By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a Democratic professional staff member covering Middle East issues at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are his own.
When Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal in Paris this week, he likely got an earful of complaints over Syria. There was no public news conference after their meeting, which makes sense given that the Saudis often prefer that their sensitive consultations with the United States remain hidden behind closed doors. However, Kerry’s announcement earlier in the day of a conference to boost the Syrian opposition was probably intended in part as a sop to the Saudis.
Barely one week earlier, Kerry came out of another meeting with Saud al-Faisal trumpeting that the United States had Saudi Arabia’s support for military action against Syria. This was an understatement. Riyadh was downright aggressive in its push for an American-led intervention after the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack that U.S. officials say killed more than 1,400 people in Ghouta, Syria.
The Saudis badly wanted to see a strike on Syria, and they have grown frustrated with America’s fitful diplomacy since then. Recently, they have seemed less willing than usual to submerge their disagreements with Washington from public view. And there is undoubtedly a real sense of urgency to their efforts.
Late last month, the Saudis were the guiding hand behind an Arab League statement hammering the al-Assad regime. However, because that statement deferred to the U.N. Security Council, the Saudis then produced a second Arab League statement on September 1 calling on “the international community” to “take the necessary measures.” Both times, Riyadh sought stronger language, but was stymied by Algeria, Lebanon, and even Egypt.
After Russian opposition in August precluded authorization to use force from the U.N. Security Council, Saudi Arabia began collecting votes for a similar proposed bill in the General Assembly instead. Given that the U.N.’s weapon inspectors still had not issued their report – and because such a vote could actually complicate Western efforts – the U.S., Britain, and France implored the Saudis to hold back.
For a short period, it appeared Washington was about to strike Syria. However, when the British parliament voted against participating, President Obama reversed course and put the decision in the hands of Congress. It was at this point that Saud al-Faisal went public with the Kingdom’s grievances. In a remarkably blunt statement, he declared, “we demand that the international community does the action required… to stop the aggression on the Syrian people before they’re exterminated.”
The Saudis are now unabashed about their desire for action against al-Assad. They were one of the few ardent backers of military action at the latest G20 summit. Secretary Kerry recently testified that unspecified Arab states – widely understood to include Saudi Arabia – offered to foot the bill for military intervention in Syria, even up to the level of a ground invasion.
In addition to literally blaming Israel for all of the region’s problems, a Saudi cabinet meeting this month under Crown Prince Salman “renew[ed] the Kingdom’s firm positions toward the crisis” in Syria and “call[ed] on the international community to fulfill its humanitarian responsibilities to save the Syrian people” from “genocide”. Another cabinet meeting this past week called on the international community to “stop the fighting in Syria immediately”.
The Saudis have little sympathy for new potential diversions. Although Saudi officials have gone relatively quiet since Russia’s proposal on chemical weapons derailed U.S. plans to attack Syria, it is obvious they are not pleased.
Speaking in Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain’s foreign minister dismissed Russia’s proposal. Not only does Saudi Arabia dominate the GCC, but it also plays such a prominent role in the GCC force propping up Bahrain’s regime that some observers consider the tiny Gulf country “a confederated province of Saudi Arabia”.
Another window into Riyadh’s perceptions of the U.S.-Russian effort comes from prominent Saudi commentators. Saudi scholar Khaled al-Dakhil believes recent events prove America and Saudi Arabia fundamentally disagree about almost every aspect of the conflict in Syria: most notably, the Saudis see toppling al-Assad as an urgent strategic imperative but Washington apparently does not. Tariq Alhomayed, a senior journalist who is plugged in with the royal family, writes that the U.S.-Russian deal this weekend is “like buying fish in the sea” because it guarantees little and seems likely to fail.
To be sure, other countries have also advocated for U.S. intervention – notably Israel, Turkey, and France. However, Saudi Arabia’s posture has gone further than these other countries, which appeared to be lending their diplomatic and political support to President Obama rather than pressuring him to act.
The most recent turn of events has got to have many Saudis wondering how much they should rely on America to advance their security interests. Richard LeBaron, a former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, believes that Saudi Arabia went out on a limb for military intervention in Syria but that, with America’s step back from the precipice, “that limb was unceremoniously chopped off.”
Saudi Arabia has more than one reason for advocating intervention in Syria. To be sure, there is a humanitarian element to Riyadh’s rhetorical fury. But Saudi Arabia is also eager to push back against the excesses of an Iranian-backed regime in the heart of the Levant. Presumably, this is also why Saudi Arabia has been buying up tens of billions of dollars of American military equipment.
But while the Kingdom has stepped up its efforts to arm Syrian insurgents since the alleged massacre at Ghouta, the absence of any Saudi preparations for a direct military intervention of their own should be telling. For the foreseeable future, when push comes to shove, the Saudis still expect us to do their fighting for them.