In Saudi talks, Trump seeks anti-Iran partnership
Washington - The White House pulled out all the stops for visiting Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to drive home the message that Riyadh is a crucial pillar of US President Donald Trump’s vision for a new anti-Iranian alliance in the Middle East.
Washington provided Prince Mohammed and his entourage with a series of top-level meetings that went beyond the hospitality usually shown during a working visit by a foreign leader. Following a meeting with Trump over lunch in the White House, Prince Mohammed talked with US Defense Secretary James Mattis and was to meet with CIA Director Michael Pompeo. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met separately with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
An important part of Trump’s message to the prince was to signal “a more aggressive policy of challenging Iranian actions in the region”, said Gerald Feierstein, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former US ambassador to Yemen.
A Saudi official called the meeting between Prince Mohammed and Trump “a huge success”. The official said the prince considered Trump, a politician seen by critics as a populist who spouted Islamophobic ideas during last year’s election campaign, “a true friend of Muslims”. A senior White House official told CNN the meeting had been “very important”.
Trump wants to build a partnership between the Sunni Gulf states, Egypt and Israel to increase security for the Jewish state, push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and counterbalance what he sees as a growing threat by a resurgent Iran.
The Wall Street Journal reported the administration was talking with several Arab governments about forming a NATO-style alliance in the Middle East. The leaders of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are expected to visit Washington within the next few weeks. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had talks with Trump in Washington last month.
The barrage of meetings is a sign of Trump’s determination to make a fresh start after his predecessor Barack Obama left several American partners in the Middle East with the impression that the United States had turned its back on the region. The new foreign policy direction is underpinned by discussions within the administration about a stronger US military engagement against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
One plan from the Pentagon calls for the rapid deployment of up to 1,000 additional US troops in northern Syria, where US forces have been preparing Kurdish and Arab fighters for a major attack on the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, the Washington Post reported. Implementation of the plan would double the number of US troops in Syria and could increase the likelihood of American soldiers becoming directly involved in the fighting, the report said.
Another 5,000 US soldiers have been helping drive ISIS from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Trump is to host Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a crucial partner in the fight against ISIS, in Washington on March 20th.