Kerry tries to ease Saudi worries over Syria, Iran

AFP-JIJI, AP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to repair frayed ties with Saudi Arabia over the Syrian conflict and Iran, after making his first visit to Egypt since the army ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

Washington’s top diplomat landed in Riyadh late Sunday on the second stop of an 11-day trip that has become an exercise in damage control, as the regional turbulence unleashed by the Arab Spring stirs tensions with longtime U.S. partners.

Saudi Arabia, locked in a decades-long rivalry with Iran, is concerned that proposed Syrian peace talks could leave a Tehran-backed regime in Damascus and that a breakthrough in nuclear negotiations could lead to a U.S. rapprochement with Iran.

The conservative oil-rich kingdom has grown increasingly nervous over the past two years as popular revolts have toppled onetime allies in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen and spread turmoil across the region.

In an unprecedented move last month, Saudi Arabia turned down a coveted nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council in protest at the world body’s failure to end the war in Syria, which has left over 120,000 people dead.

Earlier on Sunday in Cairo, Kerry acknowledged that while there might be differences over “tactics” in ending the Syrian conflict, the goal for the United States and its allies is the same — a transition of power.

Kerry was in the Egyptian capital to meet with the country’s interim rulers and urge them to press ahead with reforms and restore democracy.

The United States and Egypt tried to put a brave face on their badly damaged ties and committed to restoring a partnership undermined by the military’s ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

“We are committed to work with and we will continue our cooperation with the interim government,” Kerry told a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, stressing that ensuring stability was the key to revitalizing Egypt’s economic growth.

While he did not raise the case against Morsi, Kerry repeatedly called for inclusiveness, U.S. officials said, and warned that politically motivated trials “are not acceptable” to the United States.

Kerry — who in a rare move among allies slipped into Egypt unannounced and stayed for only about six hours — also played down Washington’s suspension last month of part of $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Cairo.

He denied the decision was taken to punish Egypt’s military leaders and said that it “is a very small issue between us.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the main backers of the Syrian opposition, was reportedly angered when U.S. President Barack Obama last month put on hold threatened military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Kerry also said the U.S. will stick with its friends as they navigate the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring, which has led to the rise of powerful new extremist groups in Libya and Syria.

“We will be there for Saudi Arabia, for the (United Arab) Emirates, for Qataris, for the Jordanians, for the Egyptians and others. We will not allow those countries to be attacked from outside. We will stand with them,” he told reporters.

On his arrival on Sunday, Kerry was greeted by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, and he was to have his first meeting with King Abdullah since becoming secretary of state in February on Monday.