Exclusive: Khashoggi assassination further complicates "Arab" NATO plan – US sources


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump's strategy to contain Iran's power in the Middle East by forcing Arab allies to form a US-backed security alliance was in crisis even before the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Three US sources said the plan was facing new complications.

FILE PHOTO: US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House Oval Office in Washington, DC, on March 20, 2018. REUTERS / Jonathan Ernst / File Photo

The October 2 assassination of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul sparked an international outcry against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Turkish officials and some US lawmakers accused the de facto ruler of ordering the murder.

The Strategic Alliance for the Middle East (MESA) aims to link Sunni Muslim governments in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East. part of a security, political and economic pact led by the United States to fight against Shiites. Iran.

But quarrels among Arab allies, including the Saudi Arabian economic and political boycott of Qatar, have hindered the creation 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 agreement on the alliance was expected in January. But the three US sources and a Gulf diplomat said the meeting now seemed unclear. It has already been postponed several times, they added.

The assassination of Khashoggi has raised "a whole series of problems" that must be resolved before the plan – unofficially called "Arab NATO" – can advance, said an American source. One of the problems is how the Americans could ensure that the Saudi Crown Prince, who bears the initials MbS, attends the summit without provoking general indignation.

"This is not acceptable," the source said.

A senior Trump administration official on Tuesday denied that Khashoggi's death complicated the alliance's progress, saying the MESA "is much bigger than a country and a single problem."

Saudi Arabia denied MbS's involvement in the Khashoggi assassination and said an investigation was under way.

Robert Malley, one of the senior advisers to former President Barack Obama in the Middle East, who now heads the International Crisis Group International Crisis Prevention Organization, said that he would difficult for MbS to attend a summit in January "given what happened and the brutality of feelings".

"I'm not sure he wants to come to the United States now," Malley said.

Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, Mesa's chief negotiator in the administration, said the initiative was "moving forward" but added that the impact of Khashoggi's death was unclear .

"I do not know yet how it will affect the process. Waiting for the investigation and final decisions, "Zinni told Reuters in a recent email. "I think that there may be a wait until the end of the investigation (maybe the scientific police if a body is found) is over before discussing the way forward . "

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

Many misfortunes

Even before the consequences of Khashoggi's assassination complicate matters, two White House classified documents reviewed by Reuters show that the administration was looking for ways to overcome regional quarrels and move the MESA forward. to contain Iran and limit the influence of Chinese and Russians in the region. .

"Our regional partners are increasingly competing and, in the case of the Rift in Qatar, they are competing directly against US interests and benefiting Iran, Russia and the United States. China, "wrote National Security Advisor John Bolton to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a late summer letter before Khashoggi's death.

"To put an end to these negative trends, we need to change the strategic calculation of our partners," wrote Bolton in an undated letter, in response to a June 2 memorandum on Mesa from Pompeo and Mattis.

Under the guise of anonymity, three US officials said that there had been a debate within the administration on whether Washington could persuade the Arab allies to leave out their differences, Bolton becoming the main promoter of the plan.

A fourth US official said general MESA objectives were widely shared within the administration, but discussions were underway on the best approach to reaching agreement.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Defense addressed questions to the State Department but pointed to Mattis' earlier comments in support of the alliance.

A State Department official said that the administration continued to "engage with our partners to work for the alliance."

WHITE HOUSE PLAN

The Administration's plan is to strengthen Trump's "America First" strategy to reduce foreign military commitments and ensure that allies bear the brunt of their own security, while defending the interests of the United States in the Middle East, according to one of the White House documents.

US interests in the region range from arms sales and Islamist extremists in Yemen, Iraq and Syria to the free flow of oil on world markets to maintain price stability.

A White House document, written before Khashoggi's death, said Trump had warned Saudi Arabian leaders and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). that from Egypt that "the status quo is unsustainable and that the United States will continue to invest in security in the Middle East" if they did not settle their differences.

He did not give details about Trump's threat or when he made it.

Washington deploys planes, warships and more than 30,000 troops to bases in the GCC countries. Senior US Army officials say that they have no intention of changing this posture.

The strategy paper, titled "Overview of the Strategic Alliance Concept in the Middle East", calls for a series of short- and medium-term measures requiring "very little if any, new US resource commitments in the region ".

The measures include the development of regional "operational centers" to integrate forces in areas such as missile defense, ground warfare and other areas, according to the newspaper and a source close to the plan.

A long-term goal would be a formal treaty alliance and a multilateral free trade pact negotiated over perhaps five to seven years, the document said. He also raised the possibility that the pact could eventually include Iraq, Lebanon and other countries, and formal ties could be forged with Israel and "some European and Asian allies".

Without these "end states," he said, "our regional partners are unlikely to engage fully."

Other reports by Phil Stewart, Stephen Kalin, Katie Paul and Ghaida Ghantous. Edited by Kieran Murray and Paritosh Bansal

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