U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s November 3, 2013 visit to Saudi Arabia will take place amidst considerable tension between the two countries. The Arab Spring has given rise to more than a few disagreements between the two countries over the policy of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama vis-à-vis the crises in the Middle East. These disagreements, already severe due to the countries’ opposite policies on several issues – specifically the ouster of former president Muhammad Mursi by Defense Minister Gen. ‘Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt, as well as the suppression of opposition protests in Bahrain – were further exacerbated by the Obama administration’s handling of the Syria crisis and by the administration’s new openness towards Iran.
Saudi Arabia, which advocates the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and even calls for military intervention to bring this about, was taken aback by the agreement signed by Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Saudis contend that the elimination of these weapons, which have killed over 1,000 people, will not save the Syrian people from the tyranny and violence of the a regime that has already caused the deaths of over 100,000 Syrians with conventional weapons. In fact, Saudi Arabia regards the Kerry-Lavrov agreement both as an American capitulation to Russia and as a victory for Assad and his ally, Iran. The kingdom also protested the fact that while Russian President Valdimir Putin coordinated with his allies before presenting the Russian compromise proposal that led to the agreement, the Obama administration agreed to the proposal without consulting Saudi Arabia or its other allies. Moreover, some argued that the agreement was nothing more than an indirect deal between the U.S. and Iran, elevating the latter’s status in the region. Saudi Arabia also expressed its displeasure with the U.S. on the international stage by cancelling an October 1, 2013 speech by its representative in the Security Council, and by rejecting, on October 18, the offer of non-permanent membership in the Security Council.
The Saudi kingdom’s anger over the U.S. policy and its suspicions regarding the Obama administration’s integrity intensified even further in light of the new U.S. openness towards the Iranian regime. The Saudi press voiced harsh criticism of this development, and articles expressed suspicion and apprehension regarding the U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Many claimed that Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s flowery words must not be believed, and that no real change will occur in Iran as long as it is ruled by extremist forces led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Numerous columnists warned that the U.S. might make dangerously substantial concessions to Iran at the expense of the Gulf states’ national security. Amid the flood of articles in this vein, there were also a few that attempted to alleviate the fears, claiming that the U.S.-Iran relations would not become strategic relations that could threaten the interests of the Gulf states.
This report reviews the tension between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., as reflected in the Saudi media discourse.
The Kerry-Lavrov Agreement: The U.S. Surrendered To The Russia-Iran-Syria Axis
The Kerry-Lavrov agreement, signed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on September 14, 2013 in Geneva, under which Syria must transfer its chemical weapons to internationally-sponsored oversight and destruction, sparked anger in Saudi Arabia, which today heads the anti-Syria Arab front. Under the leadership of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, it has replaced Qatar and Turkey as the main sponsor of the Syrian National Coalition and has taken an aggressive diplomatic line, including calling for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and even for military intervention to accomplish this. As far as it is concerned, Assad’s removal could be a serious blow to Iran’s aspirations for hegemony in the region, and would also likely bring Syria back to the Arab fold.
Saudi Arabia is bitterly disappointed at the policy of the Obama administration, which is seeking to avoid a repeat of its Iraq and Afghanistan war scenarios and is instead striving for a diplomatic arrangement to resolve the Syria crisis. The Saudis, however, view the Kerry-Lavrov agreement as an American white flag to Russia, which unreservedly supports the Assad regime, and as victory for his regime and his allies that will keep him in power. The Saudis have argued that the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, which have killed over 1,000 people, is not a solution and does nothing to rescue the Syrian people from the Assad war machine that has taken over 100,000 lives so far.
For some time now, the Saudi media have been criticizing the Obama administration’s hesitant approach to the Syria crisis as well as its handling of the crises in Egypt and Bahrain. However, it appears that since September 9, 2013, when the U.S. agreed to consider the Russian proposal that led to the signing of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement a few days later, there has been a Saudi media campaign specifically condemning this administration’s policy. Since then, the Saudi government press has published dozens of articles and stories expressing this view, particularly with regard to the Syria crisis, with headlines such as “The Gulf Stands Fast Against Assad – While Obama Muddles”; “Oh Syrians, Don’t Wait For Obama’s Compassion”; “Obama and His Free World [Stands] Behind [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid Al-Mu’allem”; “The Russian Subterfuge – Over The Syrian Corpses”; “Saving The Syrian People – From Bashar’s Chemical Weapons Or From Obama’s Hesitation[?]”; and “Saudi Arabia And The U.S. – The Age Of Disagreement.”
In its editorial on September 15, the day after the agreement was signed, the Saudi daily Al-Yawm wrote: “It is clear that the Russians have successfully led the Americans into a trap and into a long tunnel of negotiations, talks and accusations – and apparently the Americans [for their part] also want to be fooled by Moscow again and again. Their Geneva agreement does not deviate from Washington’s [current] tradition of hesitation and of refraining from taking serious and assertive stands to stop the plan of mass destruction in Syria and to save the Syrian people from the daily surfeit of death.”
A few days later, Tariq Alhomayed, former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote in a similar vein: “What the American administration is doing today is to firmly establish Obama’s image as hesitant in [his] foreign policy, particularly with regard to this region, and also to firmly establish Iran’s image as cunning…”
Along with the Saudi fear that the Kerry-Lavrov agreement will keep Assad in power, the agreement was perceived as reinforcing the pro-Iran Shi’ite camp in the region – which serves Iran’s regional hegemonic aspirations. In the Saudi view, an Assad victory will necessarily mean a victory for his ally Iran – which the Saudis say is seeking to establish a “Shi’ite crescent” in the region. This fear of the “Shi’ite crescent” is what is driving the Saudis’ aggressive support for the Syrian opposition.
In his June 15 column in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, Jamal Khashoggi, a senior journalist and former editor of the Saudi daily Al-Watan, painted a frightening picture of what the Middle East might look like if Assad and his allies were to be victorious in Syria. He said that if this happens, the “Shi’ite crescent” will become “an ambitious political axis extending from Tehran to Beirut, via Baghdad and Damascus.” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he said, “will realize his dream of delivering a sermon from the pulpit the Ummayad Mosque [in Damascus],” and a big ceremony will be held in the newly restored Damascus Palace “to mark the signing of a joint defense pact between the leaders of Iran, Iraq and Syria” under Khamenei’s aegis. Saudi Arabia, he said, will be concerned about the growing Iranian activity in its vicinity: it will fear for the fate of Bahrain and of Yemen. He continued, “The plans for Gulf unity will vanish, and some of the Gulf states will even begin making efforts to appease Tehran in order to preserve the little sovereignty they will have left.”
Khashoggi concluded by stating: “A nightmare, wouldn’t you say? Therefore I believe that Saudi Arabia in particular will in no way allow an Iranian victory in Syria. The Iranian presence there has been massive ever since the signing of the pact between [the late president] Hafez Al-Assad and the Islamic Revolution, immediately following the triumph [of the latter] 40 years ago. However, [while] the might of the Syrian regime [under Hafez Al-Assad] allowed a modicum of [Syrian] balance and independence, his son [Bashar], who owes a debt of gratitude to the Iranians and Hizbullah for the fact that he’s still alive and rules over even a devastated country, has become a subject of Tehran and is no [longer] an equal partner [to it]. This is the moment where the Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon has become a clear threat to both Saudi and Turkish national security.”
The Obama Administration Is Jacking Up Iran’s Status At The Expense Of Its Own Allies
The U.S.’s acceptance of the Russian compromise proposal came as a complete surprise – and a great disappointment – to the Saudis. Articles in the Saudi media complained that while Russia had consulted with its allies prior to the move, the U.S. had not done the same with its own allies. Columnist ‘Ali Sa’d Al-Moussa wrote: “I couldn’t believe what I saw yesterday morning, [namely] the comedy of turnarounds in international politics with regard to the crisis in Syria and to its regime.” Yousuf Al-Kuwailit, editor-in-chief of the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, wrote that the U.S.-Russia agreement had “without a doubt” been signed “behind the backs of most of the Arab countries.”
Many writers argued that Obama’s disregard of his Arab allies reflected his administration’s declared policy of focusing on Asia and ignoring the Middle East. They said that, not only had the U.S. failed to consult with its allies, it had actually coordinated the move with its rival Iran, which used the Syrian crisis as a card to jack up its own status in the region.
Describing the insult to the Saudis, prominent Al-Hayat commentator Raghida Dergham wrote: “The Russian player is taking on the mantle of leadership and is fully coordinating with its Iranian ally in Syria. And Russia is taking the utmost care to prove the firmness and cohesiveness of its partnerships and alliances, so as to represent a model and an example opposite to the partnerships and alliances of the United States with Arab countries, characterized by its abandoning allies without warning and evading its pledges… This is why Russian President Vladimir Putin is guarding a place for Iran in any grand bargain [to resolve the Syrian crisis] that might be forthcoming. (He has even discussed the Small Bargain [to eliminate Assad’s chemical arsenal] with Iran, so as not to seem to be neglecting it).
“President Barack Obama does not do the same [as Russia] with his allies in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. He surprises and does not discuss. He backs down without warning. This is why he will take no care to guard a place for the GCC in the Grand Bargain, because this will simply not occur to him at the strategic level. Indeed, he has in the past displayed striking behavior [towards] his Arab Gulf allies when he completely ignored the pivotal role played by Saudi Arabia in the map of the region. Barack Obama does not think in terms of axes, especially as he has resolved to turn eastwards, far from the Middle East. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is building a strategy to restore his country’s international influence by adopting a policy of axes, from the BRICS axis, which includes Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, to the Axis of Defiance, which includes Russia, China, and Iran, alongside the regime in Damascus and Hizbullah.”
In an Al-Hayat article titled “Saudi Arabia and the U.S. – The Age Of Disagreement,” political commentator Khaled Al-Dakhil wrote that the U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria was in effect an agreement with Iran. He said: “Saudi Arabia is not denying the need to reach an understanding with Iran, but it thinks that such an understanding must come after a solution to the Syria crisis, not before. Such a solution will not give Tehran cards it does not have, and will also allow Syria to return to the Arab fold and to emerge from its crisis. The Obama administration’s policy comes as no surprise, and is in keeping with the [administration’s] statements vis-à-vis the Middle East. [Indeed], along with its desire for dialogue with Iran, this administration is focusing on Asia.”
Saudi Arabia protested Iran’s involvement in resolving the Syrian crisis, because it sees Iran, along with Hizbullah, as accomplices in Assad’s crimes and as part of the problem in Syria – and therefore considers it unfit to be part of its solution. Some writers also argued that the idea of involving Iran in solving the Syrian problem is not new, but came in late August, during a visit to Iran by U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. They said that Feltman’s Iran visit, which focused on regional issues such as Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, was more of a visit by a U.S. diplomat than one by a U.N. official, and that it had a role in paving the way for the Iran-U.S. rapprochement.
Even after the signing of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, Saudi Arabia continues to oppose any Iranian involvement in resolving the Syrian crisis. As part of this, it rejects Iran’s participation in the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference on Syria, an idea that is being championed by U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. Addressing the possibility that Iran could be involved in the Geneva II talks, Saudi Ambassador to the U.N. ‘Abdallah Al-Mu’allami told the daily Al-Hayat: “Iran’s support for the regime and for the [regime’s] armed forces prevents it from taking an active role in creating peace and a new Syria.” This Saudi pressure on the international community using the card of its influence with the Syrian National Coalition, which the Saudis support, has brought about accusations that Saudi Arabia is behind this coalition’s refusal to participate in the Geneva II conference.