November 16, 2018 at: 05:46:26 AM

U.S. Response to Murder of Jamal Khashoggi

U.S. Response to Murder of Jamal Khashoggi

The murder of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian columnist hired by the Washington Post, who was apparently killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, has set off a firestorm of incriminating accusations and demands of withdrawal of support for the Saudi government.  Evidence from the government has been coming out in drips and dabs with successive accounts awkwardly contradicting previous accounts.  Critics have been focusing on Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), for at least alleged conspiracy if not orchestration in the plot and demanding sanctions and the cancellation of proposed Saudi weapons purchases, particularly from the U.S.  MBS, at age 33, has been considered a cultural and political reformer for the country in defiance of the repressive sentiment of the institutionalized Islamic clerical establishment.

In any regional foreign policy assessment, the existential forces within the region are measured against U.S. strategic interests.  Until there is actual conflict, the overriding objective must be the maintenance of the balance of power in a region.  With recognition that Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia are the chief protagonists in the Middle East, their military capabilities and alliances are highly factored into these assessments and form the basis of U.S. military sales in the region.  We want our friends in the area to not only defend themselves, but with U.S. assistance to also possess a military force strong enough that it will act as a deterrent to attack.   

Israel has unquestionably been America’s strongest ally in the highly strategic Middle East while also the object of hostility by its neighbors, chiefly Iran.  With its superior conventional military force and its victories in previous wars, perpetuated against it since its inception, there has been hesitance in recent years on the part of its neighbors to attack it despite the vulnerability of its small size and being geographically pinned against the Mediterranean Sea on the west.  If there should be a question of Israel’s survival, its greatest deterrent is what is framed as an “ambiguous” nuclear capability.

Iran is considered by the U.S. and other countries and entities as the “world’s major exporter of terrorism”.  It has consistently called for the destruction of Israel and “death to America”.  Through direct support of the terrorist groups; Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi who are revolting in Yemen, Iran has fomented major instability throughout the region.  Until the signing of the Iran Nuclear Agreement, Iran had aggressively been pursuing a nuclear ballistic missile capability and has recently reinitiated intermediate range ballistic missile testing in contradiction of the spirit of the agreement.  With the release of the $150 billion of sanctuary funds to Iran, included as part of the agreement, it is aggressively modernizing its military including, its surface to surface missile systems and its surface to air missile systems with the purchase of the ultra-sophisticated S-400 missile system from Russia.  Iran has also been complicit in acquiring the advanced S-300 system for Syria. 


The civil war in Syria, instituted in opposition to the tyrannical, Bashir Assad regime, originated in 2011 with the consequences to date of approximately 600,000 deaths and 6 million Syrian refugees.  The atrocities committed by Assad’s military against the opposition has included devastating barrel bombing and the use of chemical weapons that have targeted civilians as well as opposition forces.  In addition to Iranian and neighboring Lebanon-based Hezbollah military support, under siege by the Islamic State, the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army, Assad requested and secured direct Russian support in his efforts to keep his government in power.  Militarily since 2015, Russia operates in full coordination with the Syrian military in vanquishing any resistance forces to the government.  This has included the establishment of a Russian air base in Syria from which the Russian Air Force has conducted thousands of offensive combat strike missions using a variety of different types of bombs.  Human rights activists have accused Russia of being indiscriminate in its bombing campaigns which have allegedly killed thousands of civilians, and destroyed not only opposition military facilities, but also homes, schools and hospitals.  Russia has declared its presence in Syria to be a permanent situation.                         

In addition to Russia and Syria; Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and the U.S. all conduct air combat missions from time to time within Syrian airspace, dependent upon the perceived threat scenario each entity perceives to its own security interests.  What also must be factored into the power balance equation are the relationships that China and North Korea share with Iran.  Although China and Iran represent ideologically opposed regimes they have found economic areas of mutual benefit in trade that allows each to support the other on global and regional political issues.  Iran provides a reliable source of oil and natural gas energy to Iran and China in trade is a source for considerable consumer products to Iran. North Korea has shared nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology with Iran for some years prior to the Iran Nuclear Agreement.                                                                                                                                                     It is against this Middle East backdrop that the Saudi Arabia government judges its own security interests, perceiving Iran’s expanding influence in the region and in particular within its unstable bordering neighbor, Yemen, as a direct threat to its own influence and security in the region.  In this context, the Royal Saudi government has consolidated its ties to other Arab countries, moved closer to the U.S. and moderated its harsh stance against Israeli existence. That does not hold true, however, for many of the Tribal Sheiks of whom there are an estimated 7,000, and who share in the oil and other revenues generated by the country. These sheiks and their followers continue to maintain resistance to change with their harsh anti-western rhetoric and flagrantly provoke and finance disruption, often in the form of terrorist actions, wherever and whenever an issue fits their agenda and without regard for the Royal Saudi Government or the sovereignty of other nations.  They tend to work autonomously and either individually or collaboratively with other tribal entities and not necessarily confined within their own country.


Given his quest for reform and modernization, it would seem highly unlikely that Prince MBS nor King Salman would be involved, either directly or indirectly, with the plot to murder, Jamal Khashoggi.  Both, as well as the remainder of the royal family, have been put in a precarious predicament, perhaps intentionally so by the perpetrators, and face a serious dilemma due to the seriousness of the incident as to how they will extradite themselves from direct responsibility.  They have to expect that they, in at least some way, will be held accountable. 

Partnered by historical circumstance through what might be considered the “shadow government” of the Tribal Sheiks, the Royal Saudi government operates under an accommodation with the Sheiks in which they are the formal representation of Saudi Arabia, while the tribal entities, who receive apportioned shares of the country’s revenues, have at least semi-autonomous authority in their respective regions.  This arrangement presents a tenuous relationship and constant threat of an uprising that could overthrow the Royal Saudi government.  Any such rebellion could expand to other similarly governed countries in the region and would create massive chaos in the Middle East.  Not only would there be serious disruption in the oil markets, but the event would trigger a serious tipping in the balance of power in the Mediterranean region favorable to Iran, Russia and China, and most likely would accentuate what currently is the leaning towards a bi-polar reformation of the Cold War.         

As the only NATO-member country in that region, buttressed up against that potentially formidable opposition and with a sense of increased vulnerability, Turkey could be expected to demand additional major military support from within NATO as would Israel from the U.S since both would consider their deterrent military capabilities compromised.  How Egypt would react is another question.

The diplomatic measures the U.S. must undertake in this very indelicate situation must be carefully plotted to avoid the potentially unintended consequences of undermining the representative government of Saudi Arabia while they take actions to investigate and prosecute all of those involved in the plot.  The U.S. can offer law enforcement and intelligence support to the Royal Saudi government to help identify with specificity those who committed this egregious crime.  Opinionated conjectures attempting to connect Prince MBS to the crime derived from a Turkish audio recording but devoid of any other physical evidence of the actual strangulation death of Khashoggi, are not only irresponsible but extremely harmful to the overarching security considerations that must be accounted for.                                                

Going forward, significant U.S. intelligence resources need to be committed to identify the tentacles of the Imams and Tribal Sheiks who are involved in global corporate corruption and terrorism.  The effort would be greatly enhanced if it included the cooperation of our global partners in such a mega endeavor, however realistically, special interest relationships will attempt at every level to impede any concerted effort to expose the root elements of these criminal enterprises.


This post was authored by Major General (Ret.) David E.B. (DEB) Ward, founder and CEO of StarProg, and reflect his views and do not represent the views of the United States Air Force, the Air National Guard or StarProg LLC.

The General served 36 plus years in the United States Air Force and the Air National Guard.  His assignments included a tour in South Korea (1966-1967) as a Forward Air Controller,  Commander of an F-15 ANG Fighter Group (1987-1989), State Commander of the Oregon ANG (1989-1993), and as the Air National Guard Special Assistant to the Commander, U.S. Air Forces, Europe (1993-1996).  He is a graduate of the USAF Air War College.  

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