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.
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.
“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

Afghanistan, Pakistan Leaders to Hold Icebreaking Talks in Paris

Two sides are expected to discuss ways to ease bilateral tensions and jointly work for resumption of stalled peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs