Secretary of State John Kerry insisted Monday that US ties with Saudi Arabia are “strategic and enduring”, even as the two countries aired differences on how to end the war in Syria despite a visit aimed at easing tensions.
The top US diplomat was hastily dispatched to Riyadh to patch things up after rare complaints from Riyadh over Washington’s policies on both Syria and Iran.
“Our relationship is strategic, it is enduring and it covers a wide range” of issues, Kerry told reporters after a rare two-hour meeting with King Abdullah, which ran much longer than scheduled.
And he insisted “there is no difference in our mutually agreed upon goal in Syria” at a joint news conference with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
But Prince Saud, while stressing the strength of ties with the United States, slammed the “international community’s failure to stop the war against the Syrian people” and said while the US and Saudi agreed that there must be a handover of power in Syria, there was disagreement over the tactics.
Negotiations to solve any crisis “shouldn’t just go on indefinitely”, he said in reference to a US-Russian proposed peace conference slated to be held in Geneva later this month.
In a passionate plea, Prince Saud instead called for greater international intervention. “Syria is being destroyed by carpet bombing. If that is not disregard of human values, I don’t know what is”, he said, speaking in English to ensure his message is heard by American audiences.
“If one is choosing a moral choice to intervene or not intervene what is that choice going to be? Do I let this continue or do I help if I can?” he asked, speaking softly in a small room packed with Saudi and Western journalists.
“We can’t really say that we are taking the high road and establishing our humanity if we let this tragedy continue unabated.”
Saudi Arabia was angered after US President Barack Obama stepped back from punitive strikes against Syria over a chemical attack in August on a rebel-held district near Damascus.
But Kerry reiterated that Washington opposes military intervention to end the 31-month conflict which has claimed 120,000 lives.
“Absent a negotiated solution we don’t see a lot of ways to end the violence that are implementable or palatable to us, because we don’t have the legal authority, or the justification or the desire at this point to get in the middle of a civil war,” he said.
He once again stressed that peace talks between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition rebels were the only way to end the war.
“Our hope is we can bring the parties together. It won’t be the first very complicated conflict, where very emotional, highly separate entities are brought together by an international community and ultimately find their way forward,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, locked in a decades-long rivalry with Iran, is concerned that the proposed Syrian peace talks could leave a Tehran-backed regime in place in Damascus and that a breakthrough in nuclear negotiations could also lead to a US rapprochement with its arch-foe.
Prince Saud accused Iran of occupying Syria by dispatching fighters and prodding Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement to fight the rebels.
“Syria is a land occupied by Iranian forces,” he told reporters.
“The best test for Iran to prove its goodwill would be its withdrawal from Syria along with its Lebanese Hezbollah ally,” he added.
But Kerry said he had given the Saudis reassurances that Iran would not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.
And he vowed that the US and its partners in the group dubbed the P5+1 had entered the negotiations with eyes wide open, saying the burden of proof must be on the Iranian leadership.
“The outcome must be one that will allow us to know that every day that we wake up we know that what is happening in Iran is a peaceful programme and not one where they can be secretly moving towards a weapon that could threaten stability in this region,” Kerry said.
Kerry’s 11-day tour comes at the start of a key week, with talks scheduled in Geneva on trying to fix a date for the Syria peace talks and a new round of nuclear negotiations between six world powers and Iran.
Prince Saud said after Kerry’s whirlwind trip that “we accept the assurances of the secretary that it will not allow the development of atomic weapons in Iran”.