RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Barack Obama is considering allowing shipments of new air defense systems to the Syrian opposition, a U.S. official said Friday, as Obama sought to reassure Saudi Arabia’s king that the U.S. is not taking too soft a stance in Syria and other Mideast conflicts.
A key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia would be likely to cheer a decision by Obama to allow the portable missile launchers into Syria. Saudi officials were dismayed when Obama scrapped plans last year to launch a strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad, and they have been pressing the White House on the issue. The Saudis could play a direct role in sending the systems, known as “manpads,” to the rebels fighting Assad’s forces.
Manpads are compact missile launchers with the range and explosive power to attack low-flying planes and helicopters. Assad’s forces are known to have them, and some have been brought into Syria by rebels and their sympathizers.
The Saudis have held off providing them in the past because of U.S. opposition.
Word of Obama’s potential shift came as Obama was paying a visit to Saudi King Abdullah’s desert oasis at the conclusion of a weeklong, four-country trip. The aging monarch has been nervously watching Washington’s negotiations with Iran and other U.S. policy developments in the Middle East.
Obama’s Marine One helicopter kicked up clouds of sand in his arrival at the king’s desert camp outside the capital of Riyadh for a meeting with Abdullah. The president walked through a row of military guards to an ornate room featuring a massive crystal chandelier and took a seat next to the 89-year-old king, who was breathing with the help of an oxygen tank.
Secretary of State John Kerry sat at Obama’s side for the visit that was the president’s third official meeting with the king in six years.
Despite its decades-long alliance with the United States, Saudi’s royal family has become increasingly anxious in recent years over Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran and his tepid involvement in the Syrian civil war. During Obama’s evening meetings with the king, the president’s task was to reassure Saudi Arabia that the U.S. is not abandoning Arab interests despite troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, greater energy independence back home and nuclear talks with predominantly Persian Iran.
Allowing manpads to be delivered to Syrian rebels would mark a shift in strategy for the U.S., which until this point has limited its lethal assistance to small weapons and ammunition, as well as humanitarian aid. The U.S. has been grappling for ways to boost the rebels, who have lost ground in recent months, allowing Assad to regain a tighter grip on the war-weary nation.
As recently as February, the administration insisted Obama remained opposed to any shipments of manpads to the Syrian opposition. The U.S. has been concerned that the weaponry could fall into the wrong hands and possibly be used to shoot down a commercial airliner.
Among the reasons for Obama’s shift in thinking is the greater understanding the U.S. now has about the composition of the Syrian rebels, said the U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the internal deliberations by name and commented only on condition of anonymity. Still, the official added, Obama continues to have concerns about escalating the firepower on the ground in Syria, a country that has been torn apart by more than three years of civil war.
The president was not expected to announce a final decision on the matter during his overnight trip to the Gulf kingdom. U.S. and Saudi intelligence officials have been discussing the possibility of injecting manpads into the crisis for some time, including during a meeting in Washington earlier this year.
As for Saudi Arabia, White House officials and Mideast experts say the royal family’s main concern is Iran. The Saudis fear Iran’s nuclear program, object to Iran’s backing of the Assad government in Syria and see the government of Tehran as having designs on oilfields in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One on the flight to Saudi Arabia that the issues at the heart of Obama’s meetings with Abdullah would include Gulf security, Middle East peace, Iran and Egypt.
Rhodes said Obama was updating the king on the nuclear talks with Iran. He said Obama would also make the point that those negotiations do not mean U.S. concerns about other Iranian activities have lessened, including Iran’s support for Assad and Hezbollah, as well as its destabilizing activity in Yemen and the Gulf.
“Those concerns remain constant and we’re not in any way negotiating those issues in the nuclear talks,” he said.
Rhodes said human rights, including women’s rights, would be on the agenda for Obama’s meetings. But he said the U.S. has a broad range of security interests with Saudi Arabia that would be most prominent.