At around the time this edition reaches you, Dennis B. Ross, one of the most authoritative non-officials of the Obama administration, will have just ended his background briefing on the administration’s Iran policy for a group of American journalists in Washington. Although he has held no position in the White House since resigning last year from two years as top adviser to President Barack Obama on Iran, his words will be lapped up as coming from the horse’s mouth.
Indeed, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources confirm that Ross is still in the president’s confidence and called on to advise him in the current round of tense discussions at the top of the administration on how to proceed next on the Iran question.
The White House must now decide whether to confine itself to sanctions and the current option of international nuclear talks with Iran starting in Istanbul in April, based on granting US-led international recognition of its nuclear achievements to date – or turn to a new strategy of confrontation.
Ross’s briefing to selected correspondents may point to openness for exploring a new path. It would have to be formulated as a draft by the end of this week.
Facing heat from Saudi Arabia and two more quarters
If the president decides to stick with his current policy after all, he would have to stand up to the heat coming at him from three directions: Saudi Arabia, Israel and his own campaign for reelection as president in November.
This article focuses on the feud between Washington and Riyadh.
The rupture in relations between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Obama is said by Washington insiders in the know to run a lot deeper this time even than the breakdown which followed on the slinging match between the two leaders in their phone call on Feb. 9, 2011. Then, the monarch slammed down the phone after accusing the president of personal responsibility for the downfall of his friend, the deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
A year on, Abdullah had his foreign minister Saud al-Faisal sharply chide Obama in an oral communication, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report was delivered to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton behind the scenes of the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis Friday, Feb. 24.
According to those sources, the king had this to say to the president: “The Iranians tried to bring down Bahrain’s Al-Khalifa throne last February and March as a prelude to overthrowing the Saudi royal family in Riyadh. We (the Saudis) are determined to pay them back by deposing Iran’s closest Middle East ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.”
The Saudi demarche went on to caution that after getting rid of Assad, they would also find a way to put an end to Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama turns away from military plan to “humanitarian corridors”
Clinton did her best to explain her government’s policy on Iran and Syria, but the Saudi prince interrupted her by getting up and saying: It that is the case then I can only take it that just as you (the Americans) are still unwilling to take action against Iran, the same is true in the case of Assad. If that is the situation, we (the Saudis) will find our own way to resolve the two problems.
Without waiting for Clinton’s response, Saudi al-Faisal stalked out of the building where the conference was taking place. On the way to his car, he phoned through to the members of his delegation and told them to pack their bags and get ready to return to Riyadh at once.
The Saudis were especially ticked off on hearing from Secretary Clinton that Obama had flatly rejected the new plan for limited Western-Arab military intervention in Syria submitted last week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy (see DEBKA-Net-Weekly 530 of Feb. 24, “The US Ponders Military Intervention in Syria – Sarkozy’s Safe Haven Plan Is on Obama’s Desk”).
In breaking the news, she also disclosed that the US President had now turned to an alternate program for setting up “humanitarian corridors” in the places were the Syrian army and rebels are fighting for control at the expense of the civilian populations. (See, “Hot Points,” Feb. 29).
That plan too is contingent on Russia taking on the task of getting Assad to agree to quietly keep his army and security forces back from attacking the aid corridors – if not approve it.
Saudis offer Arab air forces for Syria operation
The Saudi foreign minister had his answer ready: If the Americans don’t care to put their air force on the line in Syria, not to worry; Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations had large air forces and would be glad to invest them in a military operation against Assad.
The prince was referring to the quiet discussions King Abdullah had been conducting with Egyptian’s military ruler and de facto president, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, for harnessing the Egyptian Air Force to the campaign alongside the Saudi Air Force.
When Clinton remarked that President Obama was dead set against Arab military action going ahead in Syria without the United States or Turkey, Saud shot back that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, are free with offers to join any plan for military intervention, but when it comes to the point of hammering out operational details, they disappear.
And so the Clinton-Saud conversation ended on the same caustic note as it started.
The immediate upshot of this conversation on Saud bin Faisal’s return home was a decision by Riyadh to speed up Saudi arms shipments to the Syrian rebels via Iraq and Lebanon – and so nullify the Obama administration’s policy against arming Syrian rebels and its reliance on diplomacy and sanctions for curbing the atrocities of the Assad regime.
Anti-tank weapons flow to rebels tripled
Military and intelligence watchers monitoring the new spate of arms shipments reported that this week overall quantities had been doubled and contained three times more anti-tank weapons than previous consignments.
On the diplomatic plane, the Saudis invited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to pay his first ever visit to Riyadh next Wednesday, March 7.
Gulf Cooperation Council members will make sure he hears their beefs about the Russian stance on Syria.
But above all, the visit will also give the Saudis a chance to show Washington there are more fish in the sea and that failing US action, they are turning in other directions for help to rid Syria of Bashar Assad.
But most immediately, Obama administration strategists are worried not just about the deep rift with Riyadh but the potential coming together of Saudi Arabia and Israel for an attack on the Iranian nuclear program – in defiance of Washington’s objections.
That possibility is explored in a separate article.