Saudi minister rips White House on Syria, talks 2016 campaign

Story highlights

  • The foreign minister wants a tougher Syria line
  • He spoke about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

(CNN)A top Saudi Arabian official visiting Washington gave his full backing Friday to State Department officials protesting the White House's refusal to directly confront the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir spoke a day after 51 State Department staff involved in Mideast issues sharply criticized the Obama administration's Syria policy in a formal, classified memo as ineffective and urged a tougher stance, including airstrikes against the Syrian regime.
    "We've been arguing for that since the beginning of the crisis," Al-Jubeir said.
    He detailed the options Saudi leaders have advocated for, including airstrikes, a no-fly zone, safe haven and more robust arming of the Syrian opposition, including surface-to-air missiles.
    "We continue to believe unless we change the balance of power in a dramatic way, that once we do that it will open the way for a political solution," al-Jubeir said.
    A senior U.S. administration official pushed back against the Saudi foreign minister's remarks, however, saying the administration made its decisions based on U.S. interests, not those of other countries.
    "There's no question that the Saudis have been pushing us to get more involved militarily since the start of the Syrian conflict, and the reason is simple: They want us to do the fighting for them," the official said. "But if we've learned anything over the past 10-plus years, it's that we must not allow ourselves be drawn into protracted conflicts, especially in the Middle East."
    In his remarks to reporters at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in D.C., al-Jubeir also pushed back against criticism from Hillary Clinton and skirted questions about the future of relations with the U.S. under a possible President Donald Trump.
    Clinton, the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee, called out Saudi Arabia this week in Cleveland, saying that "it is long past time for the Saudis, the Qataris and the Kuwaitis and others to stop their citizens from funding extremist organizations. And they should stop supporting radical schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path towards extremism."
    Those comments, al-Jubeir said, were "exaggerated and I think, frankly, they're not fair."
    "Nobody can question the kingdom's commitment to fighting terrorism or the financing of terrorism," al-Jubeir said, adding some praise for Clinton's "tremendous experience."
    Al-Jubeir is in Washington to accompany Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman as he made the rounds of the White House, Congress, Pentagon and other key Cabinet agencies such as state, energy and treasury.
    The Saudi visit comes as ties with the U.S. have been strained and Riyahd has come in for direct and indirect criticism, with calls for the release of classified information on the possible involvement of Saudis in the Sept. 11 attacks and legislation in Congress that would make countries like the kingdom liable for damages in terror attacks.
    Al-Jubeir also defended Saudi Arabia's efforts to promote tolerance and said that if mosques funded by his country were "later on taken over by extremists, that should be the responsibility of the local government, not the donor country."
    Asked whether Trump's comments about Muslims or his proposed ban on their entry to the U.S. would affect the relationship with Saudi Arabia, al-Jubeir was diplomatic.
    "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States is a bipartisan one," he said. "The one constant is that with every decade it grows stronger, broader and deeper."
    Al-Jubeir also said that his country had records that Omar Mateen, the killer responsible for the deaths of 49 people at Orlando's Pulse nightclub Sunday, had visited Saudi Arabia twice, but that he "didn't know that he was on any radar screen" or whether his country's security services have investigated him.