A LOOSELY KNIT collection of Syrian rebel fighters set up positions on March 18, 2013, and fired several barrages of rockets at targets in the heart of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s capital. The attack was a brazen show of force by rebels under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, targeting the presidential palace, Damascus International Airport, and a government security compound. It sent a chilling message to the regime about its increasingly shaky hold on the country, two years after an uprising against its rule began.
Behind the attacks, the influence of a foreign power loomed. According to a top-secret National Security Agency document provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the March 2013 rocket attacks were directly ordered by a member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Salman bin Sultan, to help mark the second anniversary of the Syrian revolution. Salman had provided 120 tons of explosives and other weaponry to opposition forces, giving them instructions to “light up Damascus” and “flatten” the airport, the document, produced by U.S. government surveillance on Syrian opposition factions, shows.
The Saudis were long bent on unseating Assad. Salman was one of the key Saudi officials responsible for prosecuting the war in Syria, serving as a high-ranking intelligence official before being promoted to deputy minister of defense later in 2013.
The NSA document provides a glimpse into how the war had evolved from its early stages of popular uprisings and repression. By the time of the March 2013 attack, arguably the most salient dynamic in the conflict was the foreign powers on both sides fueling what appeared to be a bloody, entrenched stalemate. The document points to how deeply these foreign powers would become involved in parts of the armed uprising, even choosing specific operations for their local allies to carry out.
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