Why the White House Should Demand Answers about Jamal Khashoggi

Oct. 12 2018

On October 2, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to fill out some routine paperwork; he hasn’t been seen since. Rumors and reports have meanwhile circulated that he was either murdered or smuggled out of the country and taken to a Saudi prison in retaliation for his public criticisms of Riyadh. But nothing is known for certain. Varsha Koduvayur writes:

Saudi Arabia has previously targeted dissidents living abroad. Indeed, three princes living in Europe that were critical of the government disappeared in 2015-2016. Khashoggi, while not royal, was undeniably close to power centers. As an outspoken critic from within the kingdom’s elite—he was a consummate insider, having served as an adviser to the royal family—the regime may have viewed him as a voice that would not be ignored.

Saudi-Turkey tensions are now escalating. . . . President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that Saudi Arabia provide video footage to prove that Khashoggi left the facility. . . . Oddly, Turkey now seems to be de-escalating its rhetoric after initially stirring the pot. . . . Though the two states are political rivals, they are usually keen to shun public spats. Still, Ankara could expel the Saudi ambassador to Turkey over this, prompting tit-for-tat measures from Riyadh. The ensuing diplomatic crisis would drag the U.S. into the midst of a nasty dispute between a NATO ally and one of its closest Middle Eastern allies, potentially forcing Washington to pick a side. . . .

The U.S. may have robust relations with Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t absolve Washington of its responsibility to safeguard journalists worldwide. Press freedom has hit a nadir in the Middle East. And now the irony that Turkey, a serial jailer of journalists, is opening a probe into a missing Saudi journalist—while itself possessing a terrible record on this front—should not escape anyone. . . .

Khashoggi’s fate remains unclear. But his disappearance is certainly a fact. And it took place in a Saudi diplomatic facility—sovereign Saudi soil. There is no evidence either to absolve or to implicate Riyadh in the matter, [and] it is difficult to trust either Turkey’s or Saudi Arabia’s official version of accounts, given the former’s penchant for disinformation and the latter’s multiple explanations. . . . The State Department and White House should demand answers from the Saudis over the whereabouts of Khashoggi, and pressure both Ankara and Riyadh to publicize evidence.

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More about: Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, U.S. Foreign policy

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela