US sig­nals cau­tion to Saudis over re­gional power strug­gle


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – De­spite Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s full-throated sup­port for Saudi Ara­bia, the United States ap­pears to be sig­nal­ing a de­sire for Riyadh to take a more cau­tious ap­proach in its re­gional power strug­gle with Iran, ex­perts say.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which shares Saudi Ara­bia’s view of Iran as a re­gional men­ace, has strongly backed the king­dom in the wake of a failed mis­sile at­tack from Iran-aligned forces in Ye­meni ter­ri­tory that demon­strated an abil­ity to strike the Saudi cap­i­tal.

Trump has cul­ti­vated much warmer ties with the Saudis af­ter a fraught re­la­tion­ship with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion – the pres­i­dent made Riyadh his first stop on his maiden in­ter­na­tional trip – and has vowed to take strong ac­tion to con­front Iran. Nev­er­the­less, Washington, which has US forces in Syria and Iraq, is tele­graph­ing a more tem­pered stance to­ward the con­fronta­tion in a re­gion be­set with tur­moil.

On Thurs­day, the State De­part­ment called for “unim­peded ac­cess” for hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to Ye­men, af­ter Saudi Ara­bia im­posed a block­ade on the coun­try to stem the flow of arms to Iran-aligned Houthi fight­ers.

A day later, US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son made clear he still rec­og­nized as Lebanon’s prime min­is­ter Saad Hariri, who un­ex­pect­edly an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion on Novem­ber 4 from Riyadh.

In an­nounc­ing his de­ci­sion on tele­vi­sion, Hariri said he feared as­sas­si­na­tion and ac­cused Iran and its Le­banese ally Hezbol­lah of sow­ing strife in the Arab world, thrust­ing Lebanon into the front line of the competition be­tween Sunni Saudi Ara­bia and Shi’ite Iran.

Two US of­fi­cials said the Saudis, led by Crown Prince Muham­mad, had “en­cour­aged” Hariri to leave of­fice and Le­banese of­fi­cials say he is be­ing held in Saudi Ara­bia, a charge Riyadh de­nies. Hariri has not com­mented pub­licly on whether he is free to come and go as he pleases.

In a state­ment on Satur­day, the White House said it “re­jects any ef­forts by mili­tias within Lebanon or by any for­eign forces to threaten Lebanon’s sta­bil­ity... or use Lebanon as a base from which to threaten oth­ers in the re­gion.”

When asked to com­ment on whether the United States was push­ing for a more cau­tious Saudi re­sponse, both the White House and State De­part­ment re­ferred to Satur­day’s state­ment on Lebanon.

Tiller­son was “not go­ing along with the Saudi po­si­tion in de­scrib­ing the Le­banese state as un­der cap­ture by Hezbol­lah,” said Paul Salem, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the Mid­dle East In­sti­tute, a Washington think tank. “That’s sig­nif­i­cant.”

Tiller­son was also “sig­nal­ing to the Is­raelis... that now is not the time to go af­ter Lebanon,” said Salem, re­fer­ring to long-stand­ing Is­raeli con­cerns about Hezbol­lah’s grow­ing mil­i­tary prow­ess.

Ray Takeyh, a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, said he be­lieved the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was still seek­ing to help the Saudis ad­vance their in­ter­ests against Iran with­out desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion.

“This is a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act. It in­volves sup­port­ing al­lies in a pol­icy that the ad­min­is­tra­tion agrees with, while try­ing to mit­i­gate as­pects of it that it [sees as] over­stated,” Takeyh said.

Tiller­son’s state­ment also urged “all par­ties both within Lebanon and out­side” to re­spect Lebanon’s in­de­pen­dence and said there was no role for any for­eign forces.

The United States reg­u­larly crit­i­cizes Iran and Hezbol­lah for their role in Lebanon. Tiller­son’s back­ing of Hariri and the Le­banese gov­ern­ment con­trasted sharply with the ap­proach taken by Saudi Ara­bia, which has lumped Lebanon with Hezbol­lah as par­ties hos­tile to it.

“I see Rex Tiller­son as be­ing an old fash­ioned Amer­i­can diplo­mat, and old fash­ioned Amer­i­can diplo­macy in the Mid­dle East is all about sta­bil­ity,” said F. Gre­gory Gause, chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs De­part­ment at Texas A&M Univer­sity.

“I’m not en­tirely sure that that is the po­si­tion of the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the United States,” he said.

The Saudi ac­tions co­in­cide with an anti-cor­rup­tion purge by the coun­try’s fu­ture king that tight­ened his grip on power.

Trump tweeted on Mon­day that he had “great con­fi­dence in King Sal­man and the Crown Prince of Saudi Ara­bia” fol­low­ing the mass ar­rests – the big­gest such purge of the king­dom’s af­flu­ent elite in its his­tory.

Trump also tweeted that “they know ex­actly what they are do­ing.”

For­mer and cur­rent US of­fi­cials with deep knowl­edge of Saudi Ara­bia say Trump’s en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port for Prince Muham­mad has em­bold­ened the youth­ful Saudi leader.

Tiller­son told re­porters the purge ap­peared “well in­tended” but the mass ar­rests, which have swept up of­fi­cials long known in Washington, also fueled US con­cerns.

“It raises a few con­cerns un­til we see more clearly how th­ese par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­als are dealt with,” Tiller­son said.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, the pres­i­dent’s se­nior ad­viser, who has cul­ti­vated a close re­la­tion­ship with Prince Muham­mad, re­cently re­turned from Saudi Ara­bia, fu­el­ing spec­u­la­tion on whether he may have had wind of the crown prince’s plans. A se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said they had no ad­vance knowl­edge.



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