Saudi minister pledges aid for Syrian rebels facing ‘genocide’


Secretary of State John F. Kerry climbs the stairs to his plane Tuesday as he leaves Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, for Kuwait. Kerry had held a news conference with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister. (Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/REUTERS)

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said Tuesday that his country will help Syrian rebels “the most effective way we can” in response to what he called “genocide” perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Saudi Arabia is not a country that interferes in internal affairs of countries,” Saud said in a news conference with visiting Secretary of State John F. Kerry. “But an invaded country,” he said in a reference to Hezbollah and Iranian militia fighters joining Assad’s forces, “where genocide is being perpetrated, is not a normal situation. And I can say with clarity that we will help the Syrian people defend themselves.”

Saud’s passionate language contrasted with Kerry’s restrained description of both the crisis and the potential remedy. Although Kerry has used the term “ethnic cleansing” to refer to Syria’s increasingly sectarian war, he has not called it genocide.

According to the United Nations, nearly 93,000 Syrians have been killed and about 5 million Syrians have fled their homes internally or to neighboring countries during the more than two-year-old conflict.

The situation “has been made far more difficult and complicated by Assad’s invitation to Iran and to Hezbollah . . . to cross international lines,” Kerry said. “With respect to the technicalities of one particular type of aid versus another, or logistics . . . that we are trying to coordinate,” he said, “we’re trying to understand as well as possible what each nation is doing today, what they’re prepared to do.”

Kerry said he needed a “face to face” with the Saudis after Saturday’s meeting in Qatar of 11 European and regional governments leading efforts to aid the Syrian opposition. Some of those nations, including Saudi Arabia, have been waiting for a stronger expression of U.S. leadership before increasing their aid. After President Obama’s decision to provide military assistance, Kerry said, “we want to make sure that’s being done in a coordinated way.”

Although none of the rebels’ benefactors has publicly announced specific forms of aid, Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, has indicated that it is prepared to send an increased flow of heavy weaponry, including hand-held surface-to-air missiles. The United States, in addition to sending light weapons and ammunition, plans to increase its training of rebel commanders and fighters, along with stepped-up logistics and intelligence assistance.

While the first part of Kerry’s extended Middle East tour has concentrated on Syria, he will arrive Wednesday in Amman, Jordan, for three days of efforts to try to move his Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative forward.

The plan for direct talks between the two sides has been stymied by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s reluctance to start direct talks with Israel without a political sweetener such as the Israeli release of Palestinian detainees.

“We share a belief with Saudi Arabia and many countries that . . . this next period of time is an important period of time where decisions could be made that could affect the region for years to come,” Kerry said.

The two diplomats also shared their concerns about Egypt, where the military warned Tuesday of possible intervention in major demonstrations scheduled for Sunday to protest President Mohamed Morsi’s inability to get the economy onto an even keel. and address the opposition’s political demands.

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