US Secretary of State John Kerry paid his first visit in two years to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, May 12 in search of a cure for the distrust President Barack Obama faces in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies for his Iran-oriented policies.
Obama had invited the six rulers to a summit on May 13-14 to bang heads on the future of US-GCC relations. It ended with very little common ground.
Before setting out, the Gulf rulers put their own heads together and reached consensus on two points: The US-Iranian nuclear deal was a lost cause. Obama would never budge on this. But they might more profitably put him to test on an issue of vital importance to them all and the region: Syria.
If Obama really meant what he said about defending the emirates’ security and sharing their concerns, this was a good time to prove it.
Bashar Assad’s fortunes have been waning in recent weeks. His army’s morale is in the pits. Some units are keeping to the sidelines of battles. Iran no longer rushes forward with fresh military supplies. Hizballah, the strongest force still fighting for Assad, is taking heavy losses at the hands of Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front. All this is the outcome of the first heavy weapons to reach the hands of the Syrian opposition in years of civil war from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey – blessed by Washington after long hesitation.
Convince us by toppling Assad
The Gulf rulers now proposed that Washington go the extra mile to win their trust by approving the imposition of no-fly zones over all Syria’s combat arenas as well as a sea blockade – measures they believe would finally ring down the curtain on the Assad regime.
In the working papers Washington and the Gulf exchanged weeks in advance of the Camp David summit, the Obama administration agreed to consider this plan – provided only it was endorsed by the Russian and Turkish presidents.
It was this errand that brought Kerry to Sochi Tuesday to meet Putin face to face.
It was a flop. The Russian leader flatly opposed any action for precipitating Assad’s ouster, or its use for sparking a fresh reset of relations with the Obama administration on other issues, like Ukraine, the nuclear deal with Iran or the Yemen war.
Putin has a bellyful of his own gripes against Obama – especially since the Western boycott of the proud Russian parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
When Kerry flew from Sochi to the southern Turkish town of Antalya, he was forced to disappoint the NATO foreign ministers waiting to hear about the outcome of his talks with Putin on the Middle East and Ukraine.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, who was there too, also played hardball: Ankara would agree to no-fly zones over Syria, he said, on condition that the US deployed large-scale naval and air units to the Middle East and took part in military operations against Assad
For years, this has been a non-starter for Barack Obama.
Gulf rejects Obama’s regional defense plan
Because the Syria no-fly zone plan was just one of a succession of earlier non-starters, Obama had to be satisfied with a reduced party at the White House dinner table for the Gulf emirs on Wednesday, May 13. Most conspicuous by his absence was Saudi King Salman. Only two Gulf Council of Cooperation rulers turned up – the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar – out of the six heads of state invited.
Before the event, Saudi Arabia demanded a written defense pact between the United States and the GCC emirates pledging US military force if necessary to curtail Iranian expansion into the Gulf.
This too was dismissed by Obama.
Instead, Kerry was sent to Riyadh – ahead of his visit to Sochi – to sell a regional security plan based on US weapons systems. He offered Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates the most advanced warplane commissioned by the US Air Force, the F-35, as well as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) which can shoot down Scuds and other ballistic missiles in the Iranian armory.
The Saudis refused US offers politely but firmly, although they agreed to give them serious study.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf sources, the US official advised Riyadh not to be satisfied with a five-day humanitarian ceasefire in the Yemen war (starting Tuesday night, May 12), but to go for an extension as an opportunity for the Saudis and their allies to climb down and ease out of the conflict.
“Yemen is a bottomless pit,” said US official accompanying Kerry in Riyadh. “Run as fast as you can or else you may get sucked into a conflict whose end no one can predict or tell you how to shake loose.”
Obama agrees to a limited fly-zone – maybe
This was the last thing the Saudis wanted to hear from Secretary Kerry. They took it as confirming their worst suspicions that the Obama administration was conniving with Tehran to bring about Yemen’s fall into the hands of Iran and its Houthi proxies.
This may have been the last straw that decided King Salman to give Obama’s summit a miss at the last minute.
Finally, to save the Camp David from crashing and its participants leaving in a huff, Obama made the small gesture of agreeing to a limited no-fly zone over Syria confined to the Syrian-Turkish border region.
It is doubtful that the GCC rulers left Camp David satisfied.