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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is improving, the same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia. Usually, Saudi leaders prefer to settle issues quietly. But lately, they've been pretty outspoken about their dissatisfaction with the United States. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly acknowledged Saudi Arabia is disappointed with American actions in the Middle East.

NPR's Deb Amos has more from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: In just a few weeks, Saudi Arabia has sent unmistakable diplomatic signals: canceling a speech at the U.N., rejecting a prestigious seat on the Security Council, calling in European diplomats here in Riyadh, so the intelligence chief could tell them he was cutting cooperation with the U.S. The unusually blunt message is about Syria, says Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, the assistant secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

ABDEL AZIZ ALUWAISHEG: Killing 100,000 people by conventional weapons is important and has to be dealt with, with the same sense of urgency as the chemical weapons issue.

AMOS: The chemical weapon issue came up in August after an attack on a Damascus neighborhood. The U.S. threatened military strikes but at the last minute, opted for diplomacy. The Obama administration's U-turn infuriated the Saudis, says Saudi specialist Gregory Gause.

GREGORY GAUSE: The Saudis felt that we pulled the rug out from under them. And I think that they felt exposed, and they felt that the United States wasn't following through on what it had implicitly promised to do.

AMOS: Instead of weakening Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, the Americans gave him a lifeline, in the Saudi view; implicitly supporting him in power at least until the chemical weapons deal is done. Saudi policy is clear. They want Assad out; the sooner, the better.

GAUSE: Syria is more important to them than it is to us.

AMOS: For the Saudis, Syria is part of a larger regional contest within a set of alliances. The Syrians are backed by Iran, the Saudi rival for power in the region. So the fight against Bashar al-Assad is also a strike against Tehran, says Gause, a University of Vermont professor who also works in the Middle East.

GAUSE: Because for them, Syria is the best chance that they've had in 10 years to roll back Iranian influence. And if the Saudis can bring about a regime change in Syria, it's a big blow to Iranian influence in the Arab world.

AMOS: Saudi frustration with U.S. policy has led to moves not coordinated with the U.S. One example is on the battlefield in Syria, says Gause.

GAUSE: We saw just a couple of weeks ago, the formation of a new front of Syrian rebels, called the Syrian Islamic Army. And the Saudis seem to be the driving force behind that.

AMOS: The Saudis continue to support the Free Syrian Army, also backed by Washington. But the Obama administration has hedged on supplying weapons for the FSA, fearing those weapons could go to al-Qaida-linked groups. So the Saudis are funding and arming a force of its own. This new rebel formation appears to be a Saudi project to counter the extremist appeal, says Aaron Zelin at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

AARON ZELIN: In the Saudi conception of things, this group is considered a moderate alternative, though I would think that many in the West might consider otherwise.

AMOS: He says for the Saudis, the battlefield has become more important than it is to the Americans. Now focusing on negotiations to end the conflict in Syria, the Saudis have backed the diplomatic process. But Aluwaisheg says they're not counting on results.

ALUWAISHEG: I don't think you should put all your eggs in Geneva basket and think it's going to solve things, considering the person or the regime we're dealing with.

AMOS: He says it's unlikely the Syrian president will agree to negotiate his departure to make way for a transitional government. All of this fuels Saudi anger that U.S. policy is misguided, and the U.S. is backing away from its declared position of wanting Assad out. It comes at a time when the U.S. has open relations with Iran, Assad's closest ally. Gregory Gause says this has raised Saudi fears that any warming of U.S.-Iranian relations will come at Saudi expense - a fear, he says, that is misplaced.

GAUSE: The thing that the Saudis and the other smaller Gulf states exaggerate is the fear that the United States is just going to sell them out to Iran. American interests in the Gulf region are not to have a power like Iran dominate the region.

AMOS: But Iran is key to the dispute. The unusual public diplomatic row is first about Syria. But for the Saudis, it is ultimately about Iran.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.

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