Riyadh: The Obama administration’s handling of overtures on Syria and Iran have outraged regional ally Saudi Arabia, which is signaling it wants to do more to boost the power of armed rebel groups on the ground in Syria as the US pursues diplomacy.
Saudis fear that Syrian President Basher Al Assad will use the time afforded by US- and UN-backed diplomacy on Syria “to impose more killing and to torture its people,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal said Thursday night in New York, in a warning that was overshadowed by the attention paid to the weekend’s first public contacts in three decades between the presidents of Iran and the US.
Accordingly, Saudi Arabia wants “intensification of political, economic and military support to the Syrian opposition...to change the balance of powers on the ground” in Syria, Prince Saud said in his remarks to the Friends of Syria group, a coalition of Western and Gulf Arab countries and Turkey that supports the Syria opposition against Al Assad. The state-run Saudi Press Agency carried a transcript of his remarks.
The Saudi government has had no public comment so far on the ground-breaking phone call on Friday between US President Barack Obama, whose country Saudi Arabia sees as the main military protector of its interests, and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose country Saudi Arabia sees as its main threat.
Asharq Al Awsat, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading newspapers, led its front page the morning after the phone call with a photo of Rouhani, bowed over with laughter.
The Saudi foreign minister’s declaration is significant because Saudi Arabia, while one of the main suppliers of Syria’s predominately Sunni opposition, up to now has heeded US fears throughout the conflict that aid to Syrian rebels could strengthen armed, anti-Western Sunni factions. Shiite Muslim Iran backs Al Assad in the Syrian conflict, while most Gulf Arab states support the rebels fighting to overthrow Al Assad.
Saudi Arabia, for example, long held off on supplying Stinger-style missiles to Syrian rebels because of US worries the missiles could be used against Western targets, security analysts briefed by Saudi officials say. Saudi Arabia increased pressure on the US to allow arming the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons this summer, as larger numbers of Hezbollah fighters entered the conflict on the side of Al Assad’s regime.
Saudis now feel that the Obama administration is disregarding Saudi concerns over Iran and Syria, and will respond accordingly in ignoring “US interests, US wishes, US issues” in Syria, said Mustafa Al Ani, a veteran security analyst with the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre.
“They are going to be upset - we can live with that,” Al Ani said on Sunday of the Obama administration. “We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.”
Two developments have particularly alarmed Gulf states: US-backed diplomacy that is giving Al Assad an opportunity to surrender his chemical weapons, heading off a US-military strike against the Al Assad regime; and warming relations between Obama and Rouhani.
On September 12, as Rouhani was tweeting some of the first Iranian overtures in decades to the West, former Saudi diplomat Turki Al Faisal was telling a London defence forum that Iran’s leaders should stand trial for war crimes for supporting Al Assad.
“The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help [Al] Assad butcher his people,” Prince Turki said then.
Saudi unhappiness didn’t mean that the kingdom would start supporting terrorist groups, Al Ani stressed. Saudi Arabia, like the US, has been targeted by Al Qaida, a group born of US and Saudi support for fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
However, the US is more conservative than the Gulf countries in what it considers terrorist groups in Syria. The US has declared Syrian rebel group Jabhat Al Nusra to be a terrorist organisation, while many in the Gulf consider the rebel faction to be a legitimate, predominantly Syrian fighting force against Al Assad.
Gulf Arab governments, especially Saudi Arabia, deeply fear that Iran wants to use Shiite populations in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen to destabilise Gulf Arab governments and try to throw the regional balance of power toward Iran.
Saudi Arabia wants the US and Iran to improve relations for the sake of Middle East stability, but no longer trusts the Obama administration to look out for Saudi Arabia’s fears of perceived Iranian expansionism, said Al Ani.
In truth, Saudi and other Gulf Arab countries have little leverage to advance their aims in any US-Iran diplomacy, Gulf security analysts said. Beyond revving up support for rebels in Syria, Saudis have only a few other means, such as directing more of their arms or energy deals to Asia, said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in Qatar.
“They feel a little bit powerless in all this,” Stephens said. “The fact that this process is going on...it directly affects them and they have no say in it.”