Saudi Arabia’s support for rebels in Syria won’t be constrained by U.S. efforts to keep the money from Islamist groups, as the kingdom steps up efforts to battle Iranian influence in the region, a Saudi official said.
Syrian opposition factions backed by the U.S. are disorganized and largely ineffective, so directing assistance only to them would be handicapping the fight against President Bashar al-Assad, the official said, asking not to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity. He said differences between the longtime allies over Syria and other Middle East issues don’t amount to a breakdown in relations.
The U.S. about-face on Syria, dropping threats of military action to back a Russian plan for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons, was greeted with dismay by allies in the Gulf, which are also concerned by the prospect of a thaw between the U.S. and Iran. Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, dropped its bid for a United Nations Security Council seat, saying the UN body failed to end turmoil in Syria.
Gulf nations played a central role in efforts to organize the Syrian rebel factions that have some U.S. backing into a coherent political and military unit. Now, most Saudi and Qatari aid is going to radical Islamist groups, according to a U.S. official who also asked not to be identified because of the contentious nature of the assistance.
Last month, more than a dozen Syrian rebel factions, mostly Islamists, broke away from the Syrian National Coalition, backed by the West as the main umbrella for the anti-Assad forces. The Coalition has accused groups with ties to al-Qaeda of fighting against other rebels rather than Assad’s army. Assad has highlighted the role of jihadists in describing the opposition as terrorists.
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud al-Faisal was among foreign ministers attending a meeting in London yesterday of countries backing the Syrian rebels. Participants agreed to send military aid exclusively through the National Coalition’s armed wing, which is fighting “to curtail the influence of extremists,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said after the talks.
President Barack Obama’s pursuit of a breakthrough in ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional adversary, is also worrying Saudi leaders, the Saudi official said.
Obama spoke to his newly elected Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, last month in the first such contact for decades, and expressed optimism that a deal on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program can be reached.
Oil prices have dropped as tensions over Syria and Iran eased, pushing West Texas Intermediate crude to the lowest in almost four months.
Saudi Arabia is the Gulf’s chief Sunni Muslim power, while Shiite-ruled Iran is Assad’s most important ally in the region. The proxy war between them is one element of the conflict in Syria, which has left more than 100,000 dead and displaced 2 million Syrians, according to United Nations estimates.
Saudi King Abdullah has urged the U.S. to attack Iran, “cut off the head of the snake” and halt its nuclear program, U.S. diplomats reported in cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. After last month’s accord on chemical weapons, Prince Saud said Assad’s government would probably use the deal as an opportunity “to impose more killing and to torture its people.”
“We don’t know what the Americans are trying to do with Syria,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh. “They seem to be using Syria as a bargaining chip with Iran. They handed Iraq to the Iranians, and the Saudis won’t let them do the same thing to Syria.”
Kerry, who met Prince Saud in Paris on Oct. 21, said yesterday that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are working closely on regional issues including Syria. He said the Saudis were “obviously disappointed” that U.S. strikes against Assad didn’t take place, “and have questions about some of the other things that may be happening in the region.”
The Saudi-American alliance stretches back to World War II, when King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met aboard the USS Quincy.
“It isn’t clear if the strategic relationship between the two countries is damaged but certainly the political side of the relationship is in trouble,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “There is a certain amount of animosity coming from the Saudis over Syria. The issue is how the two countries are going to recover from this.”
Saudi Arabia is the U.S.’s eighth-biggest trade partner, ahead of Brazil and France. It’s among the main overseas customers for defense companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. The U.S. Defense Department last week announced plans to sell $10.8 billion of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its smaller Gulf ally, the United Arab Emirates.
The Saudi official said that reports of a major split are overblown. He cited enduring common interests including oil-price stability and counter-terrorism in countries including Somalia and Yemen.