WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama plans to offer King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia the assurance of alliance coordination on Syria policy during his trip to Riyadh next month.
The president’s trip, scheduled for late March, comes after a year of public contempt between Riyadh and Washington over each other’s mishandling of the Syrian crisis, now three years old and fostering extremist dangers to regional security, including to Saudi Arabia itself.
Last week, in a rare royal decree, the king outlawed travel abroad by Saudi citizens intending to join jihadist movements, threatening punishment of 20 years in jail to those who violate the new measure.
US officials expect additional steps as Abdullah prepares for Obama’s visit.
In return for demonstrated efforts to curb organized Islamist elements in Syria – including two homegrown al-Qaida affiliates and Jabhat al-Nusra, a separate Islamist group – the king will pitch regime change as policy to the president, according to reports.
For over a year, Islamists had been battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in skirmishes tangential to those pitched by a secular, somewhat organized opposition. They have now grown in strength, and are fighting the Western-backed opposition as well as one another, creating ungoverned pockets of territory throughout Syria of concern to the US security and intelligence communities.
Forced by developments spinning fast out of international control, the Obama administration is undergoing an expedited policy review at the president’s request, before his Saudi visit, hoping to identify new options that maintain American influence on the ground.
Whereas the Saudi government previously interpreted benefit from the strength of extremist fighters – over 2,500 of them currently in Syria are of Saudi descent – the US now believes the two governments have policy interests closely aligned on the dangers of terrorist entities nesting in the heart of the Levant.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, met with White House officials this week in preparation for the strategically significant trip.
Meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in California on Friday, Obama discussed Iran, the Middle East peace process and other regional matters concerning Jordan, but primarily Syria, according to senior administration officials.
The two discussed Obama’s coming trip to Saudi Arabia, one official said, and the administration’s Syria policy review.
The White House is pushing for action in the Security Council that would provide “legal predicate for cross-border operations and cross-line operations,” the official said. Such action in the UN has thus far been blocked by Russia, which holds veto power in the council.
“Obviously we have been ramping up our support to the moderate opposition, and Jordan has its own strong role to play in relationship to the moderate opposition,” the official said.
Talks in Geneva between Assad and the organized opposition, organized by the United Nations, have produced no tangible results.
The US blamed that failure on Assad.
“While it stalled in Geneva, the regime intensified its barbaric assault on its civilian population with barrel bombs and starvation,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement on Sunday. “It has even gone as far as to add some of the opposition delegates at Geneva to a terrorist list and seize their assets. This is reprehensible.”
Last week, Kerry said the president is continuously being presented with fresh options on the “deepening” Syria crisis.
Meanwhile, the Assad government, tasked with destroying its entire stockpile of chemical weapons by June 30, has destroyed only 11 percent of its stockpile thus far and is not expected to meet the deadline imposed by the UN.
The Syrian government previously missed a key deadline for the shipment of its chemical arms to the port of Latakia, where they are to be shipped out to sea for destruction.
Only three shipments have left the port.
“Rather than having handed over 11%, I see them as being 89% behind schedule,” one source involved in the process said. “It is imperative that they get a move on if they are to meet the target date.”
When the US threatened military action in Syria after Assad forces unleashed sarin gas on hundreds of women and children, Russia brokered a deal in September ridding Syria of its chemical arms. The US says military force remains an option should Assad fail to uphold the agreement.