Mur­der fur­ther hin­ders ‘Arab Nato’ plans: US sources

Otago Daily Times - - WORLD -

WASHINGTON: Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s strat­egy to con­tain Ira­nian power in the Mid­dle East by forg­ing Arab al­lies into a US­backed se­cu­rity al­liance was in trouble even be­fore the mur­der of Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi.

Now, three US sources say, the plan faces fresh com­pli­ca­tions.

Khashoggi’s mur­der on Oc­to­ber 2 in the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul has drawn in­ter­na­tional out­rage against Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, and Turk­ish of­fi­cials and some US law­mak­ers have ac­cused the king­dom’s de facto ruler of or­der­ing the killing.

The Mid­dle East Strate­gic Al­liance (Mesa) aims to bind Sunni Mus­lim gov­ern­ments in Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jor­dan in a US­led se­cu­rity, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic pact to counter Shi’ite Iran.

But feuds among Arab al­lies, es­pe­cially a Saudi­led 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 the three US sources and a Gulf diplo­mat say the meet­ing now looks un­cer­tain. It has al­ready been post­poned sev­eral times, they said.

Khashoggi’s mur­der raised ‘‘a whole bunch of prob­lems’’ to be solved be­fore the plan, in­for­mally re­ferred to as the ‘‘Arab Nato’’, could move for­ward, one US source said.

One is­sue was how the Amer­i­cans could have the Saudi crown prince, 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 Wed­nes­day that Khashoggi’s death com­pli­cated progress on the al­liance, say­ing 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 un­der way.

Robert Mal­ley, a top Mid­dle East ad­viser to for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama who now heads the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, a con­flict­pre­ven­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion, 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 Gen­eral An­thony Zinni, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s chief Mesa ne­go­tia­tor, said the ini­tia­tive

‘‘is mov­ing for­ward’’ but added the im­pact of Khashoggi’s death was un­clear.

‘‘I don’t know yet how it will af­fect the process. Await­ing fi­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion and de­ci­sions,’’ he 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.

Many hur­dles

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 and 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 De­fence Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis in a let­ter late (north­ern) sum­mer, be­fore Khashoggi’s death.

‘‘To ar­rest th­ese neg­a­tive trends, we need to change our part­ners’ strate­gic cal­cu­lus.’’

Three US of­fi­cials, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity, said there had been a de­bate within the ad­min­is­tra­tion about whether Washington could per­suade Arab al­lies to put aside their dif­fer­ences. A fourth of­fi­cial said the broad goals of Mesa were widely shared within the ad­min­is­tra­tion, but there were dis­cus­sions over the best ap­proach for reach­ing a deal.

A De­fence Depart­ment spokes­woman re­ferred ques­tions

to the State Depart­ment. A State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tin­ued to ‘‘en­gage with our part­ners on work­ing to­ward’’ the al­liance.

White House plan

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan is aimed at fur­ther­ing Trump’s ‘‘Amer­ica First’’ strat­egy to re­duce for­eign mil­i­tary en­gage­ments and have al­lies shoul­der more of the bur­den for their own se­cu­rity, while ad­vanc­ing US in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East, ac­cord­ing to one of the White House doc­u­ments.

One doc­u­ment, drafted be­fore Khashoggi’s death, said Trump had warned the lead­ers of Saudi Ara­bia and the other mem­bers of the six­na­tion Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil, as well as Egypt, that ‘‘the sta­tus quo is un­ten­able and that the United States will not con­tinue to in­vest in Mid­dle East se­cu­rity’’ if they did not re­solve their dis­putes.

Washington de­ploys air­craft, war­ships and more than 30,000 mil­i­tary per­son­nel at bases in the GCC coun­tries. Se­nior US mil­i­tary of­fi­cials say they have no in­ten­tion to change that pos­ture.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Deal or no deal. . . US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Ara­bia’s Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man at the White House in March.

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