RIYADH: GHAZANFAR ALI KHAN
Published — Wednesday 24 April 2013
Last update 26 April 2013 10:02 am
Crown Prince Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, held wide-ranging talks with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel here yesterday focusing on key regional issues including Syria, Iran and Palestine.
A range of bilateral issues were also discussed candidly by the US defense secretary in his meetings, said a source familiar with the US official’s visit, here Tuesday night.
Hagel, who is currently on a weeklong trip to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, to consult with regional leaders on Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear program and to discuss a set of US arms deals, had two rounds of talks with Prince Salman on Tuesday.
Hagel’s visit coincides with the renewed interest by the US administration to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to review the overall situation in the region.
The talks between Prince Salman and Hagel were attended by a large number of US and Saudi officials, including Prince Saud Al-Faisal, foreign minister; Prince Fahd bin Abdullah, the newly-appointed deputy defense minister; Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi ambassador to the US; and James B. Smith, US ambassador. “Crown Prince Salman hosted a dinner in honor of Hagel on Tuesday night,” said the source.
The Kingdom has called for the arming of rebels fighting the regime in Syria but the United States has been willing only to provide “non-military” assistance to the opposition.
Hagel, on his first regional tour since he took office two months ago, will travel to Cairo today and then head for the United Arab Emirates for talks, said the source.
According to a statement from the US Defense Department, Syria is widely expected to dominate the talks with regional leaders. Among the issues to be raised during the meetings between Hagel and Arab leaders and officials will be increased technical support for Syrian opposition forces and a joint US-Jordanian response to Damascus’ potential use of chemical weapons. Hagel has underlined Washington’s steadfast support for regional security in the face of potential spill over from the Syrian crisis and a nuclear Iran.
It was also reported that Hagel is expected to wrap up some $ 10 billion worth of arms deals during his visit to the Middle East. Hagel, in a statement made before leaving Israel for Saudi Arabia, said: “Iran presents a threat with its nuclear program ... Military options, I think most of us feel, should be the last option,” Hagel said. “If that is an option that’s required, then we’ll have to make that decision.
“But I think it’s our sense — the United States and many of our allies — that these other tracks do have some time to continue to try to influence the outcome in Iran,” Hagel said. His agenda also includes Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Israel recently, has placed new attention on the long-stalemated peace process and the need to strike a deal that would enable Israel and Palestine to exist as separate states, each recognized by its neighbors.