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

At Khmer Rouge Court, Long-Awaited Verdict Approaches

First phase of trial, which is coming to an end, has focused on forced exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975 - and now many are hopeful justice will be served More

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities More

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

Downing of Malaysian airliner, allegations of cross-border shelling move information war in war-torn country to a new level More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
July 31, 2014 8:13 PM
The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.

AppleAndroid