MANAMA, Bahrain — Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has put at risk the overall plan to stabilize the Middle East, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a major policy speech here Saturday.
Mattis' words were the most direct and harshest by the Trump administration to date against Saudi Arabia, which is still partnered with the U.S. in ongoing operations in Yemen, and is considered a vital partner to be able to fully counter Iran in Syria and beyond.
“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a diplomatic facility must concern us all," Mattis told a packed room of defense ministers and international security experts at the annual Manama Dialogue Saturday. The killing “undermines regional stability at a time it is needed most.”
Saudi Arabia admitted to killing Khashoggi after the country’s cover-up of his death was exposed by the Turkish government. The backlash in the days since has been severe, with senior congressional leaders and key investment banks distancing themselves from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS as he is commonly known.
Adel al Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s minister of foreign affairs, followed Mattis' remarks at the conference, and pushed back on world reaction to the murder.
“This issue has become fairly hysterical,” Jubeir said, blaming the media for the intense reaction so far. Jubeir did say that six officials have been dismissed to date, on top of another 18 it has arrested in connection with the attack.
Pushing harder on the kingdom to reveal all the facts and officials involved in the attack might prove difficult for the U.S., as President Donald Trump has counted on Saudi Arabia to commit both troops and money in Syria to relieve pressures on U.S. forces and war spending there, and have a larger role countering Iran. For example, this spring Saudi Arabia said it was open to building an Arab force to eventually replace the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops operating in Syria.
Now the U.S. is reassessing whether Khashoggi’s murder has put those plans at risk.
“Due to the gravity of the situation,” Mattis told the conference, the U.S. is still assessing the “implications of this incident within our broader strategic framework.”
Mattis' statements, which were contained in as-prepared remarks for the International Institute for Strategic Studies 2018 conference, raised questions as to whether the U.S. would instead turn to other regional partners, such as Qatar to counter Iran’s supply and support for militants in both Syria and Yemen, or whether Mattis was signalling to regional defense leaders that they should still partner with Saudi Arabia, but not necessarily with its controversial crown prince.
Mattis said that even as the U.S. moves forward with additional punitive measures in the wake of the murder, it will continue to support a “people-to-people partnership" with Saudi Arabia, a statement notable for its lack of mention of MBS. The crown prince is suspected to have been involved in the decision to murder Khashoggi, an allegation he has denied.
The U.S. needs Saudi Arabia in order to maintain what Mattis described as “twin imperatives” in the region — working with Saudi Arabia to stop Yemen’s civil war, and to get it to increase its role in Syria to relieve demands on the U.S. — while simultaneously seeking justice for the murder, Mattis said.
“The United States’ shared security interests with our Arab and Israeli partners remain, and our respect for the Saudi people is undiminished,” he said. “We maintain our strong people-to-people partnership, knowing that with our respect must come transparency and trust."
On Saturday, Mattis also reiterated that the U.S. is committed to staying in Syria.
Mattis said a U.S. presence would remain in Syria for the long-haul, to “expand space for our diplomats to negotiate for long-term peace.”
“We will remain engaged in the fight against extremists as long as they present a clear and present danger to our security and allied interests,” Mattis said.
However, extending the U.S. presence will mean added costs to the U.S. budget that Trump has previously been opposed to.
In March, Trump sought to offset some of those costs by asking the crown prince to contribute $4 billion to stabilization efforts in Syria. In the months since, the kingdom has only provided a few individual donations in the hundreds of millions apiece, the most recent was a $100 million contribution after news of Khashoggi’s death surfaced.
For comparison, the U.S. has spent almost $9 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria and the combined costs of operations since 2014 against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have topped $23 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."