On Monday, following his meeting with the US Secretary of State in Paris, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov caught the attention of Arab media. Lavrov told journalists that he raised with his US counterpart the issue of reports about the delivery of anti-aircraft missile systems to the Syrian opposition, which was reportedly discussed during President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week. “John Kerry,” Lavrov asserted, “clearly reaffirmed that the Americans are against that.”
Coming immediately after Obama’s trip, and aware that this issue was of importance to the Saudis, Lavrov’s comments were to show that the Americans weren’t changing course or giving in to the Saudis but were rather still onside with Moscow. And the reality is that on the two issues of priority for the Saudis – Iran and Syria – President Obama does not appear to have budged much at all. Lavrov, in other words, is right. Despite the noise in the media, Obama is not likely to change the course he has followed the last three years. As such, the visit to Saudi Arabia was primarily diplomatic theater – where the Saudis got to express their frustrations directly, and where Obama listened intently, assuring them he valued their views.
Of course, we didn’t need Lavrov’s gloating about Kerry’s statement to ascertain the administration’s position on the issue of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). Since last Friday, several administration officials have addressed this issue specifically, reiterating that Washington’s stance on the matter remains unchanged.
The White House clearly stated its continued objection even before landing in Saudi Arabia. Speaking to reporters en route to Riyadh, deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes told reporters that the administration continues to have concerns that “there are certain types of weapons, including MANPADS, that could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria.” Two senior officials made the point again in a press briefing following Obama’s meeting with King Abdullah, adding that the matter actually wasn’t even discussed in the meeting. Then on Monday, following Lavrov’s comments, the State Department spokesperson repeated the same talking points and added that, in this respect, “we’re on the same page” with Lavrov.
At the same time, however, anonymous US officials were putting out adifferent line in the media, claiming that the administration was “considering” allowing shipments of MANPADS to Syrian rebels. According to one account, the administration was said to be “weighing” a rebel proposal according to which five MANPADS would be initially introduced, and they’d be fitted with tracking devices and a remote shutdown mechanism. A similar version of this account was echoed in areport in the Kuwaiti al-Rai after the conclusion of Obama’s visit, and which cited unnamed US sources.
Over the last three years, the administration has perfected this messaging tactic, with anonymous officials claiming that the administration is deliberating sending arms to the rebels, even as none of the claims turned out to be true. In this instance, despite the palliative leaks about the White House “considering” Riyadh’s proposal, the multiple public assertions that the US remains concerned about MANPADS indicate that the Saudis were turned down on this point. The US still refuses to allow the Saudis to send these weapons, even to vetted rebels in southern Syria.
The leaks about the administration “weighing” the matter, in addition to the public statements about coordinating more closely with the Saudis on identifying moderate rebels, are likely an attempt to assuage Riyadh that Washington remains engaged in Syria – while still doing essentially nothing. Placating nervous allies – the purpose of Obama’s visit – does not mean adjusting policies.
In particular, the White House made it plain it is not about to alter its approach to Iran, the central issue of concern in Riyadh. Sure, the Saudis heard plenty of reassuring words that Obama knows what he’s doing, but got little else. As evident from the readout of the meeting, the gist of Obama’s message was that the Saudis should trust him on Iran, assuring them that he would not “agree to a bad deal.” But Obama knows that the Saudis are not narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear program and are instead more concerned about Tehran’s wider regional ambitions and subversive moves. Obama ticked this box as well, offering more words about how “the focus on the nuclear issue doesn’t mean we are not concerned about Iran’s other destabilizing activities in the region.”
Here too, however, Obama’s words are not matched by any concrete action or policy to counter and roll back Iran’s regional project. For the Saudis, “concern” is fine and well, but what does the US intend to do about it? Obama’s answer, which he had telegraphed weeks before landing in Riyadh, is clear: getting a deal with Iran that ensures it doesn’t obtain a nuclear weapon will itself curb its ability to “bully its neighbors.” In other words, Obama is telling the Saudis that his current approach, as is, will solve everything, and that they should have confidence in it.
It is unlikely that this argument convinced the Saudis. The continued divergence on Iran was noted in some Saudi commentary after Obama’s visit. “The summit did not bridge the gap, and did not come out with clear agreements regarding Iran and Syria,” wrote Saudi commentator Jamil al-Thiaby.
Despite the rhetoric about enduring strategic ties, senior White House officials noted that “tactical differences” remained. So, although some Saudi observers sounded more optimistic regarding possible, gradual change in the US position on the Syrian front, their optimism is likely to prove unwarranted.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
April 06, 2014
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