The Early Edition: October 16, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISAPPEARANCE

Saudi Arabia is weighing a new public response to confront accusations that it is responsible for the death of Washington Post columnist and dissident Saudi Jamal Khashoggi, with Saudi officials yesterday considering whether to say Khashoggi – who went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. – was killed by rogue operatives during an interrogation gone wrong. The kingdom’s “tentative” explanation corresponds with comments made by President Trump yesterday, who claimed after a phone call with Saudi King Salman: “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers.” Summer Said, Rebecca Ballhaus and David Gauthier-Villars report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump added that he had seen a media report stating that Saudi officials might say that Khashoggi was killed during unauthorized interrogation, but the president claimed that “nobody knows” if this was an official report. Reuters reports.

The new Saudi explanation seems intended to soothe the political crisis that has shaken the kingdom since Khashoggi’s disappearance. It may also serve to defuse some criticism of the Trump administration, which has refused to halt weapons sales to the Saudi regime and as of yesterday is still planning to attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh next week, Gardiner Harris, David D. Kirkpatrick and Eileen Sullivan report at the New York Times.

Democrats yesterday hit back at Trump’s assertion that “rogue killers” could be responsible. Member of the Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Comm.) said in a message on Twitter: “been hearing the ridiculous ‘rogue killers’ theory was where the Saudis would go with this … absolutely extraordinary they were able to enlist the President of the United States as their PR agent to float it.” Sen. Time Kaine (D-Va.) – another member of the panel – added that Trump’s rhetoric was “insulting,” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Turkish investigators finally gained access to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul yesterday, 13 days after the Khashoggi was last seen there. The investigators – arriving in unmarked black case late last night – were allowed into the consulate only after Saudi staff, consular visitors and a team of cleaners “equipped with mops, buckets and disinfectant” had been allowed into the building, Patrick Wintour and Martin Chulov report at the Guardian.

The Turkish prosecutor has now left the Saudi consulate building in Istanbul, a witness said today, with the team of 10 Turkish police investigators having already left after a nine-hour search. Reuters reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today arrived in Riyadh for talks with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Khashoggi’s disappearance. Khashoggi’s family have called for an independent, international commission to investigate what happened to the journalist, Clarissa Ward, Tim Lister and Bard Wilkinson report at CNN.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan yesterday warned Trump against accepting the Saudi administration’s denials about Khashoggi’s disappearance. “Let’s remember, this is the same King Salman who told me after 9/11 that the 9/11 attacks were an Israeli plot,” Jordan cautioned, adding: “he said that firmly .. did I believe that? … of course not .. I don’t think you can go in with wide-eyed acceptance of anything some of these world leaders say,” Justin Wise reports at the Hill.

A planned celebration of Saudi National Day at the Saudi embassy in Washington D.C. has been canceled, a staffer at the embassy confirmed yesterday. The event was scheduled for Thursday, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

“We expect the Saudi government to provide a complete and detailed response” regarding Khashoggi’s case, a spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters yesterday. Reuters reporters.

An update on the organizations that have pulled out of next week’s Future Investment Initiative conference – Saudi Arabia’s so-called “Davos in the Desert” – in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, is provided at Al Jazeera.

An explainer on “Jamal Khashoggi’s Disappearance: what we know and don’t know,” is provided by David K. Kirkpatrick at the New York Times.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISAPPEARANCE: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The president’s remark about the involvement of “rogue killers” in Khashoggi’s disappearance yesterday is one of several that have echoed controversial claims by overseas regimes, Andrew Restuccia and Nahal Toosi explain in an analysis at POLITICO.

The Saudi government warned in a statement over the weekend that it would meet any punishment from the U.S. with “greater action,” stressing its “vital role in the global economy,” but most experts have dismissed the rhetoric as “mere bluster, saying Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the dominant position in the oil market that it did decades ago,” Keith Johnson explains in an analysis at Foreign Policy.

“If the Saudis do confirm that Khashoggi died on their watch … it will be a damning admission after days of obfuscation and denials,” Ishaan Tharoor comments at the Washington Post, proposing that “the question for Trump, should the grim reports around Khashoggi’s death prove true … is how much longer can his indulgence of the Saudis last?”

A profile of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – often referred to as “MBS” – is provided at Al Jazeera.

“It is likely that the Trump administration will do its best to limit the diplomatic fallout from the Khashoggi affair … but the idea that the U.S. can build a grand strategy around the maniacal figure of MBS will have to be abandoned,” Gideon Rachman comments at the Financial Times.

U.S.-TURKEY RELATIONS

The Trump administration allegedly drafted a plan to withdraw U.S. diplomats from Turkey in the event that U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson was not released from prison at a hearing last week. Tara Palmeri reports at ABC News.

Brunson’s release “provides an important opportunity to make a fresh start in the crucial relationship between Washington and Ankara,” the Financial Times editorial board comments.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has raised the prospect of relocating the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in imitation of the Trump administration, which moved its embassy to Jerusalem in May. Morrison stated: “when sensible suggestions are put forward that are consistent with your policy positioning and in this case pursuing a two-state solution … Australia should be open-minded to this and I am open-minded to this and our government is open-minded to this;” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that he had recently spoken to Morrison and welcomed the Australian policy shift, Rob McGuirk reports at the AP.

Representatives from 13 Middle Eastern and North African embassies in Australia condemned the proposed embassy move, describing it a “fatal mistake” that could lead to a breakdown in economic relations with Arab and Muslim nations. Head of the Palestinian delegation to Australia Izzat Salah Abdulhadi said at the conclusion of an emergency meeting in Canberra today that people are “really angry, really frustrated, and disappointed with this policy,” Kate Lyons and Katherine Murphy report at the Guardian.

Israeli troops yesterday shot and killed a Palestinian man who allegedly tried to stab a soldier in the northern West Bank, according to the Israeli Defense Force (I.D.F.). The incident comes as security forces continue to search for a Palestinian individual who shot and killed two Israelis in a West Bank industrial park last week; the I.D.F. notified the man’s family yesterday that it intends to demolish his home in response to the attack, the AP reports.

The Israeli administration has approved plans to expand a Jewish settlement in the “volatile” West Bank city of Hebron. The AP reports.

SYRIA

Russia may still prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from launching an assault to retake the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib, despite the fact that Islamist groups in the province missed yesterday’s deadline to leave the proposed buffer zone set up under a Turkish-Russian deal aiming to avert an assault. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said in a press conference yesterday that the national army is deployed near Idlib and is ready to attack – but the Syrian government requires Russian air support to retake the province and Russia hopes “to prevent fresh fighting as it seeks to consolidate its status in the region,” Sune Engel Rasmussen reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An Israeli military official has said that the opening of a crossing between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syria “re-empowers” the United Nations, with the organization having been driven out of the area by Syrian rebels. Updates in respect of yesterday’s border crossing openings in Syria are provided at the AP.

A Russian delegation of foreign and defense ministry officials travelled to Saudi Arabia and met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss the crisis in Syria, the Russian foreign ministry said today. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 70 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Oct. 1 and Oct. 6 [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea’s state media today lambasted the U.S. for an “evil” attempt to uphold sanctions against Pyongyang, accusing President Trump of stymieing progress in inter-Korean relations. The declaration threatens to destabilize Washington-Pyongyang relations during ongoing negotiations surrounding denuclearization on the Peninsula, AFP reports.

The two Koreas and the U.S.-led U.N. Command met today to discuss efforts to disarm a military zone that the rivals control within their shared border under a peace agreement. The talks at the Panmunjom border village mark the first meeting between the Koreas and the U.N. Command. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

The two Koreas announced yesterday that they have agreed to a plan to connect via shared railways and roads, as part of a broader plan for peace. Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

“I get along with [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] really well,” President Trump said in an interview with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” aired late Sunday. Doubling down on his praise for Kim and the claim that he “fell in love” with the dictator, Trump said: “I have a good energy with him … I have a good chemistry with him … look at the horrible threats that were made … no more threats … no more threats,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Facebook will prohibit false information about voting requirements and fact-check fake reports of violence or long lines at polling stations ahead of the November U.S. midterm elections, according to company executives. Reuters reports.

The prospect of an internet split into two by the U.S. and China – as predicted by former Google C.E.O. and Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt – is a major cause for concern in light of China’s “increasingly sophisticated system of digital surveillance [that] plays a major role in human rights abuses,” the New York Times editorial board comments.

“The U.S. still fields weapons systems with dramatic weaknesses,” Brian E. Finch comments at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that “securing weapons systems for the sprawling behemoth that is the Pentagon is a massive undertaking, but it must become a top priority … anything less will put Americans in uniform at risk.”

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

Former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin commented yesterday that the “chaos” in the early months of the Trump White House ultimately made it easier to pass major legislation to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.). “Some people use the word chaos — that would probably be a pretty accurate term” Shulkin told an audience at the Harvard School of Public Health, Elen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has claimed that President Trump personally assured him that his job is “100 percent” safe, just days after the president publicly hinted that Mattis might removed from his administration, describing Mattis as “sort of a Democrat.” The Daily Beast reports.

General Counsel of Boeing Judge Michael Luttig is the best candidate to replace Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General, Hugh Hewitt argues at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Mounir el Motassadeq – convicted of assisting Mohamed Atta and the other Hamburg-based Sept. 11 suicide pilots – was deported yesterday from Germany to his homeland Morocco. David Rising reports at the AP.

The country of Niger is “quickly becoming ground zero for a multibillion-dollar Western project … to combat the expansion of jihadist activity across the Sahel.” Joe Parkinson and Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin provide an analysis at the New York Times. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).