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Trump, Saudi king agree to set up ‘safe zones’ in Syria, Yemen

Updated Jan 31, 2017 10:06am

WASHINGTON: Two days after ordering a ban on visitors and refugees from seven Muslim countries, US President Donald Trump won Saudi King Salman bin Abd Al-Aziz’s support for establishing safe zones for refugees in two of them — Syria and Yemen, the White House said.

“The President requested and the King agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts,” said the White House readout.

The safe zones would be used to shelter the internally displaced people in those two war-torn countries instead of allowing them to seek asylum in the West.

The White House said the two leaders agreed on the importance of strengthening joint efforts to fight the spread of radical Islamic terrorism and also on the importance of working jointly to address challenges to regional peace and security, including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

They also agreed on the importance of rigorously enforcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and of addressing Iran’s destabilising regional activities.

The two leaders also discussed an invitation from the King for President Trump to “lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism.”

The US president and the Saudi king spoke over the phone on Sunday afternoon, two days after Mr Trump signed his controversial order.

Reuters adds: Trump, during his presidential campaign last year, had called for Gulf states to pay for establishing safe zones to protect Syrian refugees.

A statement after the phone call said the two leaders agreed on the importance of strengthening joint efforts to fight the spread of IS militants.

The Saudi Press Agency, in an initial readout of the call, made no specific mention of safe zones, but said the two leaders had affirmed the “depth and durability of the strategic relationship” between the two countries.

The agency later said “the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques had confirmed his support and backing for setting up safe zones in Syria”, but did not mention Yemen, where a Saudi alliance is fighting against the Iran-aligned Houthi group.

A senior Saudi source told Reuters the two leaders spoke for more than an hour by telephone and agreed to step up counter-terrorism and military cooperation and enhance economic cooperation.

But the source had no word on whether the two leaders discussed Trump’s order to put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily ban travellers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries.

Trump, Muslim Brotherhood & UAE

The two also discussed the Muslim Brotherhood, the senior Saudi source said, adding in a reference to the late Al Qaeda leader, “it was mentioned that Osama bin Laden was recruited at an early stage” by the organisation. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Riyadh fears the Brotherhood, whose Sunni Islamist doctrines challenge the Saudi principle of dynastic rule, has tried to build support inside the kingdom since the Arab Spring revolutions.

US officials and people close to Trump’s transition team have said a debate is under way in the Trump administration whether the United States should also declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and subject it to US sanctions.

Trump also spoke with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. In what appears to have been a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Crown Prince was cited by UAE state news agency WAM as saying “groups that raise fake slogans and ideologies aim to hide their criminal truth by spreading chaos and destruction.” The White House said Trump had also “raised the idea of supporting safe zones for the refugees displaced by the conflict in the region, and the Crown Prince agreed to support this initiative”.

Published in Dawn January 31st, 2017