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Persistent Saudi-U.S. differences hurt Syria strategy

DUBAI/RIYADH: 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 inSyria 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 by 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 Mursi 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 1980sAfghanistan.

While Riyadh is aware of the danger of militant blowback – as happened a decade ago with an al Qaeda 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.-Reuters

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