Last updated: 11 April, 2012

US and Saudi defense chiefs focus on Syria crisis

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz held talks at the Pentagon on Wednesday that focused on the crisis in Syria, hours before a ceasefire deadline was due to expire.

“Clearly both countries share a concern about what’s happening in that country,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters after the meeting between Prince Salman and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The Saudi defense chief later held talks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office and the White House said that the two “discussed a range of bilateral and regional issues,” without elaborating.

The Saudis have called for arming rebels fighting the regime in Syria but the United States has been willing only to provide “non-military” assistance to the opposition in the form of radio equipment.

Pentagon officials could not confirm whether the talks between Panetta and Prince Salman touched on possibly arming the rebel fighters.

But US policy is focused on diplomacy “to put political and economic pressure on the regime to try to stop the violence against civilians in that country,” Little said.

The Saudi prince earlier held talks with General James Mattis, the head of US Central Command who oversees troops in the Middle East, according to the Saudi embassy.

The meetings came as Syria announced it would cease military action against rebel forces starting Thursday, the deadline set by peace envoy Kofi Annan for a halt to 13 months of fighting that left over 9,000 dead.

Although Annan said he had received a written pledge from Damascus, top US officials expressed skepticism after regime forces pounded protest centers on Wednesday, killing 14 civilians, according to monitors.

Apart from the conflict in Syria, Prince Salman and Panetta also discussed political change in the Middle East and North Africa, issues related to Iran and Yemen, the “common threat of terrorism,” the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and “ways of deepening US-Saudi defense cooperation,” Little said.

Prince Salman was appointed defense minister in October after the death of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who previously held the post.

Before flying to Washington, he paid a visit to Britain, the Saudi official SPA news agency reported.