WASHINGTON – Persian Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, are moving to strengthen their military support for Syrian rebels and develop policy options independent from the United States in the wake of what they see as a failure of U.S. leadership following President Barack Obama’s decision not to launch airstrikes against Syria, according to senior gulf officials.
Although the Saudis and others in the region have been supplying weapons to the rebels since the fighting in Syria began more than two years ago and have cooperated with a slow-starting CIA operation to train and arm the opposition, officials said they have largely given up on the United States as the leader and coordinator of their efforts.
Instead, the Saudis plan to expand training facilities they operate in Jordan and increase the firepower of arms sent to rebel groups that are fighting extremist elements among them even as they battle the Syrian government, according to gulf officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve comity with the United States.
What officials described as a parallel operation independent of U.S. efforts is being discussed by the Saudis with other countries in the region, according to officials from several governments that have been involved in the talks.
Unhappiness over Syria is only one element of what officials said are varying degrees of disenchantment in the region with much of the administration’s Middle East policy, including its nuclear negotiations with Iran and criticism of Egypt’s new government.
Secretary of State John Kerry was to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Sunday on a hastily arranged visit that is designed to smooth increasingly frayed U.S. relations with the kingdom.
Kerry will also stop in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Israel, all of which have expressed concern at what they see as a weakened U.S. posture in the region. The 11-day trip also includes visits to the West Bank, Poland, Algeria and Morocco.
Egyptian state media reported Friday that Kerry will begin his trip with a brief stop Sunday in Egypt, his first visit there since the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi this summer.
On Saturday, loyalists to the Syrian regime pressed a fierce bid to crush rebel bastions around the capital, and the Syrian Air Force reportedly struck south of Damascus. Rebels on the capital’s southern front were battling troops backed by both pro-regime militias and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
The fighting came as top officials from the main Syrian opposition group met with the head of the Arab League on a proposed peace conference to end the civil war. Foreign ministers from the league’s member states were to meet Sunday to discuss the crisis and the peace talks, which are expected to take place later this month.
Officials in several countries that had pledged to support a U.S. strike on Syrian targets after confirmation that President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons described their stunned reaction to Obama’s abrupt decision in late August to cancel the operation just days before its planned launch so he could ask for congressional agreement.
“We agreed to everything that we were asked . . . as part of what was going to take place,” said a senior Saudi official reached by telephone in the kingdom. Instead of the 10- to 12-hour warning before launch that the Americans had promised, the official said that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan “did not know about (the cancellation). . . . We found out about it from CNN.”
Although the current policy differences are unlikely to be resolved soon, if at all, the Saudis derive part of their standing as a regional leader from their close ties to Washington. Kerry’s visit, in large part, is designed to publicly stroke that aspect of the Saudi image.
Gulf officials emphasized that the U.S.-Saudi relationship, spanning eight decades since the kingdom’s founding, is based on a range of issues, including energy, counterterrorism, military ties, trade and investment, that remain important to both.
Any major attempt at outside intervention in Syria on behalf of the opposition will be limited without the participation of U.S. equipment, personnel, and command and control. Although France, for example, shares some of the Saudi concerns, the United States’ partners in Europe have long expressed reluctance to intervene in Syria without a mandate from the United Nations or NATO.
Turkey, a NATO partner that has long protested what it sees as Obama’s tepid Syria policy, has branched off on its own in terms of support for the rebels. Although the administration has long described Iranian support for Assad as crucial to the Syrian president’s survival, foreign ministers from Turkey and Iran met in Ankara last week to voice their shared concerns about the increasingly sectarian nature of the war.
While the United States and its gulf allies share the same objectives in the region — a stable Egypt, a non-nuclear Iran and a peaceful Syria without Assad — one official said those allies have concluded that none of those objectives will be reached with Obama’s current policy.