Istanbul Intrigue

A Saudi flag flutters atop Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul

Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s disappearance on 2 October resembles the plot line of a spy novel. Kashoggi, a frequent critic of the Saudi government, as well as the de facto head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Saudi Arabian branch, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain papers needed to get married. His fiancée waited outside, and when he did not leave by the time the consulate closed, she reported him missing. The Saudis claim that Kashoggi did leave the consulate through a back entrance. The Turkish government, however, argued that he was still inside, later amending their position to the belief that Kashoggi was tortured and later killed inside the building. The Turks later claimed that a 15-man team was brought in from Saudi Arabia to handle the operation.

Predictably, Kashoggi’s disappearance has bloomed into a major international incident. The Saudis and Turks are sticking to their stories. Investigations are underway, and supposedly both countries are cooperating with a joint investigation. The global outcry from media, and human rights organizations is reaching a fevered pitch. The future of Turkish-Saudi relations, already strained before this incident took place, could very well rest on the fate of Kashoggi.

This episode has also placed the United States in an awkward position. Both Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are American allies. The Turks have been sharing the alleged video evidence in their possession with US officials, and this morning Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who was arrested on treason and sedition charges in October of 2016, was released from Turkish custody. This latest move is most likely a calculated one made by the Turkish government to bring US support to its position, and version of events. Saudi Arabia is another close US ally in the region. Washington has been pressing Riyadh for answers both publicly, and in private. The Trump administration has not ruled out economic sanctions against the Saudis if they are found to be responsible for Kashoggi’s kidnapping, though punitive measures are unlikely.

Saturday 1 September, 2018 Update: Iran Moves Ballistic Missiles Into Iraq

56765765

As US containment efforts press ahead at full speed, the Iranian government continues to counter with thinly veiled threats against US interests in the region. First it was the Strait of Hormuz, followed by promises of an upsurge of assistance to the Syrian government in its campaign against western-backed rebel militias.  Now, Iran is placing ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq controlled by its Shiite proxies, and is developing its ability to manufacture more missiles there. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is well established in these areas, and has overseen the program since it began roughly three months ago. Iranian officials have stated off the record that the purpose of the missile placement is to serve as a hedge against any attacks against their country. Nominally, control of the missiles will be placed in the hands of the IRGC, with the Shiite proxy groups having limited involvement. In the event of heightened tension, or a crisis, however, all of this could change if Iran does start to assist the Shiite proxy groups with constructing their own missiles.

Iran has provided ballistic missiles for the Houthi rebels, their proxy group in Yemen. The Houthis periodically launch missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been targeted most frequently, though the Houthi attacks against the Saudi capital have caused only minimal damage, and disruption. By putting a similar capability in the hands of Shiite proxies inside of Iraq, the Iranians are extending the range of its shorter-range ballistic missiles to include Israel.

Along with acting as a deterrent, these missiles could also be used in attacks aimed at destabilizing the region, or damaging US actions aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The aggressive missile policy runs the risk of pushing tensions between Washington and Tehran even higher. August has seen a sharp rise in the language, and actions of the actors involved in the Iran drama. Unfortunately, based on the way things look now on the first day of September, there does not appear to be any signs of de-escalation in the near future.

Thursday 26 July, 2018 Update: Saudi Arabia Suspends Red Sea Oil Shipments

68686

Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday afternoon it is suspending oil shipments through the Red Sea after a Saudi oil tanker was attacked and damaged by Houthi forces in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The move is extraordinarily swift and decisive, and holds the potential to disrupt shipping in the area. The Red Sea shipping lanes are a highly used route for Saudi Arabian oil tankers, as well as international commerce. The Saudi move could motivate other nations to follow suit if the attacks continue.

This is not the first time the Bab el Mandeb Straits has been used by Houthi rebels to launch attacks on shipping. In 2016 US Naval forces intercepted two anti-ship missiles that were launched by Houthis and targeted at US ships in the area. This past April a Saudi oil tanker was attacked in the strait, receiving minor damage. Saudi Arabia’s response then was more restrained. Oil shipments continued, and Riyadh assured nervous observers the incident would not affect oil supplies.

The war of words between Iran and the United States, and the coming snapback of sanctions against Iran on 6 August threaten to heighten current tensions. Wednesday’s attack on the tanker could be a sign of things to come. In response to the sanctions, Iran might encourage the Houthis, and other proxy groups to intensify attacks against tankers, and resume confrontational skirmishes between Iranian naval forces and the US Navy in the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas. So far in 2018 there have been no incidents between US and Iranian vessels. Before the Iranian nuclear deal was implemented, and even afterward, Tehran has used the harassment tactics to try and strengthen its position. They might turn to it once again, if some of the rhetoric coming from inside of Iran is any indication.

Monday 26 March, 2018 Update: A Busy Monday Around the World

4564564.jpg

The week is off to an active beginning on a host of fronts around the world. From London to Riyadh and further on to Beijing  geopolitical screws are turning, a diplomatic crisis is deepening, and the two year anniversary of a conflict has been marked in an explosive manner.

 

Russian Diplomats Face Being Expelled Across Europe and North America

Dozens of Russian diplomats will be expelled from European nations and the United States as the fallout from the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil continues to expand. Over twenty nations have sided with Great Britain, including the United States and many of its European allies. More than Russian 100 diplomats are being declared persona non grata and formally deported.  The consensus among Great Britain’s allies has been that Russia is responsible for the nerve-agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. Russia denies any involvement in the matter and has called the latest expulsions a ‘provocative gesture.’ Moscow also vowed retaliation.

 

Speculation Places Kim Jong Un In Beijing

Rumors of a senior North Korean delegation, possibly led by Kim Jong Un, broke today when photos of a special North Korean train arriving in Beijing came to light. The train is one used in the past by North Korean leaders for travel around North Korea and beyond. Photos of the train in Beijing were provided by Japan’s Nippon Television. The train was reportedly met at the train station by an honor guard, and line of VIP automobiles.

If Kim is present in Beijing, the timing is interesting. North Korean and South Korean officials are scheduled to meet next week to prepare for a meeting between the leaders of both nations in the near future. Beyond that is the potential meeting between Kim Jong Un and President Trump that is in the works.

 

Houthi Ballistic Missiles Strike Saudi Arabia

On the second anniversary of the start of the Yemen war, Houthi rebels launched a volley of Iranian-manufactured ballistic missiles against four Saudi Arabian cities.  Missile trails, and spectacular explosions lit the night sky over the Saudi capital. Four missiles were intercepted over Riyadh. No vital targets were struck, according to Saudi officials, though one civilian was killed and a handful injured. Missiles were also launched at the southwestern cities of Khamis Mushait, Najran, and Jazan. No damage or casualties were reported there. If the Houthis were hoping for a propaganda victory from the attack they couldn’t be more wrong. The missile strike has been condemned around the world and serves as a shining example of why the Saudi war effort must be continued.

A Look at the Week Ahead: Iran and Saudi Arabia

676446564654

As Lebanon appears as to be shaping up as the next battleground in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony, the next two weeks will be an opportune time to examine the ongoing cold war between the two powers. Last Saturday’s political drama in Riyadh and the subsequent rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has changed the nature of the geopolitical duel. With Iran’s arc of influence expanding at an alarming rate, MbS has convinced King Salman, his father and the Saudi king, that the time to confront Iran is now.

As Iranian influence has expanded, Saudi Arabia’s recent power moves in the region have been less than successful, mostly owing to ham-fisted execution. The blockade against Qatar is a shining example. The Saudi missteps are leaving Iran an opportunity to tip the balance of power in its favor permanently. Before that can happen, the Saudis have opted to move in a manner which runs a risk of escalation, and potentially direct conflict with Iran. Time is not a friend for Riyadh at the moment and could explain why King Salman was so willing to grant his son a mandate to deal with Iran in a new way.

I hope everyone is enjoying the weekend.