Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the US to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest against Washington’s policy in the region, participants in the meeting said.
Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Al Saud’s move increases tensions in a growing dispute between the US and one of its closest Arab allies over Syria, Iran and Egypt policies. It follows Saudi Arabia’s surprise decision on Friday to renounce a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The Saudi government, after preparing and campaigning for the seat for a year, cited what it said was the council’s ineffectiveness in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian and Syrian conflicts.
Diplomats here said Prince Bandar, who is leading the kingdom’s efforts to fund, train and arm rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, invited a Western diplomat to the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah over the weekend to voice Riyadh’s frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies, including the decision not to bomb Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in August.
“This was a message for the US, not the UN,” Prince Bandar was quoted by diplomats as specifying of Saudi Arabia’s decision to walk away from the Security Council membership.
Top decisions in Saudi Arabia come from the king, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, and it isn’t known if Prince Bandar’s reported remarks reflected a decision by the monarch, or an effort by Prince Bandar to influence the king. The diplomats said, however, Prince Bandar told them he intends to roll back a partnership with the US in which the Central Intelligence Agency and other nations’ security bodies have covertly helped train Syrian rebels to fight Al Assad, Prince Bandar said, according to the diplomats. Saudi Arabia would work with other allies instead in that effort, including Jordan and France, the prince was quoted as saying.
US officials said they interpreted Prince Bandar’s message to the Western diplomat as an expression of discontent designed to push the US in a different direction. “Obviously he wants us to do more,” said a senior US official.
US Secretary of State John Kerry met in Paris on Monday with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal. Officials familiar with the meeting said Kerry urged the Saudis to reconsider their UN decision but said Prince Saud didn’t raise Prince Bandar’s concerns. Officials said this may suggest that there are divisions within the monarchy about how to pressure the US to play a more hands-on role.
The US, fearing arms will wind up in the hands of Al Qaida and other extremist factions in Syria, has advocated a cautious approach in strengthening the moderate opposition in Syria, frustrating key allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Saudi officials say they, too, are concerned about arming extremists in Syria and are working only with moderate rebel factions.
Tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia have grown sharply in recent months. President Barack Obama authorised the CIA to provide limited quantities of arms to carefully vetted Syrian rebels, but it took months for the programme to commence. In July, the Saudis undercut the US by backing the Egyptian military’s overthrow of that country’s democratically elected president.
Saudi Arabia was particularly angered by Obama’s decision to scrap plans to bomb Syria in response to the alleged chemical-weapons attack in August and, more recently, tentative overtures between Obama and Iran’s new president.
Diplomats and officials familiar with events recounted two previously undisclosed episodes during the buildup to the aborted Western strike on Syria that allegedly further unsettled the Saudi-US relationship.
In the run-up to the expected US strikes, Saudi leaders asked for detailed US plans for posting Navy ships to guard the Saudi oil centre, the Eastern Province, during any strike on Syria, an official familiar with that discussion said. The Saudis were surprised when the Americans told them US ships wouldn’t be able to fully protect the oil region, the official said.
Disappointed, the Saudis told the US that they were open to alternatives to their long-standing defence partnership, emphasising that they would look for good weapons at good prices, whatever the source, the official said.
Eager to be a military partner
In the second episode, one Western diplomat described Saudi Arabia as eager to be a military partner in what was to have been the US-led military strikes on Syria. As part of that, the Saudis asked to be given the list of military targets for the proposed strikes. The Saudis indicated they never got the information, the diplomat said. The Pentagon declined to comment.
“The Saudis are very upset. They don’t know where the Americans want to go,” said a senior European diplomat not in Riyadh.
“The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a long-standing partnership and consult closely on issues of mutual interest, including preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering terrorism, ensuring stable and reliable energy supplies, and promoting regional security,” said White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
A senior administration official said the US and Saudi Arabia have a “strong and stable relationship” on core national security issues.
“While we do not agree on every issue, when we have different perspectives we have honest and open discussions,” the senior administration official said.
In Washington in recent days, Saudi officials have privately complained to US lawmakers that they increasingly feel cut out of US decision-making on Syria and Iran. A senior US official described the king as “angry”.
Another senior US official added: “Our interests increasingly don’t align.”
As of Monday in New York, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hadn’t yet received the formal notice from Saudi Arabia that would make official its renunciation of the Security Council seat. Some analysts and diplomats saw that as an opening for Saudi Arabia to be persuaded to take the seat, and to mend the split with the US and the UN that the renunciation implied.
Diplomats said Prince Bandar conveyed in the weekend session that scheduled meetings in Paris on Monday and Tuesday involving Kerry, Prince Saud and ministers of other nations backing Syria’s armed opposition would be a crucial opportunity for the US to mend relations with Saudi Arabia, the world’s oil power and Washington’s main Arab ally in the Middle East.
In particular, Saudi Arabia wants to see the US or UN come up with a more effective plan of action for helping rebels overthrow Al Assad, and end the Syrian war, one Western diplomat said.
China and Russia, Security Council members and allies of Syria, have helped block any UN action that could support military action against the president.
In the Syria conflict, Iran and Tehran-backed Hezbollah militias are supporting Al Assad’s regime against rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations and private donors, and less actively by some Western nations.
Saudi Arabia regards defeating Al Assad’s regime as essential to its interests because of the involvement of Iran in the Syrian conflict. Saudi officials long have accused Iran of trying to exploit Shiite populations in Arab countries across the region to try to undermine regional governments and their interests.
Saudi officials are suspicious of recent overtures toward the US by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, fearing that Iran aims only to have international sanctions against it lifted while secretly continuing a nuclear programme that earned the sanctions, diplomats said.