US sources: Khashoggi’s mur­der raises ‘bunch of prob­lems’ in ‘Arab NATO’ plan

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Politics -

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s strat­egy to con­tain Ira­nian power in the Mid­dle East by forg­ing Arab al­lies in a U.S.backed se­cu­rity al­liance was in trou­ble even be­fore the mur­der of Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi. Now, three U.S. sources said, the plan faces fresh com­pli­ca­tions.

The Mid­dle East Strate­gic Al­liance (MESA) aims to bind Sunni Mus­lim gov­ern­ments in Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jor­dan in a U.S.-led se­cu­rity, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic pact to counter Shi­ite Iran.

But feuds among Arab al­lies, es­pe­cially a Saudi-led eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal boy­cott of Qatar, have ham­pered the found­ing of the al­liance since Riyadh pro­posed it last year.

A sum­mit meet­ing in the United States where Trump and the Arab lead­ers would sign a pre­lim­i­nary ac­cord on the al­liance was ex­pected in Jan­uary, but three U.S. sources and a Gulf diplo­mat said the meet­ing now looks un­cer­tain. It has al­ready been post­poned sev­eral times, they added.

Khashoggi’s mur­der raised “a whole bunch of prob­lems” to be solved be­fore the plan - in­for­mally re­ferred to as the “Arab NATO” - can move for­ward, one U.S. source said. One is­sue is how the Amer­i­cans could have Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, who goes by the ini­tials MBS, at­tend the sum­mit with­out caus­ing wide­spread out­rage.

“It’s not palat­able,” the source said. A se­nior Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial de­nied on Tues­day that Khashoggi’s death com­pli­cated progress on the al­liance, say­ing that MESA “is much larger than one coun­try and one is­sue.”

Saudi Ara­bia has de­nied MBS’ in­volve­ment in Khashoggi’s killing and said an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into re­spon­si­bil­ity was un­der­way.

Robert Mal­ley, a top Mid­dle East ad­viser to for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama who now heads the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, a con­flict preven­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion, said it would be dif­fi­cult for MBS to at­tend a Jan­uary sum­mit “given what hap­pened and how raw the feel­ings are.”

“I’m not sure he would want to come to the United States right now,” Mal­ley said.

Re­tired Marine Gen. An­thony Zinni, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s chief MESA ne­go­tia­tor, said the ini­tia­tive “is mov­ing for­ward” but added that the im­pact of Khashoggi’s death was un­clear.

“I don’t know yet how it will af­fect the process. Await­ing fi­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion and de­ci­sions,” Zinni told Reuters in a re­cent email. “I think there may be a wait un­til the in­ves­ti­ga­tion [maybe foren­sics if a body is found] is com­plete be­fore a way for­ward is dis­cussed.”

The eight po­ten­tial al­liance mem­bers did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment about their com­mit­ment to MESA.

Even be­fore the fall­out from Khashoggi’s killing com­pli­cated mat­ters, two clas­si­fied White House doc­u­ments seen by Reuters show the ad­min­is­tra­tion was grap­pling for ways to over­come re­gional feuds and push MESA for­ward in or­der to con­tain Iran as well as to limit Chi­nese and Russian in­flu­ence in the re­gion.

“Our re­gional part­ners are in­creas­ingly com­pet­ing and, in the case of the Qatar rift, en­ter­ing into out­right com­pe­ti­tion to the detri­ment of Amer­i­can in­ter­ests and to the ben­e­fit of Iran, Rus­sia and China,” Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser John Bolton wrote to Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis in a let­ter late summer, be­fore Khashoggi’s death.

“To ar­rest these neg­a­tive trends, we need to change our part­ners’ strate­gic cal­cu­lus,” Bolton wrote in the un­dated let­ter, writ­ten in response to a June 29 memo about MESA from Pom­peo and Mat­tis.

Three U.S. of­fi­cials, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity, said there has been a de­bate within the ad­min­is­tra­tion about whether Washington can per­suade Arab al­lies to put aside their dif­fer­ences, with Bolton emerg­ing as a key pro­po­nent for the plan.

A fourth U.S. of­fi­cial said the broad goals of MESA are widely shared within the ad­min­is­tra­tion, but there are dis­cus­sions over the best ap­proach for reach­ing a deal. A De­fense Depart­ment spokes­woman re­ferred ques­tions to the State Depart­ment but pointed out pre­vi­ous Mat­tis com­ments in sup­port of the al­liance. A State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tin­ued to “en­gage with our part­ners on work­ing to­ward” the al­liance.

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