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Saudi Arabia to hit back at US in Syria
Tensions between the two countries have grown sharply in recent months
By Ellen Knickmeyer Zawya Dow Jones
Published: 12:26 October 22, 2013
Riyadh: Saudi Arabias 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 Washingtons policy in the region, participants in the meeting said.
Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Al Sauds 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 Arabias 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 councils ineffectiveness in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian and Syrian conflicts.
Diplomats here said Prince Bandar, who is leading the kingdoms 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 Riyadhs 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 Arabias decision to walk away from the Security Council membership.
Top decisions in Saudi Arabia come from the king, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, and it isnt known if Prince Bandars 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 Bandars 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 didnt raise Prince Bandars 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 militarys overthrow of that countrys democratically elected president.
Saudi Arabia was particularly angered by Obamas 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 Irans 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 wouldnt 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 dont 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 dont align.
As of Monday in New York, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hadnt 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 Syrias armed opposition would be a crucial opportunity for the US to mend relations with Saudi Arabia, the worlds oil power and Washingtons 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 Assads 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 Assads 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.
Saudi Arabia warns of shift away from U.S. over Syria, Iran
By Amena Bakr and Warren Strobel
DOHA/WASHINGTON | Tue Oct 22, 2013 6:10pm EDT
(Reuters) - Upset at President Barack Obama's policies on Iran and Syria, members of Saudi Arabia's ruling family are threatening a rift with the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and the kingdom to its lowest point in years.
Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief is vowing that the kingdom will make a "major shift" in relations with the United States to protest perceived American inaction over Syria's civil war as well as recent U.S. overtures to Iran, a source close to Saudi policy said on Tuesday.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that the United States had failed to act effectively against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was growing closer to Tehran, and had failed to back Saudi support for Bahrain when it crushed an anti-government revolt in 2011, the source said.
"The shift away from the U.S. is a major one," the source close to Saudi policy said. "Saudi doesn't want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent."
It was not immediately clear whether the reported statements by Prince Bandar, who was the Saudi ambassador to Washington for 22 years, had the full backing of King Abdullah.
The growing breach between the United States and Saudi Arabia was also on display in Washington, where another senior Saudi prince criticized Obama's Middle East policies, accusing him of "dithering" on Syria and Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In unusually blunt public remarks, Prince Turki al-Faisal called Obama's policies in Syria "lamentable" and ridiculed a U.S.-Russian deal to eliminate Assad's chemical weapons. He suggested it was a ruse to let Obama avoid military action in Syria.
"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 (from military strikes), but also to help Assad to butcher his people," said Prince Turki, a member of the Saudi royal family and former director of Saudi intelligence.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies since the kingdom was declared in 1932, giving Riyadh a powerful military protector and Washington secure oil supplies.
The Saudi criticism came days after the 40th anniversary of the October 1973 Arab oil embargo imposed to punish the West for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur war.
That was one of the low points in U.S.-Saudi ties, which were also badly shaken by the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
Saudi Arabia gave a clear sign of its displeasure over Obama's foreign policy last week when it rejected a coveted two-year term on the U.N. Security Council in a display of anger over the failure of the international community to end the war in Syria and act on other Middle East issues.
Prince Turki indicated that Saudi Arabia will not reverse that decision, which he said was a result of the Security Council's failure to stop Assad and implement its own decision on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"There is nothing whimsical about the decision to forego membership of the Security Council. It is based on the ineffectual experience of that body," he said in a speech to the Washington-based National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.
'FRIENDS AND ALLIES'
In London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he discussed Riyadh's concerns when he met Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Paris on Monday.
Kerry said he told the Saudi minister no deal with Iran was better than a bad deal. "I have great confidence that the United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to be the close and important friends and allies that we have been," Kerry told reporters.
Prince Bandar is seen as a foreign policy hawk, especially on Iran. The Sunni Muslim kingdom's rivalry with Shi'ite Iran, an ally of Syria, has amplified sectarian tensions across the Middle East.
A son of the late defense minister and crown prince, Prince Sultan, and a protégé of the late King Fahd, he fell from favor with King Abdullah after clashing on foreign policy in 2005.
But he was called in from the cold last year with a mandate to bring down Assad, diplomats in the Gulf say. Over the past year, he has led Saudi efforts to bring arms and other aid to Syrian rebels.
"Prince Bandar told diplomats that he plans to limit interaction with the U.S.," the source close to Saudi policy said.
"This happens after the U.S. failed to take any effective action on Syria and Palestine. Relations with the U.S. have been deteriorating for a while, as Saudi feels that the U.S. is growing closer with Iran and the U.S. also failed to support Saudi during the Bahrain uprising," the source said.
The source declined to provide more details of Bandar's talks with the diplomats, which took place in the past few days.
But he suggested that the planned change in ties between the energy superpower and the United States would have wide-ranging consequences, including on arms purchases and oil sales.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, ploughs much of its earnings back into U.S. assets. Most of the Saudi central bank's net foreign assets of $690 billion are thought to be denominated in dollars, much of them in U.S. Treasury bonds.
"All options are on the table now, and for sure there will be some impact," the Saudi source said.
He said there would be no further coordination with the United States over the war in Syria, where the Saudis have armed and financed rebel groups fighting Assad.
The kingdom has informed the United States of its actions in Syria, and diplomats say it has respected U.S. requests not to supply the groups with advanced weaponry that the West fears could fall into the hands of al Qaeda-aligned groups.
Saudi anger boiled over after Washington refrained from military strikes in response to a poison gas attack in Damascus in August when Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons arsenal.
'A BIG MISTAKE'
Representative Chris Van Hollen, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives' Democratic leadership, told Reuters' Washington Summit on Tuesday that the Saudi moves were intended to pressure Obama to take action in Syria.
"We know their game. They're trying to send a signal that we should all get involved militarily in Syria, and I think that would be a big mistake to get in the middle of the Syrian civil war," Van Hollen said.
"And the Saudis should start by stopping their funding of the al Qaeda-related groups in Syria. In addition to the fact that it's a country that doesn't allow women to drive," said Van Hollen, who is close to Obama on domestic issues in Congress but is less influential on foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia is concerned about signs of a tentative reconciliation between Washington and Tehran, something Riyadh fears may lead to a "grand bargain" on the Iranian nuclear program that would leave Riyadh at a disadvantage.
Prince Turki expressed doubt that Obama would succeed in what he called an "open arms approach" to Iran, which he accused of meddling in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain.
"We Saudis observe President Obama's efforts in this regard. The road ahead is arduous," he said. "Whether (Iranian President Hassan) Rouhani will succeed in steering Iran toward sensible policies is already contested in Iran. The forces of darkness in Qom and Tehran are well entrenched."
The U.N. Security Council has been paralyzed over the 31-month-old Syria conflict, with permanent members Russia and China repeatedly blocking measures to condemn Assad.
Saudi Arabia backs Assad's mostly Sunni rebel foes. The Syrian leader, whose Alawite sect is derived from Shi'ite Islam, has support from Iran and the armed Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah. The Syrian leader denounces the insurgents as al Qaeda-linked groups backed by Sunni-ruled states.
In Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a simmering pro-democracy revolt by its Shi'ite majority has prompted calls by some in Washington for U.S. ships to be based elsewhere.
Many U.S. economic interests in Saudi Arabia involve government contracts in defense, other security sectors, health care, education, information technology and construction.
(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall and Arshad Mohammed in London, and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham)