Syrian conflict: Persian Gulf officials, tired of waiting for U.S., move to boost aid to rebels


Secretary of State John F. Kerry prepares to board his aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington on Saturday. Kerry is heading to the Middle East for the next week. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Persian Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are moving to strengthen their military support for Syrian rebels and develop policy options independent from the United States in the wake of what they see as a failure of U.S. leadership following President Obama’s decision not to launch airstrikes against Syria, according to senior gulf officials.

Although the Saudis and others in the region have been supplying weapons to the rebels since the fighting in Syria began more than two years ago and have cooperated with a slow-starting CIA operation to train and arm the opposition, officials said they have largely given up on the United States as the leader and coordinator of their efforts.

Instead, the Saudis plan to expand training facilities they operate in Jordan and increase the firepower of arms sent to rebel groups that are fighting extremist elements among them even as they battle the Syrian government, according to gulf officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve comity with the United States.

What officials described as a parallel operation independent of U.S. efforts is being discussed by the Saudis with other countries in the region, according to officials from several governments that have been involved in the talks.

Unhappiness over Syria is only one element of what officials said are varying degrees of disenchantment in the region with much of the administration’s Middle East policy, including its nuclear negotiations with Iran and criticism of Egypt’s new government.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrives in Saudi Arabia on Sunday on a hastily arranged visit — to include his first-ever meeting with King Abdullah on Monday — that is designed to smooth increasingly frayed U.S. relations with the kingdom.

Kerry will also stop in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Israel, all of which have expressed concerned at what they see as a weakened U.S. posture in the region. The 11-day trip also includes visits to the West Bank, Poland, Algeria and Morocco.

Egyptian state media reported Friday that Kerry will begin his trip with a brief stop Sunday in Egypt, his first visit there since the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi this summer. The State Department declined to confirm the visit.

Officials in several countries that had pledged to support a U.S. strike on Syrian targets after confirmation that President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons described their stunned reaction to Obama’s abrupt decision in late August to cancel the operation just days before its planned launch so he could ask for congressional agreement.

“We agreed to everything that we were asked . . . as part of what was going to take place,” said a senior Saudi official reached by telephone in the kingdom. Instead of the 10-to-12-hour warning before launch that the Americans had promised, the official said that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan “did not know about [the cancellation]. . . . We found out about it from CNN.”

Although the current policy differences are unlikely to be resolved soon, if at all, the Saudis derive part of their standing as a regional leader from their close ties to Washington. Kerry’s visit, in large part, is designed to publicly stroke that aspect of the Saudi image.

Gulf officials emphasized that the U.S.-Saudi relationship, spanning eight decades since the kingdom’s founding, is based on a range of issues, including energy, counterterrorism, military ties, trade and investment, that remain important to both.

Any major attempt at outside intervention in Syria on behalf of the opposition would be limited without the participation of U.S. equipment, personnel, and command and control. Although France, for example, shares some of the Saudi concerns and the French defense minister met with King Abdullah and discussed major new defense contracts in Riyadh early this month, the United States’ partners in Europe have long expressed reluctance to intervene in Syria without a mandate from the United Nations or NATO.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s support for the U.S. strike option being prepared this summer was abandoned when Parliament voted against any participation.

Turkey, a NATO partner that has long protested what it sees as Obama’s tepid Syria policy, has branched off on its own in terms of support for the rebels. Although the administration has long described Iranian support for Assad as crucial to the Syrian president’s survival, foreign ministers from Turkey and Iran met in Ankara last week to voice their shared concerns about the increasingly sectarian nature of the war.

Sunni Saudi Arabia has no interest in reaching out to Shiite Iran, which it sees as its primary rival for influence in the region. The Saudis are convinced that the United States is so eager to make a deal with Iran that it has already signed on to an arrangement that its allies in the region — including Israel — are sure to disapprove of.

“Absolutely,” the senior Saudi official said.

Saudi distress over the Obama administration’s engagement with the new leadership in Iran may be even more fundamental to the current strain in relations than differences over Syria and also Egypt.

The Saudis, who see Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a threat, believe the administration is hypocritical in its concern that the military rulers who overthrew Morsi are using too heavy a hand in cracking down on Morsi’s Brotherhood organization. The United States, said one gulf official, expressed little concern over similar abuses under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom the United States supported before he was overthrown in early 2011.

With new U.S. arms shipments to Egypt suspended, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have given the new Egyptian government $12 billion to defray expenses, and officials said they plan to contribute at least another $3 billion in the coming days.

While the United States and its gulf allies share the same objectives in the region — a stable Egypt, a non-nuclear Iran and a peaceful Syria without Assad — one official said those allies have concluded that none of those objectives will be reached with Obama’s current policy.

Israel, which shares their concerns, has been relatively reticent in expressing its worries in public, as have the UAE, Jordan and others. But the Saudis have been unusually public in voicing their dissatisfaction.

In a speech in Washington this month, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal described Obama’s Syria policies as “lamentable.” Last month, the Saudis canceled their annual speech at the U.N. General Assembly and later turned down their first election to a Security Council seat in what they made clear was a protest against inaction in Syria and outreach to Iran.

“When you commit to something and then you don’t deliver on it, that’s when you have a problem,” the Saudi official said. “It is an accumulation of these type of cases, incidents, and on and on.”

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
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