More than expected but no definitive commitments
Washington - US President Barack Obama’s six-hour Camp David summit with Gulf Arab leaders “exceeded expectations”, a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) official said, but did not produce any surprises.
The leaders reaffirmed the defence and strategic pillars of their long-standing relationships but made no breakthroughs on dealing with the conflict in Syria or what the Gulf Arab states see as the threat from Iran.
“It exceeded expectations and President Obama was attuned to our concerns and offered clear answers to the questions we had on the nuclear negotiations with Iran,” said Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg, the GCC’s assistant secretary-general for foreign affairs. Commenting at a May 15th roundtable hosted by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Aluwaisheg said, “The end result was very positive and we agreed on holding another summit next year instead of the initial plan of waiting two years.”
Positive reactions also came from members of the Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti delegations who spoke to The Arab Weekly. The Arab leaders sensed a clear US commitment to regional security, conveyed in the final statement pledging “to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state’s territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the UN Charter”.
Washington affirmed that it is not seeking realignment in the region, according to Aluwaisheg, and that “no grand bargain with Iran” is in the offing. The nuclear deal with Tehran, if it is finalised in June, represents nothing more than an arms control agreement. “This is the best deal we can get at the moment,” Aluwaisheg acknowledged.
The immediate future in US-GCC relations will see the establishment of working groups, defence committees and steps to boost maritime security and border control. Also on the agenda are work on early warning systems as well and a ballistic missile network. All of these measures are intended to reassure the GCC states of the US commitment to their security.
But despite the positive words, Andrew Bowen, a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest, a conservative-leaning think-tank in Washington, said, “The Gulf leaders were left with few concrete commitments from the White House to assuage their concerns about Iran’s aggressive role in the region beyond increased defence sales and rhetorical assurances.”
Bowen told The Arab Weekly that “the lofty assurances are largely ephemeral and will soon wear off as these leaders return home to deal with Iran’s deepening position in the region and the challenge Tehran poses to their national interests.” Bowen noted that the summit did not produce a defence treaty or a commitment by the United States to sell GCC allies F-35 fighter jets or other advanced aircraft and weaponry.
Moreover, Syria remains a subject of disagreement. “The GCC leaders left with no definitive commitments about expanding Washington’s role in supporting Syria’s opposition,” said Bowen.
While the final statement concluded that “Assad had lost all legitimacy” and referred to “increasing support to the moderate opposition”, there were no specifics about establishing a safe zone or giving the rebels more advanced weapons.
A senior White House official who was involved in planning the summit told The Arab Weekly the administration is concerned about the gains made by anti-Assad rebels in northern Syria, which the official said could play into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. He blamed Turkey for supporting the rebels.
The administration “failed so far to dissuade key GCC countries from seeking nuclear technology,” said Bowen. While US officials see such scenario as unlikely “empty threats” from former Gulf officials, Bowen sees the warnings as a tactic to leave the door open despite the GCC’s expected support for the nuclear agreement with Iran.
The final statement declared “support for the P5+1 to reach a deal with Iran by June 30, 2015, that would verifiably ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, noting that such a deal would represent a significant contribution to regional security.” But the devil is in the details and the key word here is “verifiable”, Aluwaisheg said. Full support will be determined “after an agreement is reached and not before”, he added.
Following the summit, “President Obama needs to personally invest more in his relationships with his Gulf counterparts, including directly engaging them in a fully honest and transparent way about the next steps in the Iran negotiations and US future actions in Iraq and Syria,” said Bowen. More bilateral visits are expected in Washington, including potentially one by Saudi King Salman bin Abdul- Aziz Al Saud by the end of June, the deadline for the Iran deal.
Such positive atmospherics are expected to continue after Camp David. The summit succeeded in emphasising long-standing defence and security relations between Washington and the GCC irrespective of the name of the leader in those capitals but the split continues on key political issues, absent a clear US strategy on Syria, or the Middle East.