RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- President Barack Obama is considering allowing shipments of new air defense systems to the Syrian opposition, a U.S. official said Friday, as Mr. Obama sought to reassure Saudi Arabia's king that the U.S. is not taking too soft a stance in Syria and other Mideast conflicts.
A key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia would be likely to cheer a decision by Mr. Obama to allow the portable missile launchers into Syria. Saudi officials were dismayed when Mr. Obama scrapped plans last year to launch a strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad, and they have been pressing the White House on the issue. The Saudis could play a direct role in sending the systems, known as "manpads," to the rebels fighting Mr. Assad's forces.
Manpads are compact missile launchers with the range and explosive power to attack low-flying planes and helicopters. U.S. officials have estimated the Syrian government has thousands.
Word of Mr. Obama's potential shift came as Mr. Obama was paying a visit to Saudi King Abdullah's desert oasis at the conclusion of a weeklong, four-country trip. The aging monarch has been nervously watching Washington's negotiations with Iran and other U.S. policy developments in the Middle East.
Mr. Obama's Marine One helicopter kicked up clouds of sand in his arrival at the king's desert camp outside the capital of Riyadh for a meeting with King Abdullah. The president walked through a row of military guards to an ornate room featuring a massive crystal chandelier and took a seat next to the 89-year-old king, who was breathing with the help of an oxygen tank.
Secretary of State John Kerry sat at the president's side for the visit -- Mr. Obama's third official meeting with the king in six years. They met for nearly two hours before Mr. Obama and his aides left the compound after dusk.
Mr. Obama and the king spent the bulk of their session discussing Iran and Syria, where U.S. and Saudi interests remain aligned despite differences about some tactics, senior administration officials said after the meeting. In a nod to a potential change in the stance on manpads, officials said that in the course of providing assistance to the Syrian opposition, the U.S. has been able to develop deeper relationships that have fostered confidence in the moderate elements.
Despite long-standing U.S. complaints about human rights and treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, those issues didn't come up in the meeting, said the officials, who weren't authorized to discuss the meeting by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Despite its decadeslong alliance with the United States, Saudi's royal family has become increasingly anxious in recent years over Mr. Obama's nuclear talks with Iran and his tepid involvement in the Syrian civil war. During Mr. Obama's evening meetings with the king, the president's task was to reassure Saudi Arabia that the U.S. is not abandoning Arab interests despite troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, greater energy independence back home and nuclear talks with predominantly Persian Iran.
Allowing manpads to be delivered to Syrian rebels would mark a shift in strategy for the U.S., which until this point has limited its lethal assistance to small weapons and ammunition, as well as humanitarian aid.