Saudis' big deal for anti-tank missiles may be meant to help Syrian rebels
Analysts suggest Saudis' huge order for US anti-tank missiles may allow it to send its existing stockpile of such weapons to anti-Assad rebels
No one is expecting a tank invasion of Saudi Arabia anytime soon, but the kingdom just put in a huge order for US-made anti-tank missiles that has Saudi-watchers scratching their heads and wondering whether the deal is related to Riyadh's support for the Syrian rebels.
The proposed weapons deal, which the Pentagon notified Congress of in early December, would provide Riyadh with more than 15,000 Raytheon anti-tank missiles at a cost of over US$1 billion. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance report, Saudi Arabia's total stockpile this year amounted to slightly more than 4,000 anti-tank missiles. In the past decade, the Pentagon has notified Congress of only one other sale of anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia - a 2009 deal that shipped roughly 5,000 missiles to the kingdom.
"It's a very large number of missiles, including the most advanced version of the TOWs [tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles]," said Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The problem is: what's the threat?"
A military engagement with Iran, the most immediate potential threat faced by Riyadh, would be largely a naval and air engagement over the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia has fought a series of deadly skirmishes with insurgents in northern Yemen over the years, but those groups have no more than a handful of military vehicles.
And Iraq, which posed a real threat during Saddam Hussein's day, is far too consumed by its internal demons and the fallout from the war in Syria to ponder such foreign adventurism.
But one Saudi ally could desperately use anti-tank weapons - the Syrian rebels. In the past, Riyadh has been happy to oblige: It previously purchased anti-tank weapons from Croatia and funnelled them to anti-Assad fighters, and it is now training and arming Syrian rebels in Jordan. Charles Lister, a London-based terrorism and insurgency analyst, said that rebels have also received as many as 100 Chinese HJ-8 anti-tank missiles from across the border with Jordan - and indeed, many videos show Syrian rebels using this weapon against Bashar al-Assad's tanks.
While most of the rebels' anti-tank weapons were seized from Assad's armouries, Lister also believes that several dozen 9M113 Konkurs missiles, an old Soviet weapon, were provided to Islamist rebels in northern Syria this summer.
The Saudis can't send US anti-tank missiles directly to the rebels - Washington has strict laws against that. Recipients of US arms are not allowed to transfer weapons to a third party without the explicit approval of the US government, which has not been granted.
But while the latest American anti-tank weapons might not be arriving in Aleppo anytime soon, that doesn't mean the deal is totally disconnected from Saudi efforts to arm the Syrian rebels. What may be happening, analysts say, is that the Saudis are sending their stockpiles of anti-tank weapons bought from elsewhere to Syria and are purchasing US missiles to replenish their own stockpiles.
"I would speculate that with an order of this size, the Saudis were flushing their current stocks in the direction of the opposition and replacing them with new munitions," said Charles Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.