Syria shift angers Saudi Arabia, muddies Obama’s Mideast plans

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Saudi Arabia’s ire at the United States risks complicating President Obama’s second-term agenda across the Middle East.

Saudi officials over the past few days have decried U.S. policy in the region as “dithering” and refused to take a United Nations Security Council seat in protest. The backlash risks setting the two peculiar allies on a collision course on a range of issues that involve Egypt, Syria and Iran.

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The Saudis’ change of strategy was precipitated by Obama’s decision last month to call off military strikes against Syria and instead throw in his lot behind a Russia-backed effort to have Syrian President Bashar Assad turn his chemical weapons over to the international community.

The Saudis want Assad deposed, in large part because he is allied with their regional rival, Iran.

In response to Obama’s move, Saudi Arabia took the highly unusual step of turning down a two-year stint on the U.N. Security Council, a decision the former director of Saudi intelligence said was “based on the ineffectual experience of that body.”

“The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, a member of the Saudi royal family, said during a speech in Washington last week, “and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”

The administration has sought to play down the rift.

“I am convinced we are on the same page as we are proceeding forward, and look forward to working very closely with our Saudi friends and allies,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last week following reports that the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had warned Euro-pean diplomats of a “major shift” away from the United States. “I have great confidence the United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to be close friends and allies as we have been.”

The heated comments come as Saudi Arabia is also increasingly disturbed by Obama’s desire to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. The Saudis fear that closer U.S.-Iran ties could leave them out in the cold. They are also upset that the administration could be neglecting the issue of the Islamic Republic’s support of militants across the region in order to focus on the nuclear question.

“If these elements are not part of a nuclear deal, there’s going to be a lot more reassurances that the Saudis need, which at the core of it requires time and effort, let alone concessions to the Saudis,” said David Weinberg, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Despite the recent spats, Saudi watchers don’t believe the relationship with the United States is doomed.

They point out that relations between the two countries have hit bigger bumps before, notably during the OPEC oil embargo 40 years ago this month and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

They also point out that Saudi Arabia needs U.S. support to counter both Iran and Islamist militants who want to overthrow the monarchy.

Still, not everyone is so sanguine. Some believe that the Saudis could considerably complicate U.S. policy in the region.

“It’s certainly a headache in terms of what the administration is trying to achieve in the region,” said Weinberg.

“The question is, will it force [administration officials] to reevaluate any of their fundamental strategies for countries like Syria or Iran?” Weinberg said. “Will it undermine their ability to walk and chew gum in terms of being able to pursue these diplomatic regional priorities without having to consume too much time reassuring American allies?”

Tensions that had been bubbling for months broke into the open in July following the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. As the White House debated freezing U.S. aid, Saudi Arabia, a bitter foe of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, stepped in with a promise to provide $5 billion to the new military government.

“Concerning those who announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or [are] threatening to stop [it],” al-Faisal, the foreign minister, said in August, “the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will provide a helping hand to Egypt.”

The Saudi support has made it more difficult for the Obama administration to push for its preferred goal of having a democratic Egypt emerge from the current chaos.

In Syria as well, the Saudis are now erecting de facto barriers to U.S. goals.

Late last month, the country played a behind-the-scenes role in uniting Islamist rebels opposed to al Qaeda under the banner of a new group called the Army of Islam.

“Saudi tribal figures have been making calls on behalf of Saudi intelligence,” the commander of an Islamist rebel unit in the Damascus area told Reuters. “Their strategy is to offer financial backing in return for loyalty and staying away from al Qaeda.”

The ramped up Saudi support could spell trouble for a U.S.-supported peace conference that Kerry hopes to host next month in Geneva.

The Obama administration has consistently advocated for a political, not a military, solution for the civil war that has been raging since March 2011.

“One way [the U.S.-Saudi rift] is manifesting itself on the Syrian portfolio is the Saudis are throwing their lot in with hard-line Islamists,” Weinberg said.

“There’s been some talk over the past year that the Saudis were really admirable in their approach to Syria and much better than the Qataris, for instance, in that they preferred the least Islamist components of the rebellion.

“And in the last month or so in particular we’re seeing this go out the window.”

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