WASHINGTON U.S. Senator John McCain expressed sympathy on Monday for Saudi Arabia's decision to reject a seat on the U.N. Security Council and said it was largely the result of Saudi frustration over the Obama administration's Syria policy.
Saudi Arabia turned down a coveted two-year term on the council on Friday in protest against international inaction over the Syrian crisis.
Though the kingdom did not single out the United States for criticism, it has signaled increasing tensions with Washington, its historic ally, not only over Syria but also over U.S. acquiescence in the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and a new quest for a nuclear deal with Iran.
"Syria is the major concern that they have," McCain, a harsh critic of President Barack Obama's foreign policy, told the Reuters Washington Summit. "If it were not for a perception of United States' weakness, they (the Saudis) wouldn't have had the temerity to take this action."
McCain, an Arizona Republican who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race, said the Saudi snub against the United Nations showed their "befuddlement" over how the U.S. administration has handled Syria's 2-1/2-year-old civil war.
Obama stepped back from launching military action against Syria in September, setting in motion a diplomatic effort that led to a Russian-brokered deal for Syria to agree to give up its chemical weapons after a poison gas attack on August 21 that U.S. officials say killed more than 1,400 people.
The U.S. failure to attack forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad disappointed Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that back the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to overthrow him.
"I fully understand what Saudi Arabia did," McCain, who has pushed for U.S. arming of the Syrian opposition, said of Riyadh's U.N. decision.
"They're standing by and watching the United States of America in close coordination with Bashar al-Assad while we neutralize his chemical weapons inventory that he has - which is by no means clear that we will get it all," McCain said. "And he continues to slaughter thousands of Syrian innocent men, women and children."
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan defended the administration's approach, saying it would lead to elimination of one of the largest previously undeclared chemical weapons programs. "U.S. policy remains that Assad must go," she said. "This process in no way changes that."
In rejecting the Security Council seat, Saudi Arabia condemned what it called international "double standards" on the Middle East and demanded reforms in the world body, where permanent members Russia and China have repeatedly blocked measures to punish Assad.
Its stance won praise from its Gulf Arab allies and Egypt.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to ease tensions on Monday when he met Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Paris on Monday.