Defense Secretary James N. Mattis condemned the killing of Washington Post contributor and Saudi government critic Jamal Khashoggi as intolerable, minutes before Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, at the same venue, characterized the global reaction to the murder as hysterical.
Mattis suggested the killing threatened to undermine stability in the Middle East, his first substantive comments on the matter. The defense secretary made the remarks at a security conference in the island kingdom of Bahrain, across the bridge from Saudi Arabia, minutes before Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir took to the stage and said people were jumping to conclusions before the investigation was completed.
Mattis reiterated President Trump’s vow to get to the bottom of what happened to Khashoggi, who disappeared at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, and said Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo would be taking unspecified “additional measures” in response to the killing beyond the revocation of U.S. visas for certain Saudi suspects. Above all, Mattis characterized the matter as not only a human rights issue, but also a national security concern for nations in the Middle East.
“When opposing voices can be heard within a political process adapted to each nation’s culture, one that permits peaceful opposition by giving voice and human rights to all, a nation becomes more secure,” Mattis said. “When people can speak and be heard calling for peace and respect for all, the terrorist message of hatred and violence is not embraced. With our collective interests in peace and unwavering respect for human rights in mind, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a diplomatic facility must concern us all greatly.”
Without calling out Saudi Arabia by name, Mattis said Khashoggi’s death could further disrupt the power dynamics in the region at a time it can’t afford it. The Middle East is struggling to cope with brutal conflicts in Syria and Yemen, a political divide between Persian Gulf nations and Qatar and what Mattis described as malign activity from Iran emanating across the region.
“Failure of any one nation to adhere to international norms and the rule of law undermines regional stability at a time when it is needed most,” Mattis said.
Saudi Arabia is not only the biggest importer of U.S. arms but a critical partner in the Trump administration’s Middle East agenda, which includes stabilizing Syria, brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, pushing back against Iranian influence, finishing off the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and bringing an end to the war in Yemen.
Mattis made the comments moments before Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, took to the same stage and criticized what he described as “hysteria” over Khashoggi’s killing.
“This issue has become fairly hysterical,” Jubeir said. “I think people have assigned blame on Saudi Arabia with such certainty before the investigation is complete. We have made it clear that we are going to have a full and transparent investigation, the results of which will be released.”
Jubeir didn’t directly answer a question about whether it was credible for the Saudi leadership to suggest Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would have been unaware of a large-scale operation involving more than a dozen agents to target Khashoggi in Istanbul.
“We know that a mistake was committed,” Jubeir said. “We know that people exceeded their authority. We know that we’ll investigate it.”
Jubeir also rejected the idea of extraditing the suspects in the killing to Turkey. The individual suspects in question are Saudi nationals and will be prosecuted in Saudi Arabia, he said.
Turkey has requested the extradition of 18 Saudi nationals arrested by Saudi authorities in the killing, including members of the 15-man “hit squad” allegedly sent from Saudi Arabia to kill the journalist, and three consulate employees. The Turkish government has argued it should prosecute the crime because the killing took place in Turkey and consular employees “do not enjoy legal immunity in the case of grave crimes” under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, according to a Turkish official.
“It would be best for the reputation of our Saudi friends that the court proceedings take place in Turkey,” said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the government’s internal deliberations.
Despite raising Khashoggi’s killing as a cause for concern, Mattis treaded lightly when criticizing Riyadh and didn’t go as far as Trump, who said Saudi Arabia’s response to the journalist’s disappearance amounted to the “worst cover-up ever.”
The Saudi journalist and author, who contributed to the columns to the Washington Post, entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up paperwork he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee. He never emerged.
The Saudi government initially denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, only to say later that he was accidentally killed there during an altercation with Saudi agents. Earlier this week, the story changed again, with Riyadh’s public prosecutor saying in a statement that Khashoggi was killed in a premeditated operation.
Saudi officials have sought to contain the damage of the resulting scandal by arresting a number of Saudis, firing senior officials and restructuring the nation’s intelligence agencies. Questions, however, have persisted about what the 33-year-old Saudi crown prince, a target of Khashoggi’s criticism, knew about the operation.
Trump has repeatedly said that he wants to get to the bottom of what happened but doesn’t want to jeopardize the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, and in particular, the billions of dollars in arms purchases that the Saudi armed forces make each year from American defense contractors.
Mattis underscored the position in his speech in Bahrain, backing the administration’s “twin imperatives” of protecting Americans and holding accountable those responsible for the murder.
The defense secretary said the United States’ respect for the Saudi people was undiminished, but added that “with our respect must come transparency and trust.”
“These two principles are vital for ensuring the continued collaboration we know is necessary for a safe, secure and prosperous Middle East,” Mattis said.
Mattis also called for an end to the war in Yemen but didn’t address the humanitarian impact of Saudi airstrikes that have led to civilian atrocities and famine in the embattled nation, where a Saudi-led military coalition has been facing off against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. An estimated 10,000 people have died, with 8 million more threatened by famine.
The United States provides limited military backing to the Saudi-led coalition prosecuting the Yemen campaign, including aerial refueling and intelligence support.
“All wars must eventually end, and the tragedy of Yemen worsens by the day,” Mattis said. “Enough time has been spent on the subordinate issues; now is the time to move forward on stopping this war. In November, we must start negotiating the substance of the issues. Compromise must replace combat, and the people must have peace to heal.”
Still, Mattis backed the justification for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen.
“I reiterate U.S. support for our partners’ right to defend themselves against Iranian-supplied Houthi attacks on their sovereign territory, and at the same time, call for an urgent end to the fighting,” he said.
Sonne and Fahim write for the Washington Post.