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Trump Administration Allows Saudi Arabia to Act With Impunity

Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and a vocal criticizer of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman who exiled himself to the U.S. in order to evade the Kingdom’s repression, is reportedly missing since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. While the Saudi authorities insist that Khashoggi did leave the embassy, his companions who waited outside (including his fiancée) and the CCTV video suggest that they are lying.

On the other hand, the Turkish authorities, who already share a sour relationship with the Saudis, issued an unofficial statement about Khashoggi having been murdered inside the consulate. They further claimed that a group of 15 Saudis, who appear to be a mix of intelligence operatives, military personnel and a forensic chief, flew into Turkey to participate in the execution and the subsequent cleanup effort. 

However, they, later on, changed their attribution and decided to soft-pedal the murder scenario. They stated that there is a possibility that Khashoggi was abducted alive with the help of another country’s intelligence service.

While the Turks have not disclosed the country’s name, within a couple of days, they again claimed officially to have both video and audio evidence confirming Khashoggi’s death after being interrogated and tortured at the consulate.

This has put Turkey in a double-dealing position which makes their information less reliable and it cannot be taken at face value. Unless they reveal the audio evidence recorded by Khashoggi’s Apple Watch, which he apparently turned on before entering the consulate, in the open forum.

If Khashoggi was indeed murdered by Saudi Arabia, it will be a sign that Prince Salman’s media crackdown is reaching a new level of apprehending critics at home, as well as abroad. Given that they have nabbed him in Turkey, the issue will go beyond just a missing writer. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the press that it is not possible for a consulate to not have a security camera and give the day off to the Turkish staff at the same time. He furiously demanded that the Saudis form a joint investigation unit to reach the bottom of the issue. It is unclear, though, what exactly they plan to do or how this joint investigation is supposed to work, especially after the Turks’ intonation of Khashoggi having been murdered. 

Erdogan’s intoning gravely about the Saudis’ wrongdoings, while he is infamous for imprisoning journalists more than any leader in the world, dragged the U.S. into this case. The U.S. administration is reportedly increasing its pressure on Saudi Arabia to provide information about Khashoggi. But the Saudis are responding with a mixture of unconvincing offhand denials that have mostly been refuted by evidence. Dismissing the allegation that they ordered Khashoggi’s killing, they decided to participate in the joint investigation and have sent their delegation to show that they are concerned about the issue, too. 

Meanwhile, the growing international condemnation and pressure by the U.N., E.U. and other countries, triggered a Magnitsky Act investigation by the U.S. Senators to probe into the human rights violations by Saudi Arabia. President Donald J. Trump is apparently “very upset” with the Saudis in this case and has stated that he would inflict “severe punishment”, if the Kingdom is found to be responsible for Khashoggi’s death. However, he ruled out cutting big military contracts, which have caused the worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Adding to that, given the U.S.-Saudi Arabia ties, one can assert that the investigation will result in nothing substantial. For Saudi Arabia, abducting expats and getting away with human rights violations is a child’s play. One such early example is the “still” unresolved case of Naser al-Sa’id, an activist who disappeared in Lebanon in 1979, and another is the more recent case of Loujan al-Hathloul, who disappeared in May 2018.

Under the current U.S. administration, the Saudis know that they have nothing to fear and are free to act with impunity. Probably that is why they spent a week seeming as though they really didn’t want to be bothered with Khashoggi’s disappearance. 

While Khashoggi’s case is yet to unfold, the situation has potential to turn into a full-fledged regional crisis, exacerbating tensions that already exist between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and their allies, creating further division. This will give rise to a new and additional regional crisis, instead of lowering the tension.

For instance: Erdogan, who is squarely on the Qatar side of the Saudi-Qatar dispute, is likely to receive the same support from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. This can be understood by the coverage given to Khashoggi’s case by the state-funded channel Al Jazeera.

Iranian as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah will also be delighted to support Turkey and continue their oration against the Saudis. Here, the interesting part would be to see whose side Syria and Iraq will take, given their reconstruction aid from the Saudis. Yet, one thing is still clear, Khashoggi’s case does not seem to have any negative impact on U.S.-Saudi relationship, at least for now. President Trump, who is reluctant to halt the arms trade with the Saudis that has led to the death of thousands, will not be stopped by a writer’s abduction or murder. 

However, if we change the equations and place Iran in this for having abducted or potentially murdered one of its critics, things would have been much more different and its implication would have been reflected in the Syrian civil war. Moreover, the U.S. would have bombarded Iran with threats of sanctions, before the probe takes shape.

Another example of the U.S.’s double standard here is the case of pastor Andrew Brunson, who was detained by Turkey, for which the country faced severe sanctions and economic downfall. Though, Erdogan released the pastor and took a step to mend its strained relationship with the U.S., Trump’s restrained attitude towards the Saudis’ miscreancy can crumble U.S.-Turkey ties. 

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