WASHINGTON -- Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called on the international community Sunday to take action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, giving a boost to President Barack Obama's goal of assembling a multinational coalition to intervene in the conflict.
Al-Faisal said Saudi Arabia would back a U.S. strike on Syrian government targets, provided the military intervention was "the will of the Syrian people."
The comments, first reported by Al Jazeera, were made during a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, convened in order to discuss how the 22-member league should respond to the escalating violence in Syria. The meeting came less than two weeks after a sarin gas attack outside Damascus killed more than 1,400 people -- widely believed to be the work of Assad's government.
In Washington, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry spent the weekend making a forceful case to members of Congress that the U.S. should respond militarily to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons on a massive scale. A number of lawmakers have said they would be more likely to support American involvement if the U.S. acts as part of an international coalition, rather than unilaterally. Statements like those from Saudi Arabia's al-Faisal could go a long way toward helping the White House press its case this week to a reluctant and divided Congress.
"It is time for the international community to assume its responsibilities and to take deterrent measures against the Syrian regime," al-Faisal said, according to Al Jazeera. He argued that the Arab League's opposition thus far to international action in Syria "only encourages the regime to pursue its crimes."
"We call upon the international community with all its power to stop this aggression against the Syrian people," he said. As for whether Saudi Arabia would back a unilateral U.S. strike on Syrian military targets, al-Faisal said, "We stand by the will of the Syrian people. They know best their interests, so whatever they accept, we accept, and whatever they refuse, we refuse."
It's no secret among international observers that Saudi Arabia has been financing Syrian rebels for some time. But in the Middle East, a region characterized by complex alliances and rivalries, al-Faisal's comments Sunday were unexpectedly resolute. Still, it's unclear whether Saudi Arabia will succeed in convincing other Arab League nations that intervention in Syria is merited.
A number of the league's largest members -- including Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria and Tunisia -- all still formally oppose any foreign military action on the ground in Syria, despite the escalation of the current conflict by the use of chemical weapons.
Al-Faisal's response is the strongest statement of support offered by an Arab government thus far for U.S. action in Syria, and it comes at a time when the Obama administration faces dwindling support for intervention from traditional allies like Britain and Italy.
On Friday, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino ruled out the possibility of Italy's participation in a strike on Syria, saying instead that "keeping up diplomatic and political pressure is the only solution" to the two-year-old war in the country.
British Prime Minister David Cameron recently put the question to Parliament of whether the UK should participate in any multinational strikes on Syria. MPs across the political spectrum voted resoundingly "no."