Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal did not hide his anger before marching out of the Friends of Syria conference attended by 70 nations in Tunis Friday, Feb. 24 after they fell in behind US plans for avoiding direct action against Syria’s Bashar Assad. Filmed sitting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Saudi minister told a reporter that arming the Free Syrian Army was an “excellent idea” because they needed to defend themselves. Clinton remained frostily aloof on this obvious bone of contention.
As one of the world’s richest oil and financial powers, Saudi Arabia could buy and sell Iran several times over, and after seeing the ayatollahs get away with insulting America time and time again, the Saudi foreign minister did not pull his punches when he faced his US colleague. He was frank about Riyadh and the Obama administration being miles apart in their perceptions of current Middle East events; resentment over the US role in the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak remains a constant irritant.
This dissonance came to the fore when Saudi al Faisal accused Washington of reducing Assad’s butchery of his opponents to the level of a humanitarian issue and so saving his regime
Riyadh is no happier with Moscow than it is with Washington.
Saudi King Abdullah is reported by Middle East sources to have banged down the telephone on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Wednesday, Feb. 22, when he called to invite the oil kingdom to align with Russia’s Syrian strategy against the West.
Tariq Alhomayed, the talented editor of the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, who is regarded as having a direct line to the king, wrote later: “This was undoubtedly a historic and unusual telephone call.” He reported that Abdullah rejected out of hand Moscow’s proposal of a two-hour ceasefire in Homs, the Syrian city bombarded now for three weeks. He retorted that this would give Bashar Assad’s killing machine a 22-hour day carte blanche.
Alhomayed did not refer directly to the clash of wills between the Saudi foreign minister and the US secretary of state, except for a snide dig: “He [the Saudi king] is also the one who, during the Arab summit in Riyadh, first described the US army in Iraq as an army of occupation.”
Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu’s is of one mind with Saudi rulers in his aversion to big power policies for handling the Assad regime: Washington though horrified by the Syrian ruler's violence is yet shy of taking the final steps for his removal, while Moscow showers arms and intelligence on the Syrian despot to preserve him from his enemies.
It may be said that the Saudis and Israelis share a distrust of President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, suspecting them both of keeping Bashar Assad in power to promote their divergent interests in Iran.
The Saudi king faults the “safe havens” plan under air force protection – the sum total of foreign intervention taking shape between Washington, Turkey, some European powers and Gulf emirates – because it excludes what he regards as the key component: Bombardment of the presidential palace in Damascus and the crushing of the Syrian army, the same treatment meted out to Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.
The Saudis therefore sees this plan as actually protecting Assad’s regime and not only his victims.
Underlying Obama’s restraint is his indefatigable quest for nuclear negotiations with Iran, which is impelling him to show Tehran he is even prepared to keep its ally Assad in power – albeit with clipped wings – for the sake of a negotiated nuclear accord.
The Saudis think the US president is dreaming if he reckons Iran’s rulers will be so grateful for Assad’s escape that they will be willing to give up their aspirations for a nuclear weapon.
They also think Obama misguided in aiming for Russian collaboration in making its political, military, technological and nuclear clout in Tehran available at some point for them to arrive together at agreed accommodations in both Syria and Iran.
Riyadh regards its case as proven beyond doubt by events of the past week.
Up until Monday, Feb. 20, Washington was bucked up by Iranian signposts apparently pointing to resumed talks with world powers on an eventual nuclear standstill and a freeze on uranium enrichment past five percent. Iranian emissaries in backdoor exchanges were forthcoming on US requests for gestures to confirm that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was serious about entering into diplomatic dialogue.
A rude awakening was not long coming.
Ten days ago, the Obama administration asked and received from Tehran final proof of goodwill, a promise that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would be allowed to view the Parchin military facility.
US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, when he first met Israeli leaders in Jerusalem Thursday and Friday (Feb. 16-17), accordingly informed them that since Tehran had agreed to open this suspect site to UN inspection and nuclear negotiations were soon to begin, Israel had no cause to attack its nuclear facilities.
Tuesday, Feb. 21, the UN inspectors arrived in Tehran, certain they would be admitted to Parchin – only to run into their second Iranian refusal this month. Their visit was cut short by IAEA Vienna headquarters.
Every attempt by Washington to find out what had gone wrong drew a blank. Iranian officials withdrew into total hush and let the entire diplomatic edifice so painstakingly constructed by Washington start falling apart.
But Obama the eternal optimist has not given up. He is treating Tehran’s latest spell of intransigence as no more than a hiccup symptomatic of the run-up to parliamentary elections on March 2, after which Khamenei will revert to the track leading to negotiations.
This approach is what put Saudi backs up. They accuse the US and Russia through their different polices of granting the Syrian ruler a license to keep on massacring his people, regardless of any safe havens or “no kill” zones the West may be planning.
Netanyahu is likewise opposed to the Obama administration’s interconnected policies on Syria and Iran. His White House meeting with Obama on March 5 is not expected to put this dispute to rest.