U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Foreign Minister Saud al-Fisal in Riyadh on Friday to discuss the Syria conflict against a backdrop of tension with Iran and oil policy differences.
The world’s main superpower and its top oil exporter have been strategic allies since the 1940s, but discord over how to respond to Arab popular uprisings strained relations last year.
“Both sides have recognized that their common interests are much more significant than the issues that have recently been dividing them,” said Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03, citing anti-terrorism cooperation, concerns over a nuclear Iran and wider Middle East stability, according to Reuters.
Pictures broadcast on state television showed Clinton meeting King Abdullah as other officials, including Faisal, Defense Minister Prince Salman and Intelligence Minister Prince Muqrin, looked on.
Backed by Western countries, Saudi Arabia has spearheaded Arab efforts to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is allied with Iran, to end his bloody suppression of a year-old uprising and step aside.
The Saudis now want to see stronger action against Assad, including the arming of rebels, something the United States is reluctant to do for fear of being drawn into a messy civil war.
“The policy options are very limited. The United States is in no position to assist in arming the rebels or to provide any kind of military support for them. So my guess is there will be efforts from the Saudis to coordinate proposals and at least buy time for the rebels,” the former U.S. envoy Jordan said.
Underpinning Clinton’s talks in Riyadh is a wider context of the impact of last year’s Arab uprisings on a regional struggle between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran.
A new “strategic forum” between the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, to be announced during Clinton’s visit, is designed to present a united front, analysts say.
At the last summit of Gulf leaders in Riyadh in December, King Abdullah said the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council should join together as “a single entity,” a remark widely interpreted as a demonstration of unity against Iran.
In October, the United States said it had uncovered an Iranian-backed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Iran denied any involvement in the alleged conspiracy, which was interpreted in Riyadh as part of a broad campaign being waged by Tehran against Saudi interests.
Riyadh suspects Tehran of backing unrest led by neighboring Bahrain’s Shiite majority against the island state’s Sunni monarchy and supporting rebels in northern Yemen.
U.S. President Barack Obama initially sought to engage Iran after his 2008 election. But he has since pushed for stronger sanctions to halt a suspected Iranian drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Tehran says its program has only peaceful aims.
Clinton is due on Saturday to hold talks in Riyadh with ministers of Saudi Arabia’s five Gulf Arab neighbors -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- before broader meetings Sunday with Arab, Turkish and Western officials in Istanbul, AFP reported.
The Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey follows the inaugural one Clinton attended in Tunis at the end of February -- a response to Western and Arab failure to win Russian and Chinese-backing at the U.N. Security Council.
Aides said Clinton will discuss how to make President Assad comply with a new plan to end his crackdown on a pro-democracy movement, study further sanctions against his regime and consider ways to aid the opposition who will be in Istanbul.
On Thursday, Assad said he would “spare no effort” for the success of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan but warned the proposal would only work if “terrorist acts” backed by foreign powers stopped.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner described the president’s remarks as “discouraging” and urged Assad to halt the violence immediately.
“It’s not surprising, but it's discouraging and disappointing,” Toner told reporters in Washington, adding that Syrian government forces had done nothing to comply with Annan's plan in the three days since agreeing to it.
Annan said through his spokesman on Friday he expected Assad to implement his peace plan “immediately,” as monitors said fighting was raging in a number of flashpoint areas as the regime pressed its crackdown against dissent.
The plan by the former U.N. chief includes a commitment to stop all violence, daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefires and media access to all areas affected by the fighting.
It also calls for an inclusive Syrian-led political process, the right to demonstrate, and the release of people detained arbitrarily.
“We’ve seen absolutely nothing on the ground that indicates that they're adhering to its calls for Syrian artillery and heavy weaponry to go back to barracks and for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian assistance to be put in place,” Toner said.
Saudi Arabia and its neighbor Qatar have called for arming the opposition, which includes the Free Syrian Army, made up of Syrian military defectors.
An Arab league summit in Baghdad on Thursday rejected the option of arming any sides, and called on all parties to engage in a “serious national dialogue.”