US and Saudis step-up regime change rhetoric in Syria

US secretary of State Hilary Clinton was in Saudi Arabia to discuss the hitherto unresolved conflict in Syria. The long-term allies both advocate the removal of President Assad and seek a united strategy ahead of Sunday’s ‘Friends of Syria’ summit.

The US wants to unify the rebels and lobby for humanitarian aid, but Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive stance calls for military action.

Clinton met with King Abdullah and a number of other high-ranking Saudi officials behind closed doors on Friday with a view to “stopping the bloodbath in Syria”.

Saudi Arabia along with Qatar advocates military intervention to overthrow the embattled Syrian government with the possibility of troop deployment. The US remains weary of arming the rebels but coincides with Saudi interests insofar as regime change is concerned.

The meeting is part of a US push for a concrete policy between the two countries before a meeting of the so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ on Sunday in Istanbul.

The summit is expected to be geared towards supporting the fragmented Syrian rebel forces in light of the joint UN-Arab League peace plan’s failure to take hold.

The US government was quick to denounce the Assad regime last Wednesday for not adhering to Kofi Annan's peace plan. On Wednesday, State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told the media that “Assad has not taken the necessary steps to implement  Annan’s plan.”

The initiative had won the support of Russia and China. They had previously vetoed Security Council resolutions on the conflict, claiming they were unbalanced in favor of the ouster of President Assad.

The Syrian government had agreed to the six-point plan which stipulated an immediate ceasefire, but there has been no halt to the fighting. In fact, opposition sources report of an escalation in violence on Friday, with violent clashes erupting in Damascus.

President Assad has said the ceasefire will only succeed if the opposition groups he has dubbed as “terrorists” commit as well. Rebels have branded Assad’s agreement to the peace plan as an excuse to stall for time and continue government crackdowns.

"The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side," Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Friday. "We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith. … The deadline is now."

Political Analyst Chris Bambery emphasized the importance of the US-Saudi strategic alliance, but highlighted US reluctance to provide weapons “that could lead to a conflict that there is no easy solution to.”

“The Saudis are very keen to overthrow the Assad regime as soon as possible and want to increase the arms that are going to the Syrian rebels,” he said.

Although the “US is no less keen to overthrow the Assad regime,” it has ample experience that arming opposition forces can lead to a loss of control. Moreover, American forces are currently “on overstretch” in other military campaigns such as Afghanistan and have not got the resources to spare.

“Probably the Americans would like an Assad-like Baath regime… while I think Riyadh wants something far more fundamental than that,” said Bambery.

Mr. Bambery stressed that it was essential that the US “iron out” these differences before the Friends of Syria summit on Sunday. He said that the West is willing to turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s numerous humanitarian abuses and pander to their interests because “business is good” with them.

“They [Saudi Arabia] are backing the most extreme movements in the Arab world to try and offset the Arab spring, they have their own agenda here that doesn’t quite chime with America’s,” he concluded.