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US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) gestures towards Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (left) during a meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, yesterday.
RIYADH: US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday said in Riyadh that Washington will work to “empower” Syria’s opposition, while warning arch-foe Iran that time for talk on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions could run out.
Kerry, on his first tour to the region since becoming the Secretary of State, also met over lunch with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who flew in to Riyadh unannounced late on Sunday. Kerry stressed that there was no question of arming the Syrian opposition, even as his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud Al Faisal insisted on the right of Syrians to self-defence.
The US will continue to work with its “friends to empower the Syrian opposition,” Kerry told reporters during a joint press conference with the Saudi foreign minister.
Saud, whose country along with other Gulf states is widely believed to be supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels, said Saudi Arabia could not ignore the brutality Assad is inflicting on his people, even after two years of escalating violence that has claimed 70,000 lives.
He said that history had never seen a government use strategic missiles against its own people. “This cannot go on,” he said. “He has lost all authority.”
“Saudi Arabia will do everything within its capacity, and we do believe that what is happening in Syria is a slaughter, a slaughter of innocents” he said. “We can’t bring ourselves to remain quiet. Morally we have a duty.” The Obama administration has resisted appeals from the Syrian opposition to provide it with weapons and ammunitions over fears that they could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists who have gained support among Assad opponents.
But Kerry sidestepped a question about whether the arms reportedly being supplied to the rebels by Saudi Arabia and others were a concern. Instead, he criticized Iran, Hezbollah and Russia by name for giving weaponry to the Assad regime.
Asked about reports of arms being sent to Syria’s rebels from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Kerry replied: “The moderate opposition has the ability to make sure that the weapons are getting to them and not to the wrong hands.”
However, he added, “there is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not fall in the wrong hands.”
The US has so far refused to arm rebels locked in a two-year war against President Bashar Al Assad’s loyalists.
Several oil-rich monarchies of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have supported the rebellion against Assad, a staunch ally of their regional arch-foe Iran.
The GCC members are dissatisfied at the refusal of President Barack Obama’s administration to arm Syrian rebels and its perceived lenient attitude towards Tehran, analysts say.
Kerry said his discussions with Gulf officials had also covered ongoing talks between world powers and Iran on its nuclear programme.
During his flurry of meetings in Riyadh yesterday, Kerry also held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, but had no plans for a meeting with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, officials said.
He also met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas who flew unexpectedly into Riyadh late Sunday.
“Well, Mr President I have been waiting for this meeting and I think you have too,” Kerry told Abbas. “That’s right, that’s right,” replied Abbas. Prior to their meeting, Palestinian envoy in Riyadh, Jamal Al Shawbaki, told the official Voice of Palestine radio that Abbas “will present the Palestinian point of view to the new US administration ahead of Obama’s visit”.
Obama is due to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah during a visit on March 20-22.
Abbas, in his first meeting with Kerry, will also “highlight Israeli violations in Jerusalem, settlements, and the issue of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike,” said Shawbaki. Palestinian-Israeli peace talks have been deadlocked for more than two years. Abbas wants to renew peace talks in tandem with a freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and in east Jerusalem.
US officials said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been made aware of the unscheduled Kerry-Abbas meeting. After winding up the Saudi leg of his tour, Kerry will head to Abu Dhabi and then to Qatar. AP/AFP