The Khashoggi murder: Implications for US policy toward Iraq and the Kurds

The shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul will, doubtless, have significant consequence for US policy in the Middle East, including, quite possibly, Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul will, doubtless, have significant consequence for US policy in the Middle East, including, quite possibly, Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.

It is still early, and the situation continues to evolve as new information comes to light. It was reported late on Wednesday, for example, that CIA Director Gina Haspel had returned from Turkey, having heard the audio tape of Khashoggi’s interrogation and killing.

Thus, it will take some time for the consequences of this grisly event to play out fully, but some preliminary observations are in order.

It is extremely unlikely that US-Saudi relations will—or even can—revert to their earlier warmth.

The Trump administration had made an alliance with Saudi Arabia a cornerstone of its Middle East policy, but that would seem to be over.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump was critical of Riyadh, but the idea emerged early in his presidency that Washington could partner with Riyadh to counter Iran and secure a broad peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states.

That notion was already being mooted when a chance event gave it an unexpected boost.

An unusually harsh, late-winter snowstorm caused the postponement of a scheduled lunch between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 14, 2017.

Saudi Arabia’s young Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), was already in town, and he was invited to the White House as a substitute for Merkel.

The 32-year-old MBS made a very positive impression, and US-Saudi relations took off.

In May, Trump made his first visit abroad as President—to Saudi Arabia. In June, the ailing King, MBS’ father, promoted his son to the position of Crown Prince—i.e., heir to the throne, removing the older, and more experienced, Interior Minister, Mohammed bin Nayef, from that and all other positions.

In the process of elevating his son, King Salman rode roughshod over a well-established principle in Saudi governance: the importance of maintaining consensus within the ruling family and accommodating its multiple branches.

At the same time that the Trump administration was developing ties with Saudi Arabia, it was formulating its policy toward Iraq—and it did so with its supposed Saudi partnership in mind.

What emerged was strong US support for “one-Iraq” and strong opposition to the Kurdistan independence referendum—expressed most clearly by Brett McGurk, initially named by Barack Obama as Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, who then managed also to assume responsibility for the future of Iraq.

In that scheme, as the US partner, Saudi Arabia was to use its influence (and money) to counter Iranian influence in Baghdad and “return Iraq to the Arab fold,” as Riyadh pledged then.

However, as two former State Department officials who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations cautioned in The Washington Post, even before MBS’ White House lunch, Sunni Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, “have no influence, access, or allies in Iraq to assist in the fight against the Islamic State (IS)” or to resist “the power of [Shia] militia groups that serve as Iran’s proxies.”

Saudi Arabia is a tribal society until relatively recently, insulated from much of the rest of the world by a huge, forbidding desert. Saudi society remains traditional and conservative and its bureaucrats, even leading politicians, can be inexperienced, naive, and crude.

It is no match for Iran, an ancient and sophisticated imperial power.

As one knowledgeable Iraqi source advised Kurdistan 24, King Salman and MBS have made an important decision: “to cease their funding of Islamic terrorism” in the region, adding, “We have noticed that in Iraq.”

However, the Saudis have been a dismal failure in countering Iran in Iraq. As this source explained, they provided millions of dollars to a certain Sunni bloc, but it failed to win even one seat in Iraq’s recent elections.

Saudi policy in Iraq is “really bad,” he said. “They are giving Iran victory on a golden platter—not even a silver one.”

Saudi Arabia never had the capability to be the partner the Trump administration envisaged, and that has been amply demonstrated by Khashoggi’s brutal and brazen murder.

Perhaps, that realization will, over time, contribute to weakening the US commitment to “one Iraq.”

And there should be another lesson, as well. The US has few genuine friends in the Muslim Middle East.

The Saudis are not—and cannot be, because the societies are too different. However, the Kurds are a friend of the US, or, at least, they would like to be.

But the US insists on subordinating them to a less friendly, less competent government in Baghdad, strongly under the influence of Iran.

It would, arguably, make more sense for the US to cultivate ties with its friends in Erbil, help them out and help them flourish, rather than insist, as it does, that they remain under Baghdad’s thumb.

Editing by Nadia Riva