Obama: Tensions with Gulf allies 'overblown'

Obama: Tensions with Gulf allies 'overblown'
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President Obama said Thursday the U.S. and its Arab allies remain united in their effort to dismantle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), adding that talk of strained relationships “was always overblown."

Following a summit meeting with leaders from Persian Gulf nations in Saudi Arabia, Obama said leaders pledged to increase their contributions to the anti-ISIS campaign.

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“We remain united in our fight to destroy ISIL or Daesh, which is a threat to all of us,” the president said, using alternative names for the group. 

Obama said the nations attending the summit committed to boosting humanitarian aid to Iraq to help the country rebuild after more than a decade of fighting. 

The president’s two-day visit to Saudi Arabia was meant to reassure jittery Arab allies, who are wary of his outreach to Iran and have reservations about the administration’s effort to broker a political transition in war-torn Syria.

Obama also irked Gulf state leaders with comments he made in a recent interview with The Atlantic, describing many U.S. allies as “free riders” who won’t pay for their own defense. 

Many Arab leaders, including the Saudis, interpreted the comments as being about them. 

Obama acknowledged there’s a need for stronger lines of communication between the U.S. and its Gulf partners. 

“The need for more consistent, institutionalized communication between the countries,” he said at a news conference. He said Thursday’s Gulf Cooperation Council meeting was “highly useful” and that “possibilities of misunderstanding increase when there is so much activity taking place.”

Obama acknowledged the cessation of hostilities in Syria between government and opposition forces is “very fragile” and in danger of “breaking down.” But he insisted that sticking with a diplomatic approach to easing Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power is still the right course of action. 

The president said the U.S. is calling on Assad to step aside not only because he has killed his own people but also because it is hard to see him being the head of a government that would end the fighting. 

“Whoever comes out on top will be standing on top of a country that has been devastated,” Obama said. 

Gulf state leaders see ISIS as a destabilizing force in the region and have contributed to the air campaign against the group in both Iraq and Syria. 

But they have also called on Obama to do more to oust Assad, who is aligned with Iran, their regional rival. 

Obama defended the nuclear deal he brokered with Tehran last year but also stressed that the U.S. continues to have "serious concerns" about Iran's behavior in nations like Syria and Yemen. He promised the U.S. would do all it could to curb those activities. 

“None of our nations have an interest in conflict with Iran," he said.