It has been nearly a week since renowned Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and never walked back out. In the ensuing days, the Western media has become incensed by reports that the Saudis sent a 15-man “hit squad” to the consulate to carry out the “preplanned” torture and murder of Khashoggi. Afterwards, they reportedly dismembered his body and smuggled his remains out of the building, all while Khashoggi’s Turkish fiance waited outside in her car. After sending a “security team” to the consulate to look for the missing dissident, Turkish investigators launched an investigation into Khashoogi’s disappearance on Friday – an investigation for which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged his “personal involvement”.
After anonymous officials shared suspicions that Khashoggi had been murdered inside the consulate with Western journalists, Turkish investigators said publicly that they believe Khashoggi is alive inside the building. Saudi officials have maintained that he left a short while after arriving.
But as a condition of the investigation, Erdogan demanded that Saudi Arabia “prove” that Khashoggi (who in addition to being a journalist once served as an advisor to Saudi’s intelligence chief) left the consulate alive.
“We have to get an outcome from this investigation as soon as possible. The consulate officials cannot save themselves by simply saying ‘he has left,'” Erdogan told a news conference in Budapest, where he is on an official visit.
“If he left, you have to prove it with footage.”
According to media reports, the consulate’s surveillance cameras didn’t capture Khashoggi leaving the embassy, Reuters reported.
And in the latest escalation that threatens to expose Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for his flagrant human rights abuses, Turkey requested on Sunday that investigators be allowed to search the Saudi consulate, a request that was made during a Sunday evening meeting with the Saudi ambassador in Ankara, per the Washington Post.
A Turkish official said the Saudi ambassador met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal on Sunday at the ministry. The Turkish private NTV television said Ankara requested permission for Turkish investigators to search the consulate building in Istanbul.
The controversy is threatening to damage the relationship between Riyadh and the US, as Republicans and Democrats have called for a reassessment of the US’s relationship with KSA. The killing would only add to concerns about human rights abuses, which have been stoked by the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which has been greatly exacerbated by the Saudis involvement, and have called for the cessation of military arms sales and a crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists. Despite these concerns, the Senate recently rejected a bill to block Saudi arms sales.
The incident is also straining relations between Ankara and Riyadh, which have been strained since Turkey expressed support for the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, and deteriorated further when Turkey sent troops to Qatar last year in a show of support during a diplomatic crisis instigated by Saudi and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies.
In a column published by the Washington Post on Sunday, the paper sketched out all the ways that this scandal could damage US-Saudi relations at a crucial time for MbS. In the column, the paper revealed that senior officials from the State Department have been “frustrated” by Saudi Arabia’s unresponsiveness to their inquiries about the disappearance. In support of the missing journalist, the Washington Post printed a ‘blank’ column in Monday’s paper dedicated to Khashoggi, who wrote columns for the paper.
Proof that Khashoggi was murdered at the consulate could force Washington to reassess its military support for Riyadh (an arrangement that President Trump threatened to reassess for unrelated reasons at a recent rally).
In private, officials from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on down have been frustrated with the lack of a substantive response to direct high-level queries, according to administration officials.
Confirmation that Khashoggi was killed – as some senior Turkish officials have charged – or even his disappearance at Saudi hands is likely to spark a new round of congressional pressure to reassess the relationship with Riyadh.
But more importantly, the Trump Administration is hoping to forge a NATO-like Middle Eastern alliance involving Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the members of the GCC (with the exception of Qatar, that is). Ultimately, this alliance would help Trump try to work out a peace deal with Israel and the Palestinians.
Purchase of U.S. defense systems is one component, along with a coordinated stand against Iran and rapprochement with Israel, of Trump administration hopes of drawing the six members of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt and Jordan into what the administration has called a new “Middle East Strategic Alliance.”
A planned summit to solidify the alliance, scheduled for January at Camp David in Maryland, has repeatedly been postponed over the past year as its putative members have questioned its purpose and squabbled among themselves.
“I would characterize the reception as generally accepting the idea in concept,” said retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, the administration’s MESA point man. Zinni toured the region late last month to exchange ideas. “Some are ready to say, ‘Sign me up right now.’ Others, obviously, have a lot of questions,” he said. “No one rejected it outright.”
Some countries would like to see a mutual defense pact, akin to NATO’s Article 5, along with a broad free trade agreement — neither of which the administration is interested in providing. Others, including the administration, would like it to be a vehicle for resolving the dispute with Qatar, but the Saudis and United Arab Emirates staunchly oppose that.
Saudi Arabia has denied the claims that it assassinated Khashoggi, who spent much of the last year in self-imposed exile in the US, where he lobbed criticisms at MbS and his vaunted reputation – a reputation that the New York Times helped burnish – as a reformer and “human rights” advocate. For what it’s worth, MbS has promised to “fully cooperate” with Turkey’s probe, but aside. But there hasn’t been any real movement yet.
On an unrelated note, if these allegations are proven true, will Thomas Friedman write another column rescinding his earlier endorsement of MbS?
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