The Early Edition: October 17, 2018

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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 operatives killed and dismembered dissident Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the presence of the kingdom’s top diplomat in Istanbul, Turkish officials said yesterday, as Washington urged Riyadh to provide answers regarding the dissident journalist’s disappearance after entering the Saudi consulate in the Turkish capital on Oct. 2. President Trump, however, warned that Saudi Arabia should be considered innocent until proven guilty of Khashoggi’s murder, David Gauthier-Villars, Jessica Donati and Summer Said report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump commented regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance during a “freewheeling” interview with the AP yesterday. The president added: “here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent … I don’t like that … we just went through that with justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned,” Martin Pengelly reports at the Guardian.

Trump appeared ready to give Saudi Arabia the benefit of doubt, commenting in a further interview with Fox News that the U.S. reaction “depends whether the King or the Crown Prince knew about [Khashoggi’s disappearance], in my opinion … if they knew about it, that would be bad.” Trump once again addressed the issue of U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, asking rhetorically – if the U.S. were to give up its supposed $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom – “aren’t we just hurting our own country?” Matt Willstein reports at The Daily Beast.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today that Saudi Arabia has promised to carry out a thorough probe and ensure accountability over Khashoggi’s death, standing by the kingdom’s denials of having carried out the murder following meetings in Riyadh yesterday. After a full day of talks, a statement from Pompeo and a message on Twitter by Trump stated that the Saudi leadership “strongly denied knowledge of what took place” in the consulate, AFP reports.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Pompeo’s meetings in Riyadh with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were “direct and candid.” She added that Pompeo had thanked King Salman for “his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent and timely investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance,” Saphora Smith and Josh Lederman report at NBC.

Pompeo is today heading to Turkey to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at Istanbul airport, according to state department officials. Erdoğan has put the kingdom into a difficult position by disclosing that some areas at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi was last seen alive had been repainted and that toxic materials had been found by police; further, Turkish sources allege the body was moved to the consul general’s house nearby and disposed of, Bethan McKernan and Julian Borger report at the Guardian.

A pro-government Turkish newspaper today published a graphic account of the alleged killing. The report by Yeni Safak adds to the increasing pressure on the kingdom to explain Khashoggi’s fate. Suzan Fraser and Jon Gambrell report at the AP.

Several suspects in Khashoggi’s case identified by the Turkish authorities have been linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his security detail, according to a fresh report. One of the suspects identified is Mohammed’s travel companion, seen exiting planes with him in European capitals and photographed standing guard during visits to U.S. cities this year, Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

Turkish officials have provided journalists with scans of the passports the suspects allegedly used to enter the country. The scans, obtained by NBC News, show the photo-and-bio pages of seven Saudi passports that the officials say belonged to some amongst the 15 Saudis who arrived in Istanbul ahead of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Josh Lederman reports at NBC.

Senior officials inside the U.S. State and Treasury departments are “actively” discussing plans to exact financial punishment on Saudi Arabia for its role in Khashoggi’s alleged murder, according to three people involved in the discussions. Andrew Desiderio and Erin Banco report at The Daily Beast.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI DISAPPEARANCE: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Saudi Arabia’s planned claim – that Khashoggi’s death was caused by “rogue agents” in an interrogation gone wrong – serves as an effort to “draw a moral equivalence with U.S. renditions,” Michael Hirsh comments at Foreign Policy.

“The challenge for the Americans is whether … in the absence of definitive documentary evidence … the White House can brazen it out and persist with the rogue operation theory,” Patrick Wintour comments at the Guardian, arguing that “that will involve complex judgments about the security of the crown prince as heir to the throne, and the fact that his many internal enemies will be circling.”

“We have to make sure that the social/religious reform process in Saudi Arabia proceeds — whoever is in charge there … because that is a vital U.S. interest,” Thomas L. Friedman comments at the New York Times, conceding there is no easy fix to the diplomatic “mess” caused by Khashoggi’s disappearance .

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel says its fighter jets struck 20 targets in the Gaza Strip early today, killing one 25-year old Palestinian and injuring eight others, with six children among the wounded. The Israeli Defense Force (I.D.F.) stated that it launched the air raids in response to a rocket that hit a home in the southern town of Beersheba, causing damage but no injuries, Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday that the time has come to deliver a “heavy blow” to Gaza’s Palestinian militant Hamas leaders, after weeks of violence at the border. Lieberman stated that he will recommend at what point to take such action when Israel’s security Cabinet meets the today, claiming that it is “the only way to lower the level of violence to zero or close to zero,” the AP reports.

I.D.F. forces entered the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in occupied West Bank on Monday with heavy equipment and at least three bulldozers, according to local media. The village is under imminent threat of demolition, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. General Assembly yesterday allowed the Palestinians to act more like a full U.N. member state during meetings next year, during which they will chair the group of 77 developing nations. The U.S., Israel and Australia voted against the move, which was carried over the line by 146 votes in favor, Reuters reports.

IRAN

The Trump administration yesterday announced new sanctions on Iran, rolling out the new measures as much of the world’s focus remains with the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Rather than acting against Saudi Arabia, the Treasury Department unveiled financial penalties on a network of companies and banks supporting the paramilitary arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) – the Basij Resistance Force – accusing the group of recruiting and training child soldiers to fight in overseas conflicts, Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

Militants in Iran abducted 14 members of a border security force near the Pakistan border yesterday in a damaging development for the powerful Revolutionary Guard. Two of those abducted are allegedly members of the Guard’s intelligence department, with seven members of the Basij force also taken by the militants, Nasser Karimi reports at the AP.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claimed yesterday that it had killed Abu Zaha – the alleged “mastermind” behind the attack on a military parade last month in which at least 25 people died and 60 were injured. Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

Iran has extended the range of its land-to-sea ballistic missiles to 435 miles, according to a senior Iranian military official. Reuters reports.

SYRIA

The Trump administration is reportedly developing a new strategy for the conflict in Syria that would place more focus on forcing Iran’s military and its proxy forces out of the war-torn country, according to five people familiar with the development. The new plan would not involve the U.S. military directly targeting and killing Iranian as such a move would violate the current U.S. authorization for using force in Syria; the U.S. military does, however, have the right of self-defense under the authorization, and could strike the Iranian military if it felt threatened, Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee report at NBC.

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]

CHINA

The chairman of China’s Xinjiang region Shohrat Zakir yesterday sought to portray the detainment camps holding Uighur Muslims in the west of the country as generously equipped vocational schools that are vital to a crackdown on religious extremism. Although the camps have provoked widespread international condemnation, Zakir claimed that “facts have proven that vocational education and training fits the reality of current efforts in countering terrorism, maintaining stability and eradicating extremism in Xinjiang,” making the comments in a lengthy interview published yesterday by the government’s Xinhua News Agency, Josh Chin reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis on the “new cold war” between China and the U.S., in the context of a looming trade war, recent naval clashes and the extradition of a senior Chinese official to the U.S. on espionage charges, is provided by Julian Borger and Lily Kuo at the Guardian.

RUSSIA

The Kremlin has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to Paris for an event that President Trump is also set to attend, but a meeting between the two leaders is not planned. The AP reports.

An analysis of Russia’s expanding involvement in military conflicts across the African continent is provided by Aaron Ross at Reuters.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions yesterday acknowledged President Trump’s displeasure with him. At a Department of Justice (D.O.J.) news conference, Sessions was asked about the president’s comment in a recent interview that he was “very disappointed” with the attorney general; “the president speaks his mind … he says what’s on his mind at the time,” Sessions responded, adding “he’s been frustrated about my recusal [from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election] and other matters, but we have been so pleased and honored to be given the responsibility to execute his agenda at the D.O.J.,” Josh Gerstein reports at POLITICO.

The U.S. military yesterday announced its most lethal airstrike against the al-Shabab extremist group in Somalia in nearly a year, killing about 60 fighters. U.S. Africa Command claimed that Friday’s airstrike occurred near the al-Shabab-controlled community of Harardere in the central part of the country, also claiming that no civilians were injured or killed, Abdi Guled and Cara Anna report at the AP.

A bomb explosion killed an Afghan parliamentary candidate today as the Taliban warned students and teachers not to take part in upcoming elections and not to allow schools to be used as polling centers. The militant group claimed in a statement that they will target the Oct. 20 national elections, which they see as lacking legitimacy, but that they do not want to harm civilians, the AP reports.

An Op-Ed of the use of rape as a weapon in conflict, following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege, is provided by the Economist. 

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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).