The killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi represents a golden opportunity for all those forces opposed to the current direction of US Middle East policy. Unsurprisingly, these disparate elements are seeking to exploit the situation to the maximum. Will their efforts succeed?
The Middle East strategy of the Trump administration has taken time to emerge, but its essential contours are now clear. The advance of Shia Islamist Iran and its allies is perceived as the central threat system – the need to rally and organize allies to face down and turn back this threat the salient imperative.
Sunni political Islam, in both its Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi forms, is an additional enemy to be confronted. This challenge is less centralized.
With the eclipse of Islamic State, the Salafis continue to constitute a latent threat. But at present this threat does not have an immediate focus, and is mainly a matter for intelligence and specialized military attention rather than politics and grand strategy.
The Muslim Brotherhood axis of Turkey, Qatar, Hamas and the various other franchises of this movement is a far more potent and significant gathering than the Salafis. Unlike Iran, its intention is the slow and incremental establishment of Islamist polities, rather than the rapid subversion of Arab societies by a combination of political and military means.
In the longer term, given the uncompromising anti-Western core outlook of the Brotherhood, the legitimacy gap faced by Iran because of its Shia nature, and the ongoing dysfunction of Sunni-majority Arab countries, this may constitute a challenge of no less or greater magnitude.
The US strategy to hold back these three enemies (all of whom, it is worth noting, are particular manifestations of political Islam) rests on alliances with a number of regional allies. Israel, by far the most powerful of all regional forces opposed to them, is a central linchpin. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, who is responsible for preventing the disaster of the consolidation of Brotherhood power in Egypt, is another.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are additional vital links in the chain. In the persons of crown princes Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia
and Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, the current US administration thought it had found the right personalities in their respective countries for the advancement of this strategy.
The inbuilt flaw or weakness in this US regional strategy is the relative fragility of the Gulf monarchies. Iran and Turkey are the most powerful and well-organized states in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, are states possessing great wealth, but only semi-modernized political systems. Insofar as they are able to produce effective military organizations, this is largely because of direct Western involvement (see the UAE’s Presidential Guard, for example, commanded by former commander of the Australian SAS Gen. Mike Hindmarsh). The indifferent performance of the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen and the Saudi failure in backing the rebels in Syria offer evidence of their limitations.
THE CURRENT US strategy, of course, has many enemies. These include, unsurprisingly, partisans of Iran, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. The list also includes supporters and adherents of the Middle East policy of the previous US president. The latter stood for a policy of cooperation with Tehran and tolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood (on the Salafis, by contrast, Obama took a relatively hard line).
Unsurprisingly, therefore, partisans of AKP Turkey, the Iranian regime and the Middle East policy of the previous administration, which favored the interests of both, are currently engaged in an effort to leverage the death of the unfortunate Khashoggi in order to dismantle the recently emergent Middle East strategy of the present administration. Forcing the US to turn on Riyadh, or creating discord and strife between the USA and KSA, is the goal.
This is not (to put it mildly) part of a consistent pattern of concern for human rights and dignity on the part of these forces. Turkey is among the most energetic jailers of journalists in the world: 150 journalists have been imprisoned in Turkey and 180 media outlets shut down since the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
In recent months Turkish forces have been presiding over grave violations of human rights in the Afrin area of Syria (largely unreported by global media). These have included looting, confiscation of property and “honor” killings. Forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have taken place, according to Amnesty International. Several Turkish journalists seeking to comment on these matters on social media have been detained under Turkey’s “anti-terrorism” laws.
Turkish forces also killed a Kurdish journalist, 22-year-old Tolhaldan Walati, during the invasion. For some reason, Walati’s killing did not subsequently become a cause célèbre for large parts of the Western media.
Qatar, meanwhile, whose state-run Al Jazeera channel is the main current outlet for nightly features about the Khashoggi killing, routinely arrests and detains media groups seeking to investigate the slave-like conditions endured by foreign workers in the emirate.
Turkey and Qatar’s evident desire to leverage Khashoggi’s killing to derail current administration policy on the Middle East derives, rather, from the fact that they and their Muslim Brotherhood allies and clients stand to be among the chief non-beneficiaries of this policy.
Khashoggi was himself an energetic advocate for a soft line toward the Muslim Brotherhood. In a Washington Post
article on August 28, for example, he argued that “the eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes.... There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it.”
The article was not merely a general discussion piece; rather, it was written to specifically oppose calls for the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Articles of this type, and the current efforts of the Turkey and Qatari camp to leverage the Khashoggi killing into policy benefit, are part of a broader political war being fought for influence on US Middle East policy, and in turn for ascendancy in the region. The killing of the journalist himself appears also to have been a particularly foolish and inept move in this conflict.
WHAT WILL be the result? Despite anger in the US, major policy shifts appear unlikely. Firstly, this is because Saudi Arabia’s status as the world’s largest exporter of oil gives it the ability to hit back at any proposed sanctions by reducing oil exports and forcing a rise in oil prices. The mere possibility of such a move may well deter significant US moves to sanction Saudi Arabia.
More broadly, the strategic imperatives that first produced the Trump administration’s orientation toward Riyadh have not disappeared as a result of the Khashoggi killing. Political Islam, in its Muslim Brotherhood, Shia and Salafi forms, remains the key threat to Western interests and to stability in the Middle East. Despite the present media-generated mood, this is likely to ensure that US Mideast strategy weathers the storm and continues broadly along its current lines for the immediate future.
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