On Friday, President Obama landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for a scheduled visit with King Abdullah, the same day that a US official said that the president’s administration would possibly allow new shipments of air defense systems for Syrian rebels. Since his last visit in 2009, these talks have come as a result of Saudi pressure for extended help from the White House, asking for portable systems of surface-to-air missiles known as “manpads” that will mark a strategic turning point for the besieged rebel forces.
So far, the US has kept its military assistance for Syrian dissidents to small arms and ammunition, but the rebels are currently in need of more than humanitarian aid and will lose their battle against President Bashar Assad unless external salvation can be found. The air-defense systems will be delivered by the Saudis, but they want the US to end their opposition of sending critical shipments to the rebels.
The same discussion took place in Washington early this year, with Obama continuing to withhold meaningful support for the rebellion. As the crisis deepens and continued pressure is placed upon the president, the final decision is not likely to be made overnight. In February the argument against sending serious weaponry to the Syrian opposition was that the allegiance of the rebels vacillates between influence by terrorist elements, making Obama fearful that a commercial airliner could as easily be shot down by air-defense technology as Assad’s fighter planes.
After three years of war, the composition of the rebel forces has reportedly changed enough, along with their desperation, to cause a shift in support from the US. During his meeting with Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, Obama is expected to negate the perception of Middle East governments that America is withdrawing its support.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes reported from Air Force One that a part of the meeting between Obama and King Abdullah would be to assure the isolation of extremist groups within the Syrian rebellion. Discussions will also be held with visiting National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry, and though Saudi Arabia provides less oil to the US than it has in years past, the King’s main concern involves the Iranian threat upon the region and their attempts to overthrow the balance of power in the Middle East and disrupt important shipping lines through the Gulf.
The Saudis are planning to give enough help to the rebels in Syria that a stalemate will be reached and the governments supporting Assad, namely Russia and Iran, will have no choice but to relinquish their hostility and issue a detente, at least for a political maneuver that will take Assad out of power. The Saudi royal family is looking after its own security and is seeking a strong allegiance with Western governments for the Sunni Arabs in the region who will be marginalized by the growth of Shi’ite military strength.
With Obama’s recent withdrawals from Afghanistan, despite mounting violence and escalating aggression on the part of terrorist factions waiting for America to leave before filling the power-vacuum, his visit to Saudi Arabia marks the tenacity by which Middle Eastern governments are watching US military involvement drying up with fear that this will offset the balance of power in the region as much as evolving Iranian nuclear technology.
By Elijah Stephens