News / Middle East

    Persistent Saudi-US Differences Hurt Syria Strategy

    FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah before their meeting in Rawdat Khurayim, a secluded royal hunting retreat in Saudi Arabia, Jan. 5, 2014.
    FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah before their meeting in Rawdat Khurayim, a secluded royal hunting retreat in Saudi Arabia, Jan. 5, 2014.
    Reuters
    Differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Middle East policy persist, despite attempts to shore up their old alliance, and may prove calamitous for Syrian rebels.
     
    Although there is evidence that some American weapons are starting to find their way to more moderate groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, disagreements over what to supply, and to whom, have hindered the fight.
     
    Rebels lament a lack of anti-aircraft missiles to help counter Assad's air force.
     
    Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funding the rebels for years now, arguing that the war in Syria is a battle for the future of the Middle East, pitting pro-Western forces against Riyadh's main enemy Iran and Islamist militants.
     
    However, while the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama also blames Assad for the violence and wants him to leave power, it sees the conflict very differently.
     
    American officials fear involvement in a messy civil war for which they see no clear military solution and which threatens to radicalize a new generation of Islamists who hate the West.
     
    Among the rebels, the failure of the Saudis and the Americans to cooperate better stirs disillusion. Two hours of talks between Obama and Saudi King Abdullah in March appear to have done little to alter that sentiment.
     
    “If the Americans refuse to give us anti-aircraft [missiles], for example, why doesn't Saudi give it to us?” a Syrian rebel commander in Aleppo whose brigade fights alongside the extremist al-Nusra Front told Reuters via Skype.
     
    Fundamental divergence
     
    In private, American and Saudi officials defend a relationship that in many ways remains strong and broad-based.
     
    But they acknowledge a fundamental divergence over how to approach big political conflicts in the Middle East that were aggravated by the Arab spring, particularly what Riyadh sees as Iranian expansionism across the region.
     
    When Washington agreed a preliminary deal with Tehran in November over its nuclear program, Riyadh feared it would reduce political pressure on Iran, giving it more scope to push its interests across the region.
     
    The Saudis were also angry when Obama did not do more to back Egypt's Hosni Mubarak who was forced from power in 2011, and when Washington criticized the army for ousting his successor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
     
    Meanwhile Assad appears to be gaining ground and has told a Russian official the heavy fighting will be over within a year.
     
    “I'm afraid that what remains of the Syrian state will vanish, so I would say the United States has had a big failure in this regard,” said Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee for Saudi Arabia's appointed Shoura Council, which advises the government.
     
    But if the Saudis felt stymied, so did the Americans.
     
    “The frustration with the Saudis was that they never gave us a plan,” a former senior U.S. diplomat who worked in the region told Reuters.
     
    The former diplomat said there had to be a strategy that included pulling the opposition together into a political and military union dominated by moderates, while arm-twisting Assad's main backers in the Security Council: Russia and China.
     
    Disillusionment
     
    “There's got to be something more than throwing weapons and suitcases of money,” the former diplomat said.
     
    Riyadh's main Syria strategy has been based on persuading Washington of the need to bring its far greater diplomatic, military and planning clout to bear in helping the rebellion.
     
    “We want the Americans to use their Tomahawks and F16s and beat the hell out of Bashar al-Assad. But at the same time I can see the Americans saying to the Saudis 'You guys have F15s too',” said Jamal Khashoggi, head of a Saudi television news channel owned by a nephew of King Abdullah.
     
    The United States fears that any heavy weapons or training for the rebels might leak to militants who would then turn on the West, repeating the U.S. experience in 1980s Afghanistan.
     
    While Riyadh is aware of the danger of militant blowback - as happened a decade ago with an al-Qaida campaign of attacks in the kingdom - it sees U.S. reluctance as a strategic error.
     
    Saudi officials think the failure to back moderate rebel groups earlier not only encouraged Assad, but allowed militants to emerge as the strongest element in the opposition.
     
    Although Saudi authorities repeatedly announced that donations to Syrian rebel or humanitarian groups should only go via official channels to ensure they did not end up in militant hands, some private donations were likely made to radicals.
     
    Officials in the kingdom were frustrated at what they saw as American dithering, particularly after Obama backed down from a strike on Syria following a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs in August.
     
    Intelligence chief
     
    Still, cooperation has improved in recent months, American officials believe, and U.S.-made rockets have started to appear on the battlefield.
     
    One reason for the better atmosphere between the allies may be the departure from office this year of intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was running Saudi policy on Syria.
     
    His abrasive manner and sometimes erratic way of working caused friction with the Americans.
     
    However, Washington still wants more openness on the Saudi side, said a diplomatic source in the Gulf, one of several interviewed for this article.
     
    But the source added that the Saudis still felt left out on a limb by last year's non-strike.
     
    “They see brush fires all around them and are concerned Washington is not doing more to help the Syrian opposition,” the diplomatic source said.
     
    For all its differences with Riyadh, Washington remains the kingdom's most important ally, sharing an outlook that values regional stability and a tough approach to Islamist militants.
     
    A big American military presence in the Gulf still protects Saudi borders from foreign enemies, the kingdom's armed forces are equipped mostly with American hardware and a web of personal relations binds officials, diplomats and businessmen.
     
    But after the Arab Spring destabilized one of Saudi Arabia's neighbors after another, Riyadh's perception of a pivotal threat was not matched in Washington.
     
    Root of unease
     
    The former U.S. diplomat said this still influenced Riyadh's view of Washington's nuclear talks with Iran, despite attempts by Obama and other officials to assuage Saudi fears.
     
    Gary Grappo, a former deputy chief of mission in Riyadh, said the Saudis were intensely suspicious of Iran.
     
    “There was an overwhelming obsession with Iran and the threat that it posed. We heard from Saudi officials, some quite senior, that Iran's intention is to position itself as leader of the Muslim world, especially after the Shi'ites re-established control over their holy sites in Iraq - Kerbala and Najaf.”
     
    “It sounds like an exaggeration to us, but I heard it: 'The next destination is Mecca and Medina',” said Grappo.
     
    Though frayed, the alliance is unlikely to break, with the  former diplomat describing U.S.-Saudi relations in terms of a longstanding marriage:
     
    “It's like a couple that's been married for 40 years - you can't imagine not being together, but you can't seem to avoid poking each other.”

    You May Like

    Turkey, West in Standoff Over Syrian Refugees

    Turkish government refuses to admit refugees, the first in a wave of civilians fleeing offensive by Assad regime in northern Aleppo countryside

    Jailed American Testifies About Islamist Involvement in Mumbai Attacks

    David Headley testifies via video link that Pakistan-based Islamic terror group made two failed attempts to mount strikes in Mumbai in months prior to coordinated assault

    These Are the 10 Smartest US States

    A new report breaks down the nation's best and brightest

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.