Reassuring a wary ally, Obama meets with Saudi king, weighs air defense help for Syrian rebels

The Associated Press

President Barack Obama meets with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khuraim, Saudi Arabia, Friday, March 28, 2014. Rawdat Khuraim is a green oasis located 62 miles northwest of the capital city of Riyadh and King Abdullah's private desert encampment is located within Rawdat Khuraim. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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By JULIE PACE and JIM KUHNHENN, Associated Press

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — 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. U.S. officials have estimated the Syrian government has thousands.

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 the president's side for the visit — Obama's third official meeting with the king in six years. They met for nearly two hours before Obama and his aides left the compound after dusk.

Obama and the king spent the bulk of their session discussing Iran and Syria, where U.S. and Saudi interests remain aligned despite differences about some tactics, senior administration officials said after the meeting. In a nod to a potential change in the stance on manpads, officials said that in the course of providing assistance to the Syrian opposition, the U.S. has been able to develop deeper relationships that have fostered confidence in the moderate elements.

Despite longstanding U.S. complaints about human rights and treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, those issues didn't come up in the meeting, said the officials, who weren't authorized to discuss the meeting by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

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.