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The Saudi Summit
In Saudi Meeting Obama Faces Most Serious Challenge Yet

President Obama met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Friday to discuss U.S. and Saudi policy towards Syria and Iran. It’s hard to know exactly what was said and done in the room where the 90 year old Saudi monarch, using an oxygen tube, spoke to a U.S. president whose foreign policy lately has seemed to be on life support. But based on the reports we’ve gotten about the meeting so far a few key things do seem to be happening. WSJ:

U.S. officials said after the meeting that the administration was willing to increase the level of assistance it supplies to Syrian rebels, a main request of the Saudis, who have place a high priority on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

We’ve speculated in the past that the U.S. and Saudis have been dancing around each other on Syria. The Saudis appeared willing to more carefully control where their aid to Syria rebel groups went. In return, the U.S. offered modest increases in our own backing for Assad’s enemies. That now seems to be underway, and we will be watching closely to see whether anything changes as a result in that tragic, stalemated war.

But it’s not a simple pivot for Obama to make. As the Journal notes in quoting political analyst Khaled Al Dekhayel:

“I think [Obama] is using Syria as a bargaining chip with the Iranians,” he said. “But at the same time he has to satisfy the Saudis and other allies in Turkey and Jordan.

That’s the rub. The Obama administration appears to be retreating from the position that it can carry out nuclear negotiations with Iran independent of the geopolitical facts on the ground. Specifically, the question of Syria can’t be excluded from American negotiations with Iran. Obama wants a nuclear agreement with Iran. And in that country, a nuclear agreement with the U.S. that allows Iran to control Syria might appeal to otherwise skeptical hard liners.

Unfortunately for Obama,  a deal like that would look like the ultimate U.S. betrayal to both the Israelis and the Saudis. One or even both of these countries might go to war before letting that happen. Certainly the Saudis would dump all the weapons they could buy into the hands of any Islamic groups ready to fight the hated Shia heretics and Persian invaders.

But if Iran can neither keep its nuclear program nor maintain Assad in power, it will have to give up both the dream of becoming a nuclear power and the dream of becoming the dominant regional power in the Middle East. A lot of U.S. administration policy looks like an attempt to avoid a final choice among these scenarios: Obama wants to build a relationship with Iran without losing current U.S. allies in the region.

We can understand the reasons why the White House prefers ambiguity, but neither the Iranians nor the Saudis nor the Israelis trust the administration. All of them will want to know what the U.S. intends in Syria. There seem to be people in the White House who think that giving Iran control over the fertile crescent in exchange for a nuclear deal could bring peace and stability to the region. But it looks like that won’t work. Israel and Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and Jordan, whose foreign policy will follow Riyadh) won’t just lie down and accept Iranian regional hegemony to give President Obama a foreign policy success.

If Obama has realized that he can’t get anywhere without his allies buying in, then the path to even relative stability in the Middle East involves pushing Assad out of power—though it does not exclude power sharing deals to protect the interests of minority communities in a post-Assad Syria. And that means that Obama’s negotiators face a much tougher task getting the Iranians to sign on the dotted line.

These are deep waters, and nobody can really know how events will play out. But it appears that President Obama is facing some of the toughest and most dangerous choices he has been called on to make so far.

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  • Fat_Man

    Don’t worry about it. Obama has an incredible talent for finding the the sour spot in any relationship.

    • Ghosts of Benghazi

      And then exacerbating that sour spot……

  • JohnOfEnfield

    @Fat_Man…..especially in his relationship with me.

  • Andrew Allison

    Blind Man’s Bluff comes to mind.

  • gabrielsyme

    the path to even relative stability in the Middle East involves pushing
    Assad out of power—though it does not exclude power sharing deals to
    protect the interests of minority communities in a post-Assad Syria

    Was the Middle East stable prior to the Arab Spring? Certainly not perfectly (as indeed the Arab Spring demonstrated), but relatively so. Assad staying in power would be a restoration of the status quo ante; a rebel success would represent a significant shift in regional power. How shifting the regional balance of power away from Iran and towards Saudi Arabia promotes stability is a bit beyond me. Such an outcome seems more likely to drive Iran to take greater strategic risks, both nuclear and otherwise, which is exactly what we hope to avoid.

    More importantly, let’s dispose of the arguments that a minority-protecting power-sharing deal is plausible or, even if achieved, likely to hold. Syria’s rebellion manages to combine the main problems of post-Arab Spring Libya and Egypt. Like Libya, a rebel victory in Syria will see a panopoly of rivalrous armed groups holding sway over different areas of the country; like Egypt, politicised Islam will be highly influential. In Egypt, the Brotherhood presided over a period where attacks on religious minorities were committed with impunity; even though the Copts were not closely identified with the previous regime. Since Assad’s regime takes much of its support from minority religious groups – the Alawites most of all, but by no means alone – religious minorities are far more likely to come under attack in any post-Assad situation than was the case in Egypt; yet in Egypt, it still occurred. Any post-Assad government, even if inclined to defend minorities, will not have the benefit of a state monopoly on power to accomplish its aims. Instead, the various militarised groups will be effectively unconstrained in targeting undefended minority groups in their parts of the country.

    It is difficult to see any power-sharing arrangement that would protect minorities being stable or effective. The Sunnis, being a majority of roughly 75%, don’t have to share power, and would object to giving power to previously pro-Assad communities. Most minority communities are too small and geographically fragmented to be able to effectively provide for their own security even under a political settlement; and it is impossible to see the largest, the Alawites, permitted to maintain a militia in a post-Assad Syria.

    While Assad is vicious, he has every incentive to seek reconciliation in victory. There simply are too many Sunnis to attempt religious/ethnic cleansing or systematic persecution. If the rebels win, however, there are far fewer reasons for the victors to restrain their hatred: almost perfect conditions would exist for massacres of minority communities, religious/ethnic cleansing and severe persecution of any religious minorities remaining. Even full-scale genocide is a reasonable possibility. Those who have short-sightedly favoured the rebels should bear some responsibility for the even greater bloodbath which may well follow “victory”.

    • Anthony


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