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Jamal Kashoggi and the Emerging Tripartite Negotiations – A Deal in the Making?

October 25, 2018

Idlib Province, Syria…last mercenary stronghold, about to be liberated

As the dust settles now 23 days after the vile highly planned murder of Khashoggi, here are thoughts what happened and why, where the situation is going.

The most important development at the moment – the three main players center stage – Salman, Trump and Erdogan – are in the process of trying to work out some kind of triangular deal in order to stem the global anger over this incident. The essence of the deal is that neither King Salman nor his son, Mohammed bin Salman, will be held responsible for Jamal Kashoggi’s vile murder, a number of Saudi intelligence officers and military personnel will be targeted (and have already) as fall guys. There is a good deal of horse trading going on over what Saudi will have to give in exchange, some of the parameters of which are discussed below. Will the deal hold? Or will it break apart?

What has come rushing to the surface though in a most open manner is the profound bankruptcy, backwardness of the Saudi government as well as the long-term bankruptcy of the U.S.-Saudi political and economic cooperation. None of this is new to anyone having followed those relations over the years, but now they come out of the closet, so to speak. The allusion of Saudi as “a moderate” Arab state has just suffered an irreparable blow to their image.

As to how it will effect the balance of power in the Middle East in general and U.S. Saudi relations in particular, given how much Washington has invested in this relationship, most especially the Trump Administration, it is no so easy to see the U.S. changing course. Israel too is counting on Salman’s political survival as the alliance between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, long in the shadows, has come public full force of late. That said, there are pressures building up under the surface, both in Saudi and in Washington and who knows in what manner they will burst forth.

As to why he was murdered…Not entirely clear but several themes stand out

1. The U.S. media, most especially the Washington Post for whom he was a columnist suggested that Kashoggi was murdered because criticized the Saudi government too much on human rights issues. That theme was picked up not just nationally but internationally.

However, it doesn’t hold up with closer examination.

Kashoggi was a consummate high level insider, with close if not intimate contacts with the Saudi leadership and the royal family itself. He was, during his time in Washington, a frequent visitor at the Saudi embassy in Washington DC where he was seen entering frequently. More to the point, probably, he was closer to that part of the royal family that was purged and sidestepped from power.

His criticisms of the Saudi ruling leadership, while genuine, were not particularly severe.

In all likelihood he had close ties with U.S., Saudi and Turkish intelligence.

2. He knew too much – had insights and information on the Turkish role in Syria (which the Turks are trying to play down) and Saudi involvement in 9-11, which he might have shared with a U.S. Congressional Committee about to have hearings on the subject. Over the years with his intimate contacts with both Wahhabist and Muslim Brotherhood leading elements he undoubtedly has insider information on Washington’s darker side.

Point here is that all three – Erdogan, Salman and Trump – had reasons to see Kashoggi silenced and at the level of defining power in all three countries, there was probably more relief than mourning at his elimination

3. As to the actual plans to kill him, one part of the picture certainly has surfaced and is in the public sphere – the Saudi role in killing him down to the last detail. What, if anything, was the role of Washington and Ankara? Not clear, doubt it will ever be, but..keep in mind

a. Given the excruciating detail with which the Turkish leadership and media have exposed the Saudi role, shaming them internationally, it becomes evident that Turkey was – again, down to the last detail aware that something was afoot and that Kashoggi’s life was

b. In the press flurry of these last weeks, even the U.S. media admitted that U.S. intelligence was aware that Kashoggi was being lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. There was satelitte interception of Saudi communications to that effect.

There is also Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner’s close relationship with the Salmans that is, at the very least suggestive of insider knowledge as well as the speed with which Kushner came to Salman’s and Saudi’s defense in the cover up. There is at least one report that Kushner gave the Saudi Crown Prince a so-called hit list of his enemies from U.S. intelligence that might have included Khashoggi’s name.

The Iranian leadership, after having been silent for more than three weeks, noted that such a brazen act could not have committed without both the knowledge and consent of Washington.

What did either Trump or Salman do warn Khashoggi of the impending danger he faced? Nada, not a thing.

Still the level of U.S. and Turkish actual complicity is unclear.

As to the ever changing blame game and machinations that followed Kashoggi’s failure to leave the Saudi consulate alive…

1. By committing the crime in Istanbul, the Saudis were hoping to caste suspicion on the Turks, part of their Wahhabist-Muslim Brotherhood love-fest.

2. This infuriated Erdogan who, in order to clear Turkish honor, threw the blame game back into Salman’s court – a little bit each day which resulted not only in exposing Salman’s plot but severely embarrassing Saudi before Turkey and the world given the vile and cynical manner in which Khashoggi was killed. Turkey spared no details – including the fact that Kashoggi was dismembered while still alive, that his body parts were taken and hidden hither and yon in the Istanbul area and that some of them were found in the well of the Saudi consul’s residence.

In a black humor – the blackest – manner, Salman in his telephone call to Jared Kushner couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about – the death of one journalist! – a very telling commentary.

Turkish influence in the Middle East improves as Saudi’s wanes. Turkish influence in Washington improves while a debate opens within U.S. ruling circles concerning the usefulness of the U.S.-Saudi strategic ties.

3. As thing heated up and every day the Saudi leadership look more devious and foolish, this created a dilemma for the Trump Administration. The Trump Administration’s first instinct was to cut a deal with the Saudis which evolved from “We don’t know what happened” (a lie) to different variations of the theme they stuck to – Kashoggi was murdered by “rogue elements” within the region to finally “well the government was involved but not at the level of King Salman and his impulsive son.

4. There appears to be some kind of trilateral deal in the making between Salman, Trump and Erdogan. All the parameters are not clear but some are.

What Turkey wants, it is essentially using the Khashoggi episode to pressure the Saudis (and Washington). Turkey is seeking some kind of relief over Syria on the eve of the liberation of Idlib. The Turks are worried that there will be a flood of mercenaries that they will not be able to control escaping the province into Turkey greatly destabilizing an already destabilized region of eastern Turkey. Erdogan is pressing the Saudis to help – that Salman should press the Saudi-oriented mercenaries to become part of a joint command that would be directed by the Turkish-run mercenaries, that there should be an orderly withdrawal from Idlib Province of those elements to be airlifted to…wherever. Afghanistan? North Africa? Sinai? But that their presence in southeast Turkey be minimized.

The Turks are also asking – perhaps as a part of this deal – for an exemption of the U.S. sanctions against Iran. They want to continue doing business with Iran, which has been lucrative for both countries. They will also expect some shift in the U.S. position sympathetic to Syrian Kurdish autonomy

Turkey also wants to cool some of its tensions with Washington and is using this crisis as a pretext to do that.

It has shown itself willing to “make a deal” with Washington and Riyadh already evident in its delay of the Kashoggi killing investigation, their willingness to do a joint investigation with Saudi intelligence authorities and the care with which Erdogan speaks of Saudi King Salman and his son. Erdogan has, at least publicly, accepted the questionable argument that Salman and Salman did not order the killing, which is already, a major concession of Turkey’s part. But if Turkey is willing to horse trade with the Saudis and Washington, it expects a great deal in return.

Beyond that, the way that Turkey has responded to this crisis boosts its regional standing and prestige at Saudi expense. It is rather ironic that the Erdogan government which had purged thousands of people from government and public service, including journalism, two years ago, now can re-emerge as the standard bearer for freedom of the press.

What the Saudis want, – simple that the whole incident be put behind them as soon as possible with a minimum amount of damage to their public image. They want to avoid any suggestion that the King and son were responsible for the murders, the mere accusation of which could influence their trade relations with Western powers and could, possibly, lead to regime change at home. They are already very nervous about the fallout and concerned especially with the American response. They might have to clip Salman Jr.’s wings some, probably more symbolically that in a more serious manner in response to world public opinion.

Besides what relief from the severe criticism they are experiencing, the Saudis are worried about how this will affect U.S. – Saudi relations and that their long-time relationship with the U.S. is under review. To pressure Washington and to suggest that besides the U.S. that they have other options, they have invited Russian president Vladimir Putin to visit, certainly a warning to the Trump Administration.

What the Trump Administration wants – It wants, to the degree possible, to clear Salman’s name as Washington has put a great deal of political and economic capital in the Trump-Salman relationship and if Salman goes down and the controversy is not either soon resolved or blows over, the Trump Administration could go down with it. The Kashoggi murder has weakened Trump’s campaign to tighten sanctions on Iran as well. On another level, Trump expects a great deal of hush money from Salman – in the tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for supporting Salman through the crisis.

A debate over the U.S.-Saudi long term relationship – and should it be altered or end – is one result of this episode. My initial take is that the U.S. has too much invested in its Saudi partner to walk away from it. I don’t see that happening but there are a number of variables here – its role in 9-11; its reckless (since Salman came to power) war against Yemen and threats against Qatar. It is seen more and more as an unstable factor and one not to rely on too heavily. Trump – along with Netanyahu – rely too heavily on Saudi, even in the best of times, a weak poltiical force (despite all its oil money) in the region.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2018 3:05 pm

    Thanks again for your insights.

  2. William Conklin permalink
    October 25, 2018 5:20 pm

    Wow, this issue is a crossword puzzle of complexity; A very credible analysis and I am looking forward to the next chapter. This is mystery, intrigue, and suspense at its finest. Thanks Rob, keep us informed!

  3. October 26, 2018 3:07 am

    Clearly the most geopolitically thorough pieces on the affair that I’ve read. All the more worrisome as I believe, from years of reading this blog, that RP is a pretty reliable source.

  4. October 26, 2018 3:10 am

    Left out two words. It should read:

    one of the most geopolitically thorough…

    • October 26, 2018 5:02 am

      Thanks for kind words – and for correction; will correct in the morning

  5. kerim permalink
    October 27, 2018 1:33 am

    Rob, thank you for wiping some dutst around the Kashoggi-Affair, and the obvious geopolitical consequences that might occur, as a result .

    However, we have to keep in mind that all of these secret negociations, may as well come to a dead end, if one of the parties does not make concessions, or won’t come to terms . For instance, the public opinion is now waiting to know where the body is . If the Saudis continue to fool around, and refuse to reveal the location of the body, it can only explain that the victim’s head was brought to Riyadh, while parts of the body being dumped in different locations . This horror-movie can very well prove fatal for MBS . That is why the saudis are keeping their lips tight, on this very subject . But for how long ?

    • October 27, 2018 9:56 am

      How this all will play out Kerim remains to be seen…My sense is that Saudi is under unprecedented pressure to make some concessions… I don’t know how it will play out…Sometimes though a minor incident (regardless how vile it might have been) can be like “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Is this the case? Certainly Erdogan is pushing the envelope. So we’ll see…

  6. November 27, 2018 1:56 am

    ” Turkish influence in the Middle East improves as Saudi’s wanes. Turkish influence in Washington improves while a debate opens within U.S. ruling circles concerning the usefulness of the U.S.-Saudi strategic ties.”
    Yep, you right Rob in this assessment of Turkish coming out less -scathed. Currently the Turkey are hedging their involvement with Sunni Horn of African(MB-Muslim brotherhood) nations of Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti which border the strategic Red Sea, Bab El Mandep straits, and The Indian Ocean Basin(somalia). In this region they set up their economic, political, industrial, cultural, and security -military bases and institutions after the debacle in Al-Sham(Syria,Iraq and Palestine).
    Any way, thank you for in depth analysis of 3 Horsemen -Underdog,Salman and Trump

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