U.S. Scrambles to Repair Damaged
By Josh Rogin
April 6, 2016
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton
Carter will soon head to Saudi Arabia to discuss ways to increase cooperation in
the war against the Islamic State. But there’s little indication he will be
able to restore a vital relationship that's become riven with distrust in the
last year, which would require him to reassure the Saudis on the very nature of
the U.S. commitment to the kingdom and the region.
Carter is slated to meet on April
20 in Riyadh with Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud, the 30-year-old deputy crown
prince and defense minister who is widely
believed to be in contention to succeed his father, King Salman. Carter’s
visit will come one day ahead of President Barack Obama’s stop there for a
leaders’ summit between the U.S. and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation
Council, a follow-on to their meeting at Camp David last May.
At a speech at Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Tuesday, Carter said he
wanted to ramp up the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
“We’ve got to get these guys beaten and as soon as possible,” he said.
“We’re looking for opportunities to do more.”
This will be the fifth time Carter
has met with Prince Mohammed since the latter became defense minister last year.
But despite the number of personal interactions, according to U.S. officials and
experts, the U.S.-Saudi relationship at the highest levels hasn’t improved
since the Camp David summit, when the Saudi leaders no-so-privately expressed
displeasure with the nuclear deal Western countries were striking with Iran.
Many of the arms deals that the
U.S. promised the Gulf states at Camp David have been held up, such as sales of
F-15 fighters to Qatar and F-18 fighters to Kuwait. With Saudi Arabia,
differences over the way forward in Syria have become even starker and the
personal relationships seem cooler than ever.
Two U.S. officials told me that
after Carter and Prince Mohammed met in February on the sidelines of a
counterterrorism meeting Brussels, the prince requested a follow-up conversation
on Syria, but couldn’t get Carter on the phone. Carter finally called his
Saudi counterpart six weeks later, in what these officials viewed as an
unreasonably delayed response.
The Saudi government, through a
representative, declined to comment. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told me that
Carter and Prince Mohammed “meet and speak at regular intervals, and that
matches the closeness of the U.S.-Saudi defense relationship."
If the Saudi government saw the
lack of response from Carter as an insult, it was only one in a string of
perceived slights. In a recent
interview with the Atlantic, President Obama said that Saudi Arabia and Iran
“need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood” and explained that
if the U.S. sided with Saudi Arabia over Iran in every dispute, it would
inevitably lead to American military involvement in the Middle East.
Obama’s dim view of the Saudi
leadership goes back to at least 2002, when he called Riyadh America’s “so-called”
allies, and he has repeatedly criticized the Saudi leadership for a lack of
progress on human rights and the treatment of women. But Obama’s most recent
comments struck a particular nerve because they seemed to show waning U.S.
support for the Saudi effort to curb Iran’s regional influence, which the
kingdom regards as its number one threat.
“Obama’s comments on sharing
the neighborhood are interpreted very clearly in Saudi Arabia as Iranian power
has to increase and Saudi power has to diminish,” said Jon Alterman, director
of the Middle East program at CSIS. “For the Saudis, they see that as they
have to continue fighting Iran, just from a weaker position.”
On the surface, Carter's and
Obama’s meetings in Riyadh will be about how to ramp up the fight against the
Islamic State, primarily in Syria. But the two allies have a fundamental
disagreement over the smartest approach. The U.S. government is considering ramping
up airstrikes against the jihadists, but it still committed to a larger
cease-fire between the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Syrian rebels, even though
that deal shows
signs of crumbling.
Saudi officials have been telling
their U.S. counterparts for months that they want to increase the amount and
quality of arms being provided to Syrian rebels, especially in the north near
Aleppo, Syria's largest city. The Saudis have
even proposed giving rebel groups shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles,
an idea the White House has repeatedly rejected.
Simon Henderson, a senior fellow
at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me that Saudi distrust of
the Obama administration’s Syria policy dates back to 2013, when Obama failed
to enforce his “red line” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons. This has
grown, he said, into an overall Saudi concern that the U.S. is lessening its
commitment to helping Saudi Arabia push back against Iran. Henderson noted that
Saudi Arabia declined to send any senior officials to Obama’s final Nuclear
Security Summit in Washington last week, another signal of Riyadh's displeasure
with the current administration.
“MBS, as far as one can make
out, is a supporter of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but he regards that
Washington has failed to live up to what the Saudis expect of the U.S. for
years,” he said, referring to the deputy crown prince by his initials. “Both
sides are trying to repair the relationship but there are all sorts of
indications the split is as wide as ever.”
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is
complex, and there’s still robust cooperation on several levels, including in
Yemen. But if Carter is serious about improving ties, he should bring more to
Riyadh than arms deals; he must square the U.S. and Saudi visions for the region