipments last summer, Prince Bandar took a swipe at Qatar, a tiny nation with one of the region's largest broadcasters.
Qatar is "nothing but 300 people…and a TV channel," the Saudi prince yelled into a phone, according to a person familiar with the exchange. "That doesn't make a country." Saudi officials declined to comment on the exchange.
It marked the start of a new, more aggressive drive by Prince Bandar, and a Saudi shift to operate out of Jordan instead of Turkey. In July 2012, the Saudi king—his uncle—doubled the prince's duties; already head of the national-security office, Prince Bandar took over the Saudi General Intelligence Agency as well.
"His appointment to head intelligence marked a new phase in Saudi politics," said Nohad Machnouk, a Lebanese legislator with close ties to the Saudi leadership.
Some critics of Prince Bandar within the kingdom and in Washington described him as inclined to be impulsive and overoptimistic about what he can achieve. Defenders said his enthusiasm and drive were what made him the king's go-to problem solver.
The Saudi ambassador, Mr. Jubeir, has long been courting members of Congress who could pressure the administration to get more involved in Syria. He found early support from Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
He also reached out to centrists, helping set up a rare one-on-one meeting for one of them, then-Sen. Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), with King Abdullah in Riyadh. Mr. Nelson said he told the king that if regional powers pulled together with a common strategy, it would be easier for the U.S. to become a partner.
Mr. Jubeir used his access to policy makers, including the president, to push the message that U.S. inaction would lead to greater Middle East instability down the road, American officials said.
A senior U.S. intelligence official called the Saudis "indispensable partners on Syria" and said their efforts influenced American thinking. "No one wants to do anything alone," the official said in explaining why the partnership expanded.
The Saudi goal was to get the U.S. to back a program to arm and train rebels out of a planned base in Jordan. Then-CIA chief David Petraeus was an early backer of the idea, said Arab and U.S. officials, and helped clinch Jordanian military support for the base. Gen. Petraeus declined to comment.
Prince Bandar met with the uneasy Jordanians about such a base. His meetings in Amman with Jordan's King Abdullah sometimes ran to eight hours in a single sitting. "The king would joke: 'Oh, Bandar's coming again? Let's clear two days for the meeting,' " said a person familiar with the meetings.
Jordan's financial dependence on Saudi Arabia gave the Saudis strong leverage, officials in the region and the U.S. said. They said that with the blessing of the Jordanian king, an operations center in Jordan started going online in the summer of 2012, including an airstrip and warehouses for arms. Saudi-procured AK-47s and ammunition then started arriving, Arab officials said.
Prince Bandar sent his younger half-brother and then-deputy national-security adviser, Salman bin Sultan, to oversee the operation in Jordan. Some regional officials took to calling him "mini-Bandar." Earlier this summer, Prince Salman was elevated to deputy defense minister.
Mr. Petraeus in mid-2012 won White House approval to provide intelligence and limited training to Syrian rebels at the base, including in the use of arms provided by others. Saudi and Jordanian agents began vetting the fighters to be trained, said Arab diplomats and a former U.S. military official.
Prince Bandar has largely stayed out of Washington but held meetings with U.S. officials in the region. One was in September 2012. Sens. McCain and Graham, who were in Istanbul, met him in an opulent hotel suite on the banks of the Bosporus.
Mr. McCain said he made the case to Prince Bandar that the rebels weren't getting the kinds of weapons they needed, and the prince, in turn, described the kingdom's plans. The senator said that in succeeding months he saw "a dramatic increase in Saudi involvement, hands-on, by Bandar."
In September and October, the Saudis approached Croatia to procure more Soviet-era weapons. The Saudis got started distributing these in December and soon saw momentum shift toward the rebels in some areas, said U.S. officials, Arab diplomats and U.S. lawmakers briefed on the operation. Officials in Croatia denied it was involved in weapons sales.
That winter, the Saudis also started trying to convince Western governments that Mr. Assad had crossed what President Barack Obama a year ago called a "red line": the use of chemical weapons. Arab diplomats say Saudi agents flew an injured Syrian to Britain, where tests showed sarin gas exposure. Prince Bandar's spy service, which concluded in February that Mr. Assad was using chemical weapons, relayed evidence to the U.S., which reached a similar conclusion four months later. The Assad regime denies using such weapons.
After Mr. Petraeus's November resignation over an affair, his job was handled by his deputy, Michael Morell, who privately voiced skepticism the agency could make sure any arms supplied by the U.S. wouldn't end up with hard-line Islamists, said congressional officials.
Ultimately, the new CIA chief was John Brennan, whose closest Saudi confidant when he was White House counterterrorism adviser was also focused on the risk of inadvertently strengthening al Qaeda. Since moving to the CIA, Mr. Brennan has been in periodic contact by phone with Prince Bandar, officials said.
Despite its caution, the CIA expanded its role at the base in Jordan early this year. At that point, though, the U.S. still wasn't sending weapons.
In early April, said U.S. officials, the Saudi king sent a strongly worded message to Mr. Obama: America's credibility was on the line if it let Mr. Assad and Iran prevail. The king warned of dire consequences of abdicating U.S. leadership and creating a vacuum, said U.S. officials briefed on the message.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who was the first Saudi official to publicly back arming the rebels, followed with a similar message during a meeting with Mr. Obama later that month, the officials said.
By late spring, U.S. intelligence agencies saw worrisome signs that Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, in response to the influx of Saudi arms, were ramping up support to Mr. Assad. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed arming the rebels, and Mr. Jubeir and Prince Bandar turned their attention to skeptics on the House and Senate intelligence committees.
They arranged a trip for committee leaders to Riyadh, where Prince Bandar laid out the Saudi strategy. It was a reunion of sorts, officials said, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) warmly scolding Prince Bandar about his smoking.
Mr. Obama in June authorized the CIA to provide arms at the Jordanian base, in limited quantity and firepower, on the understanding the U.S. could reverse course if there weren't sufficient controls on who got them, congressional officials said.
Prince Bandar flew to Paris soon after for talks with French officials. In July he was in Moscow to meet with one of Mr. Assad's prime supporters, President Vladimir Putin.
A generation ago, Prince Bandar, in a role foreshadowing his current one on behalf of Syrian opposition, helped the CIA arm the Afghan rebels who were resisting occupation by Soviet troops.
Arab diplomats said that in meeting with Russian officials this summer, the prince delivered the same message he gave the Soviets 25 years ago: that the kingdom had plenty of money and was committed to using it to prevail.
This past weekend, as the White House weighed possible military attacks against Mr. Assad, Saudi Arabia and its allies pressed Mr. Obama to take forceful action in response to the chemical-weapons reports, according to a U.S. official. The Arab message, according to another official, was: "You can't as president draw a line and then not respect it."
—Siobhan Gorman, Julian E. Barnes and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this article.
Original article on WSJ