- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Obama administration Tuesday acknowledged frustration among Saudi Arabian leaders over U.S. unwillingness to play a more aggressive, perhaps even militarized, role in the Syrian civil war — but downplayed reports of a growing fissure in relations between Riyadh and Washington.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the administration is aware that “the Saudis were obviously disappointed” that the U.S. has not followed through on threats of a military strike on forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad after the regime’s recent use of chemical weapons.

But Mr. Kerry said Saudi Arabia was among 10 nations who joined the U.S. in London on Tuesday in signing a collective international call for a peace conference to be held next month in Geneva with the goal of finding a political settlement to Syria’s long-running civil war.

While the secretary of state, who spoke with reporters in London, said the White House “knows” that Riyadh has “questions about some of the other things that may be happening in the region,” he stressed that “Saudi Arabia and the United States agree on a great deal here going forward.”

The remarks come amid reports of discontent from Riyadh, a key and longtime U.S. ally in the Middle East that has played a crucial role over the past two years in channeling weaponry and other assistance to Syrian opposition rebels.

Saudi Arabia shocked the world Friday by rejecting a coveted two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council. The move was made, apparently, to protest the slow-footed U.N. approach to ending the violence in Syria, as well as to the recently conciliatory posture that several of the Security Council’s permanent members — including the United States — have recently taken toward nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The predominantly Shiite Muslim Islamic republic stands as the main regional rival to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim kingdom.

Reports this week, meanwhile, suggest the kingdom’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan has now begun to speak publicly with other world powers about his frustration with America’s overall policy in the Middle East, with particular emphasis on Saudi irritation over the Obama administration’s push for a thaw in relations with Iran, as well as White House’s policies toward Egypt, Palestine and Bahrain.

In light of such frustrations, Prince Bandar has said that Saudi Arabia now intends to engage in a “major shift” in relations with the United States, according to a report Tuesday by Reuters, which cited an anonymous source “close to Saudi policy.”

The Reuters report followed an article published Monday night by The Wall Street Journal that Prince Bandar told European diplomats over the weekend he plans to scale back cooperation with the U.S. on the arming and training of Syrian opposition rebels to protest Washington’s policies.

The Syrian opposition itself faced renewed pressure Tuesday from the Obama administration and leading Western powers to drop their conditions for attending the long-delayed peace conference in Geneva jointly organized by Washington and Moscow. The rebel groups have complained about a lack of Western support for their military effort and are wary that the conference could exacerbate the already deep divisions in the forces fighting the Assad regime.

While it was not immediately clear whether Prince Bandar’s remarks have the full backing of King Abdullah and others in the monarchy, they raise troubling questions about the Obama administration’s ability to influence the increasingly complicated geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

As a Sunni Muslim kingdom and the region’s most dominant oil producer, Saudi Arabia could stand in the way of any serious thaw in relations between the United States and Shiite Muslim-dominated Iran. Separately, Riyadh may hold the power to derail efforts by Washington to bring about peace negotiations in Syria, particularly since Prince Bandar is believed to be the head of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to train and fund the opposition rebels.

Mr. Kerry appeared eager to dismiss such possibilities Tuesday, asserting that Washington is presently working “closely with Saudi Arabia on a range of regional, political and security issues, including Syria, Iran, Middle East peace, and Egypt.”

The secretary of state also noted that he met twice with Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, on Monday in Paris.

“The president asked me to come and have the conversations that we’ve had,” said Mr. Kerry. “I think they were very, very constructive, and I am convinced we are on the same page as we are proceeding forward.”

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