Obama Saudi trip: Mission Impossible
President Obama will be in Saudi Arabia today trying to repair relations that his blunders have damaged severely.
US. President Barack Obama will visit Saudi Arabia Friday seeking to repair fractured relations with the kingdom. The United States and Saudi Arabia have forged a strategic alliance over the last seven decades, but have seen increased divisions since the uprisings that ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Relations have particularly soured as the United States has worked to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran and failed to initiate a military intervention in Syria, where the Saudis are supporting the mainly Sunni opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. A goal of Obama's visit is to convince Saudi Arabia that U.S. relations with Iran will not compromise Washington's commitment to Saudi security. However, Saudi Arabia may not be persuaded, according to one Saudi official "The U.S. has underwritten the regional security order for the past 70 years and it sees now as a good time to disengage. We will have to do it all ourselves."
The Saudis never understood our cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood - a policy that is still in place in Syria where we are embracing the civilian opposition that is largely made up of MB members. And they are perplexed at the idea that we would trust the Iranians to abide by any deal that curtailed their nuclear program.
But far and away, the biggest irritant in the relationship is our refusal to do more to help the Syrian rebels.
The Obama administration's reluctance to authorize delivery of more sophisticated weaponry has angered Saudi officials, as pro-regime forces continue to dominate the Syrian battlefield.
"If he is not going to change his policy toward Syria, there will be no reason he comes to Saudi, to be honest," said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center who regularly receives briefings from security officials in the kingdom.
"If he's coming empty-handed and King Abdullah hears the same rhetoric he's been hearing, I think the relationship will suffer far more than it suffered before," Mr. Alani said. Saudi Arabia's priority is U.S. approval for delivery of manpads and advanced communications systems, as well as more antitank weapons, to the Syrian rebels, Mr. Alani said.
Prince Salman bin Sultan, the kingdom's deputy defense minister who oversees arms transfers to anti-Assad rebels, met with CIA director John Brennan and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a visit to Washington last week, raising expectations and pressure for Mr. Obama to arrive in the Saudi capital on Friday bearing a pledge to supply the military gear.
"Riyadh does not want the visit to be an 'anesthetization' visit" of pleasantries only, said Abdullah al-Shammri, a former Saudi diplomat.
Hadi al Bahra, a senior Syrian opposition member who was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, meeting with members of the National Security Council and representatives in Congress, said there was no final decision from the U.S. on the supply of manpads.
But, he added, "We all expect a decision after President Obama visits Saudi Arabia, which is in favor of increasing [rebel] capabilities."
The Saudis are not very concerned if those MANPADs fall into the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists. After all, it isn't likely that they would be used against targets in the Kingdom. The US cannot afford to be so sanguine about who gets those weapons, however, and given that we still have no reliable gauge on how to keep sophisticated weapons out of the hands of the numerous terrorist outfits fighting in Syria, it's best we continue our policy.
We can increase humanitarian assistance to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey who are dealing with a massive refugee crisis from Syria. Maybe we can give the rebels better satellite phones. Perhaps we may consider increasing our special forces presence to assist the Free Syrian Army with intelligence and training.
But why should we give terrorists weapons that could be used against us or our allies? if Obama gives in on this issue, it won't materially affect the rebel's strategic position and it will almost certainly elevate the wrong people to power if they eventually depose Assad.
You wouldn't think President Obama would commit another big blunder - but anything is possible.