RIYADH (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry met King Abdullah on Monday and praised the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia as strategic and enduring, but strains in the nearly 70-year-old relationship were apparent over Syria and other issues.
Kerry visited the Gulf oil power on a mission to soothe disagreements that also extend to U.S. policy on Iran, Egypt and the Palestinian issue, but despite a public show of friendship, big differences remained.
The visit is the first since Saudi anger boiled over at the U.S. decision not to bomb Syria in the wake of a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus in August. A senior prince said at that time that Riyadh was contemplating a “major shift” away from Washington.
Saudi concerns are also partly founded on a fear that President Barack Obama’s moves to reduce tensions with Iran will give the kingdom’s main regional adversary an opportunity to extend its influence in Arab countries.
In comments that may go towards reassuring the Saudis that the U.S. shares its concerns, Kerry reiterated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must stand down, and that Washington will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.
He said he had offered Saudi leaders assurances that the United States would do nothing in talks with Iran to alter, upset, or get in the way of the relationship with Riyadh, and there would be “no surprises” for the kingdom.
However, while both Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal dismissed recent disagreements as being over tactics rather than ultimate goals, both repeated positions that reflect a wide rift on how they see the Middle East.
Riyadh views Syria’s war as a critical contest for regional supremacy between a Shi‘ite coalition backed by Iran and a pro-Western Sunni alliance of Gulf countries, Turkey and Egypt.
It has lobbied Washington for more than a year to take a more active role in the conflict, either with air strikes and the imposition of a no-fly zone, or by training and arming the opposition.
But the U.S. has stepped back from those options, unwilling to be drawn into a messy civil war and worried that any aid it gives rebels may end up in the hands of Islamist militants.
Speaking alongside Prince Saud, Kerry said there could be no military solution to Syria’s problems and that the U.S. had neither “the legal authority nor desire” to intervene.
He added that although Washington would continue to support moderate elements in the opposition, it was worried about Islamist forces growing in strength.
Washington is pushing the Saudis to participate in the Geneva 2 Syria peace talks, and Kerry described a negotiated settlement as “the best way to end the bloodshed, respond to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, to counter the violent extremist groups”.
But while Prince Saud said he understood the importance of talks, he repeated Riyadh’s position that they could not be allowed to continue indefinitely while Assad remained in power.
Kerry also said the U.S. would continue to pursue the current track of negotiations on Middle East peace, and Washington would support economic transformation in Egypt.
Saudi Arabia is angry that the U.S. has not pushed Israel hard enough to stop settlement construction and that it did not back Egypt’s military after it ousted a Muslim Brotherhood government in July.
Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Saudi Arabia’s appointed quasi-parliament, the advisory Shoura Council, hoped Kerry would help to mend fences.
“I think he came to make a change. There are a lot of problems (and) misunderstanding between the two countries. But they have been our allies for 70 years,” he told Reuters, emphasizing he was speaking in a personal capacity.
“Gulf states want to know what America means to do in going further with relations with the Iranians, which may be at the cost of Gulf states.”
“The Saudis’ position will not be changed until it’s proven on the ground that the U.S. is changing its policy,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Geneva.
Saudi royals were disappointed by Kerry’s efforts to forge an agreement in August to disarm Syria’s chemical arsenal and avoid U.S. bombing, Alani said.
“They want a clear commitment from the American side that Geneva 2 (peace talks) will not turn into 3, 4 and 5. And if this process fails to achieve the objective of removing Assad from power, the Americans should change their policy from diplomacy to changing the balance on the ground,” he said.
On ending the stalemate with Tehran over its nuclear program, a U.S. official said: “We frankly completely agree with the Saudis about their concerns.”
In addition to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Kerry will make stops in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco on his current trip.
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean and Barry Moody