Damage-Control Diplomacy: Kerry’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has been one of the United States’ strongest allies in the Middle East for quite some time. During his visit to Riyadh on November 4, however, US Secretary of State John Kerry used language more typical of a strained association than of a strong friendship as he attempted to smooth over some of the most substantial disparities between American and Saudi policy in the Middle East.

In a press conference after his meeting with King Abdullah, Kerry described the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States as “strategic” and “enduring,” and insisted that the two countries share a “mutually agreed upon goal in Syria.” Indeed, both sides want to see the war end in a way that forces current President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power but does not empower extremist opposition factions. However, no amount of reassuring diplomatic language can hide the two countries’ divergent opinions on how exactly to end the conflict.

Earlier in October, Saudi Arabia rejected a seat on the United Nations Security Council in protest of both the efforts of Russia and China to block attempts at diplomatic pressure on Assad and President Obama’s decision to not use air strikes against the Syrian military.

At the news conference after Kerry’s meeting, Prince Faisal al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, provided reasons for Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of America’s action (or lack thereof) on the Syrian crisis. He argued that “reducing the Syrian crisis to merely destroying chemical weapons—which is but a small aspect of it—won’t help put an end to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of our times.” Saudi officials also fear that the diplomatic solution the US seeks might establish a government in Damascus supported by Iran. Iran appears to be gaining influence through proxy warfare in Syria, deploying its Revolutionary Guards and its allies in the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to recruit extremist fighters for its cause.

The path towards a new government in Syria is obviously a thorny one. Saudi Arabia supports the moderate Syrian National Coalition and has admonished the US for failing to take a stronger stance against the current regime given its military resources. However, Saudi officials have privately admitted that they face the same issue with intervention as the Americans: it will be difficult to empower a disorganized, armed opposition without bolstering the extremist groups that have grown increasingly dominant over the course of the civil war.

Despite pressure from Saudi allies, the American Secretary of State has remained adamant in his opposition to military intervention. He stated that the US does not “have the legal authority, or the justification, or the desire at this point to get in the middle of a civil war.” It is also important to keep in mind that just 9 percent of Americans would approve of direct intervention in Syria, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll. At this point, the kind of intervention that Saudi Arabia wants to see simply cannot be part of America’s strategy for the conflict.

After Saudi Arabia has cried out against American decisions on issues of Middle Eastern policy, from Syria to Egypt to Israel and Palestine, Kerry’s most recent visit appears to be more of an attempt at damage control than a typical visit to a strong ally. Strategically, the US will not consider yielding to the Saudi position on Syria. In addition, American and Saudi positions on Iran could be at odds; as the U.S. view is liberalizing and moderating, Saudi Arabia is still deeply interested in marginalizing Iran to maintain the current balance of power in the Middle East.

American and Saudi positions on today’s most critical Middle Eastern issues seem difficult to reconcile – and yet Kerry’s concerted efforts at ascertaining the strength of the alliance indicate that the US is not ready to let go of this partnership. How, then, will it be possible for America to simultaneously preserve its relationship with Saudi Arabia and achieve its goals of a diplomatic solution in Syria and a nuclear deal in Iran?

At this point, there is no straightforward answer to this question. But diplomatic efforts to gloss over Saudi-American differences accomplish nothing. As Elliott Abrams writes, thinly-veiled attempts to maintain unfounded favor with our allies make the US “look weak to the very officials to whom we are trying to look strong.” Kerry’s reassurances that the US and Saudi Arabia share the same goal in Syria cannot change the fact that their tactical differences are irreconcilable for the time being.

The only way for the United States to prove its loyalty to its allies will be by spearheading a solution that satisfies both sides. In Syria, this means a new government that keeps Iran out of the picture. In Iran, the situation seems less clear, as American and Saudi goals do not appear to align. In the meantime, however, the US would do well to steer clear of being condescending to its allies by avoiding the subject of their differences. By focusing on solutions, the US can avoid greater damage to its diplomatic relationships.

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