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

Lion Cecil's Killing Sparks 'Canned Hunting' Debate in S. Africa

Conservationists believe incident, which triggered worldwide outrage, will reshape debate about practice in which hunters are allowed to target animals bred for hunting More

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

Scientists say decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs