Secretary of State John Kerry will pay an emergency visit to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Friday amid signs that smoldering tensions and diverging interests in US-Saudi relations are being further exacerbated by the crisis in Iraq.
In the run-up to his stop in Riyadh – a last-minute add-on to his week-long trip to the Middle East and Europe – Mr. Kerry has been imploring the region’s powers to refrain from entering the Iraqi fray in ways he says could cause the conflict to deteriorate into a full-blown sectarian war.
In particular, he is encouraging the region’s Sunni Arabs to tamp down their harsh public criticisms of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and to press Iraq’s Sunni tribes to reject the country’s Sunni insurgency, which has aligned with the advancing Islamist extremist group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
“We’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” Kerry said Wednesday, warning against actions that he said “could act as a flashpoint with respect to the sectarian divide” between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Yet while Kerry emphasizes the need for regional unity against extremist forces like ISIS, the region’s Sunni Arabs, and the Saudis in particular, worry more about Shiite Iran – whose influence they see growing, and whose interests they fear are increasingly aligned with those of the US.
In Paris Thursday, Kerry met with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan – all Sunni Arab nations – encouraging the Gulf states in particular to work to dry up the moral and financial support that ISIS has garnered in the region and increasingly among Iraq’s Sunnis. With the help of an array of Iraq’s Sunni insurgent groups, ISIS now holds large chunks of northern and western Iraq and is vowing to move south to take the multi-sectarian capital of Baghdad.
The progress of ISIS “concerns every single country here,” Kerry said as he opened the meeting with the Sunni Arab foreign ministers.
The US has let Saudi Arabia know that actions it has taken – such as its call last week for Mr. Maliki to step down – are not helpful. But the Saudis, still smarting over President Obama’s decision last summer not to launch air strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its chemical weapons use, see Iraq as one more arena where Saudi and US interests appear to be diverging.
With the US sending several hundred military advisers to Baghdad to help the Maliki government try to stave off the advancing threat of Sunni insurgents, the region’s Sunni Arabs – including Saudi Arabia – see the US jumping in on the side of a Shiite regime that for years has marginalized Iraq’s Sunnis.
Added to that concern is the larger worry that the Iraq crisis is putting the US on the same side as Iran, which is sending both personnel and equipment across the border into Iraq to bolster the Shiite-led regime.
The result, some regional experts say, is that the region’s Sunni Arabs see the US, wittingly or not, abetting a rise of Iranian and Shiite influence.
A recent trip to the region revealed “just how much the Gulf Sunnis think the US-Iran rapprochement is a done deal,” says Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate and Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The Iraq crisis is only the latest factor contributing to new doubts in the region about relations with the US, Mr. Sadjadpour says. The Gulf Sunnis “think they are fighting the same adversaries [as the US] but [that] they are not allies.”
The result, he says, is a reversal in US-Saudi relations to a point where the two are “friends but not allies” on key events in the region, while those same events – notably the intertwined Syrian and Iraqi conflicts and the rise of ISIS – seem to increasingly make the US and Iran “allies but not friends.”
Looking forward, Sadjadpour says, “I see that trend line continuing.”
That’s the context that Kerry – who last week raised the prospect of the US and Iran cooperating on Iraq – will confront when he meets with King Abdullah in Riyadh.
One question Kerry is almost certain to hear: Under what conditions would the US resort to air strikes against Iraq’s insurgents? For the Saudis, it’s a question that probes just how far US-Iranian “cooperation” might go, some regional experts say.
The US faces “the perception that we’d essentially be propping up an Iranian-backed sectarian Shia government,” says Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of RAND Corp’s Center for Middle East Public Policy in Washington.
Kerry says he will also broach the state of the Syrian conflict with the king, but the issue of Syria also presents pitfalls for the US.
Kerry says he will discuss the common US and Saudi interest in supporting Syria’s moderate opposition. In Washington, perhaps signaling the US commitment to such common interests, the Obama administration announced it was seeking $500 million from Congress to “train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition.”
Nevertheless, Kerry’s conversation is bound to get to the threat posed by ISIS. And putting the emphasis on the Sunni extremists could turn off the Saudis, Ms. Kaye says, because it sounds like the US is coming around to the position that Mr. Assad, an Alawite Shiite ruling over a majority Sunni country, has espoused since the beginning of the war.
“This is what the Assad regime was looking for” all along, she says, that the world “see the Sunni extremists as the bigger threat” in Syria. The growing alarm over ISIS, including from the US, “really fits Assad’s narrative,” she says. “In the near term, that seems to be coming to pass.”