Jamal Khashoggi killing hits Pentagon, Saudi Arabia relationship

October 24, 2018 GMT

The admitted killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government agents is risking not only Washington’s long-standing diplomatic and economic ties with Riyadh, but could also imperil one of the Pentagon’s most vital military partnerships.

Officially, Defense Department leaders insist there has been no blowback from the journalist’s death earlier this month at the Saudi consulate in Turkey to an alliance President Trump has made central to his security strategy for the entire region.

“There has been no change currently to that military-to-military relationship,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters Monday, adding the ongoing row between Washington and Riyadh over Khashoggi’s death “is for the diplomats to sort out.”

But the Pentagon may have trouble staying clear of the controversy as President Trump on Tuesday once again strongly denounced the Saudi operation and the handling of the aftermath, telling reporters the kingdom was guilty of one of the “worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups.”

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed in a speech to parliament key details of the operation in which a high-level Saudi “hit team” was dispatched to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2 to silence the U.S.-based opinion columnist.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, was a silent participant Tuesday at a much-reduced global investment conference intended to showcase his economic reform plans, a gathering boycotted by top U.S. and European officials and business leaders. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih acknowledged that “these are difficult days for us in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

“Nobody in the kingdom can justify it or explain it,” the minister told the conference. “From the leadership on down, we’re very upset over what has happened.”

Aside from the kingdom’s status as the main oil producer in the world, Saudi Arabia also possesses the largest and most advanced military in the region, as well as an intelligence, logistics and support network that spans from north Africa into western Iraq.

The loss of Saudi Arabia’s role as the indispensable supplier in global oil markets and the diplomatic and military clout that position provides Riyadh and the U.S. as its ally could upend U.S. national security calculations in the region.

“The status of the U.S. as unique superpower is closely connected to its relationship with [Saudi Arabia] and its control of oil supplies and the Persian Gulf,” said Joshua Landis, director of Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Were we to cut relations ... the Chinese or Russians would likely replace us,” he said in an interview Tuesday, noting Saudi Arabia “is connected to the U.S. at the hip militarily.”

It’s an argument President Trump has repeatedly made, saying the U.S. must modulate its response to the Khashoggi killing, given the stakes involved and the likelihood the Saudis would turn to other partners is Washington responded too harshly.

Aside from Riyadh’s well-known status as a top purchase of American-made military hardware, the kingdom has also been a stalwart ally in the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State in Syria and northern Iraq.

As of this August, Saudi-flagged warplanes had flown the second highest number of airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria affiliated with Islamic State. Only American fighters have flown more combat missions against ISIS during the course of the four-year war. As an early member of the anti-ISIS coalition, Saudi military officials have also reportedly provided intelligence and combat support to their American and coalition counterparts.

But in a grim irony, President Trump himself called into question the effectiveness of the Saudi military on the very day Mr. Khashoggi went for his fateful meeting at the Istanbul consulate, suggesting the kingdom could not even protect itself without American military might.

“We protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they’re rich?” Mr. Trump asked a rally of supporters in Mississippi Oct. 2. “I love the king, King Salman. But I said, ‘King, we’re protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military.’”

Crown Prince Salman brushed off the criticism, telling Bloomberg news later that week, “You have to accept that any friend will say good things and bad things. So you cannot have 100 percent friends saying good things about you.”

Lofty goals

This week’s criticisms from Mr. Trump are a far cry from the lofty goals the administration had set for U.S.-Saudi relations early into the president’s term.

Beginning with his visit to the kingdom last May, Mr. Trump sought to set up Saudi Arabia as the bulwark against regional rival Iran for influence in the Middle East, cultivating especially close ties with the hard-charging and ambitious crown prince. Mr. Trump sought a clear and public break from the Obama administration, which tried to balance the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Economically, the U.S. is unlikely to roll back efforts to provide Riyadh with weapons or military support, a U.S. government official tells the Times.

Whom the U.S. sells its weapons to ” is one of the most complex calculations the United States government makes,” the official, who has intimate knowledge of the arms sales process said. “The president has been clear. He believes there is a strategic benefit” to maintaining military ties with Riyadh, regardless of the ramifications from Khashoggi’s death, the official said.

Washington risks a bigger blowback on the economic side if it tries to crack down on the Saudis, Mr. Landis said.

“The Saudi military contribution is not that important to the coalition effort, but the [Saudi] monetary contribution is important,” he said, noting Riyadh has already invested $100 million into reconstruction efforts in Iraq. The kingdom has also indicated it plans to take a large financial role in supporting stabilization efforts in northern Syria as that country’s seven-year civil war winds down, he said.

“The U.S. has now pledged to stay in north Syria until Iran pulls its troops out of Syria [which] will probably never happen, so the U.S. will be there for a long time and [Riyadh’s] financial help will be important,” said Mr. Landis.

The Saudis play a crucial role in the U.S. and Israeli strategy of containing and eventually rolling back Iranian influence in the region.

“Saudi military development is critical to deterring Iran and limiting its military adventures,” said Anthony Cordesman, national security strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The security of all the Arab Gulf states, not just Saudi Arabia, depends on the level and effectiveness of Saudi-U.S. military cooperation.”

“While it is far from clear that a hardline approach is the only way to deal with Iran, if both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia remain committed to such an approach they need to be ready to cooperate,” he added in a new analysis of bilateral ties in the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s death.

But the military alliance has also brought some major headaches for the Pentagon, notably in the logistical support it has provided for the Saudis’ deeply controversial campaign in neighboring Yemen, a campaign that United Nations officials have said has created “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.”

American military assets provided aerial imagery and other pieces of actionable intelligence to the crown prince’s campaign against Yemen’s Iranian-back Houthi rebels, most recently during a June offensive to retake the strategically critical Hodeidah Port from insurgent control.

American military assets have been providing aerial imagery and other intelligence to their Saudi counterparts, to assist in planning airstrikes against positions in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.

But the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct of the war, which has proved far more difficult and bloody than Saudi leaders had anticipated, has sparked widespread criticism both in Congress and abroad, in light of the high number of civilian deaths and the looming famine and humanitarian crisis facing the Yemeni population

“The actions of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen are fast-approaching the level of crimes against humanity,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.