Saudi Dep. DM meets Burns, Hagel on U.S. visit

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Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, on his debut trip to Washington in the post, met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the State Department on Wednesday.

He will hold meetings at the Pentagon on Thursday, beginning with an honor cordon hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department said.

Deputy Secretary Burns and Prince Salman discussed “our shared commitment to further strengthening our security relationship,” the State Department said. They also “discussed regional challenges, such as Syria, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common political and security challenges.’

A former senior US official who works on the region, speaking not for attribution, said Prince Salman was making the rounds on his first official trip to Washington in the Deputy Defense Minister job, and that it was thought he was also purchasing more big-ticket defense equipment, including F-15 aircraft, and Apache helicopters. Prince Salman, the younger half-brother of longtime former Saudi envoy to the U.S. Prince Bandar, assumed the deputy defense minister post in the Saudi Kingdom last August. In his late 30s, Prince Salman has past experience in Washington, however, having worked in the embassy here for nearly a decade.

Prince Sultan’s visit “is a getting-to-know-you occasion,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The contrived substance will probably be details of the overall arms package agreed a couple of years ago.”

“On Salman bin Sultan, don’t forget he was Bandar’s deputy at [the Saudi intelligence service] GID and deeply involved in Syria,” Henderson said.

Prince Salman’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh next week. The White House announced last month that Obama would add a trip to the Saudi Kingdom to the end of his trip next week to the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit, Belgium (NATO and US/EU summit), and the Vatican.

Obama, in Saudi Arabia, will meet King Abdullah, as well as other GCC leaders, Tamara Coffman Wittes said Wednesday. Items to be discussed on the visit include Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, she said.

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Obama: Syria chemical attack would cross U.S. 'core national interests'


President Obama said Friday the United States was consulting with allies and considering how to respond if an investigation determines that Syria used chemical weapons in an alleged attack on rebel-held villages in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta this week.

“Although the situation in Syria is very difficult…there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in an interview aired Friday.

“We are right now gathering information about this particular event,” Obama continued, “but I can say that, unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

While the U.S., Europeans and Russia have called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors access to the site, “we don’t expect cooperation, given their past history,” Obama said.

But Obama also expressed caution about another military entanglement, and justified the more limited U.S. response to past events in the Syrian conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“That does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” he told CNN. “We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

His comments came a day after US military, intelligence and diplomatic officials met for over three hours at the White House Thursday “to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria,” the New York Times reported. But the meeting concluded with no decision, the paper said, amid continued divisions in Obama's national security team about the consequences of deepening U.S. intervention in Syria.

The U.S. military “can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” top US military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to House Foreign Affairs committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) Monday (Aug 19), two days before the alleged attack in Ghouta. “The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict,” while not being “militarily decisive.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Friday on both the Syrian government and the rebels to grant access to Ghouta to a UN chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus. Moscow has suggested that the August 21st attack in eastern Ghouta may have been staged by the opposition as a “pre-planned provocation.”

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday that the chances that the rebels conspired to stage the attack are “vanishingly small,” and questioned why the Syrian regime had so far refused permission to the UN team to visit the area.

“It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,” Hague told the BBC Friday. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”

The attack is “not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore,” Hague said.

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Israeli jets said to have struck target near Syria border

The Lebanese Army reported the heavy presence of Israeli jets over its airspace on Wednesday, as sources in the region said Israeli Air Force jets had struck a target, possibly anti-aircraft systems, near Syria's border with Lebanon overnight.

Israeli officials would not comment on the reports.

“There was definitely a hit in the border area,” an unnamed regional security source told Reuters.

“The Israeli air force blew up a convoy which had just crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon,” an unnamed security source told Agence France Press.

A source in the region told Al-Monitor the alleged target was anti-aircraft systems, or a convoy of components for such systems, but that could not be confirmed. The Associated Press reported that the target was SA-17 anti-aircraft missile defenses.

Syria possesses advanced anti-aircraft defense systems, including the Russian-made SA-17 (and, Israel believes, Russian made S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles). Israel would consider it a “game changer” if Hezbollah acquired such advanced systems, that would “change the balance of power” between Israel and Hezbollah, and interfere with Israel's ability to overfly Lebanon and deter Hezbollah, an Israeli security expert told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Wednesday.

Israeli sources told McClatchy that what was targeted was electronic radar equipment, that targets the GPS system of drones, such as the U.S. unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle that went down over Iran in 2011.

“The entire world has said more than once that it takes developments in Syria very seriously, developments which can be in negative directions,” Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio Wednesday.

A Hezbollah spokesperson told Lebanon's Daily Star he had no knowledge of the alleged Israeli strike, the paper reported. Regional sources suggested it might be in the interests of the parties involved, including Syria, Hezbollah and Israel, not to acknowledge a strike if one occurred.

Earlier Wednesday, a Lebanese army statement said a total of twelve Israeli planes had entered Lebanese air space in three waves overnight, beginning at 4:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, and leaving on Wednesday at 7:55 a.m (12:55 a.m. ET), Reuters reported.

Israeli media, circumscribed by military censorship, cited Lebanese and other foreign media reports on the developments, which came after days of intense and secretive security consultations in Israel and with foreign capitals.

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi traveled to Washington for closed-door consultations with American officials Tuesday, Al-Monitor exclusively reportedTuesday. Israeli officials would not comment on the focus of his consultations.

Among those Kochavi met at the Pentagon Tuesday was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

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