US denies rift with Saudi on Syria tactics

Washington: The United States denied Tuesday that it is in a dispute with its ally Saudi Arabia over how to handle the crisis in Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was all smiles late Monday when he welcomed deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to his home in Washington.

The influential 30-year-old prince, who serves as defense minister, broke his Ramadan fast at an iftar supper with the top US diplomat.

Reports had suggested Riyadh is frustrated with US policy in Syria and would like to step up arms supplies to the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

But on Tuesday, Kerry’s spokesman John Kirby denied there was any rift.

“If you’re asking if there’s this big philosophical divide between the Saudis and the United States on how to move forward on the ground in Syria, the answer is ‘no,'” he told reporters.

Kirby recalled that Saudi Arabia had been one of the first countries to join the United States and Russia in forming the International Syria Support Group.

This 22-nation group is pushing for a negotiated end to Syria’s civil war, and Riyadh was vital in getting skeptical mainly Sunni rebels on board.

“If it were not for Saudi leadership, we wouldn’t have that first meeting of the Syrian opposition groups back in December in Riyadh,” Kirby said.

“They have been at this right from the beginning with the United States and with Russia and with Turkey, moving this process forward.”

Earlier in the process, Saudi officials privately told AFP they favored sending ground-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons to the rebels.

But they have stuck by the US and Russian plan, while continuing to complain that Assad — backed by Saudi foe Iran — is breaching a shaky truce.

“I’m not going to speak for what they specifically want to do differently,” Kirby said.

“But I can tell you that on the issues that matter… Saudi Arabia has been with us step-by-step.”

– Extremist funding -According to a statement issued after Monday’s meeting, Kerry and the prince also discussed joint US-Saudi efforts to counter Islamic extremism.

This was a particularly touchy topic in the wake of Sunday’s mass shooting by an apparent Islamist sympathizer in a Florida gay nightclub.

Kerry’s predecessor as secretary of state, US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton seized up the attacks to demand that Saudi citizens stop “funding extremist organizations.”

“They should stop supporting radical schools and mosques around the world that set too many young people on a path towards extremism,” she added.

Kirby would not be drawn on whether Kerry had passed a similar message to his Saudi guests.

Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia and under the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islamic law can in some cases be punishable by death.

But Riyadh did issue a statement condemning the Orlando shooting.

According to Kirby, the prince and the diplomat “discussed this weekend’s shooting in Orlando and expressed their shared commitment to continue their cooperation in combating the spread of violent extremism, both regionally and internationally.”

Agence France-Presse