ONE man’s murder preceded by torture and slow death seemed for once to have overshadowed larger tragedies and humanitarian disasters in the Middle East. The Syrian war entered its eighth year, and Yemen’s lot was starvation and epidemic – the “stuff of nightmares”, said UN.
Jamal Khashoggi’s macabre murder shocked the world. He entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2, never to be seen again. While his fiancée waited for him outside, a team of 15 Saudi commandoes used torture and murder techniques that still are a matter of conjecture. They range from a bone saw to checmicals for dissolving his body. Among his last words recorded by Turkish intelligence were, “You can’t do that … people are waiting outside … I can’t breathe.”
Was Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman personally involved in the crime? Nobody went public with this charge, but American media said CIA believed MBS was indeed the man behind the ghastly crime. MBS now enjoys absolute power and denies any involvement in the murder conspiracy. On Feb 26, in a shake-up he dismissed Military Chief of Staff Gen Abdul Rahman bin Saleh al-Bunyan, replacing him with Fayyad al-Ruwaili, besides sacking the chiefs of land forces and air defence, in addition to a number of interior ministry officials. Yet, as part of his reforms, he lifted the ban on women driving and appointed Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah as the first woman to become a deputy minister.
Though the reason was unfortunate, the Khashoggi murder and its strong denunciation by America and Turkey, and the ire displayed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, served to bring Washington and Ankara closer and ease the tension which had developed over a number of issues – US policy toward the Kurdish militia in Syria, the arrest, and latter release, of American pastor Andrew Brunson, President Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on Turkish imports, Ankara’s missile deal with Russia, and Congressional moves to block the delivery of F-35 fighter planes to Turkey. This was in addition to the American refusal to extradite cleric Fetullah Gulen, who Erdogan believes had links with the July 2014 coup plotters.
The Khashoggi murder served to ease the tension over a number of issues between US and Turkey.
Erdogan is now Turkey’s most powerful chief executive since Kemal Ataturk, his powers flowing from a 2017 referendum that turned the Constitution into a presidential one. Last June, Erdogan won the presidential election, carting off 53 per cent of votes, his nearest rival claiming 31pc. On July 19, emergency imposed after the coup failure was lifted. But the same month also saw the sacking of nearly 19,000 state employees, including soldiers and police personnel.
While he remains the region’s strongest democratically elected leader, Erdogan has made no attempt to use his influence with Riyadh and Tehran to end the Yemen conflict. UN estimates nearly 13 million people face starvation, with 50,000 children already dead. As the Saudi-led air power hit weddings, funerals and schools, peace talks in Sweden made no significant progress to end the three-year war.
While Saudi Arabia and Iran remained involved in the Yemen conflict, in May the US unilaterally walked out of the 2015 seven-power nuclear deal, and in November slapped what President Trump called “toughest ever” sanctions on Iran. However, America exempted several countries, including China, Japan and India, from the sanctions.
The month of May also saw the American embassy being inaugurated in occupied Jerusalem, while in September the US administration ‘shuttered’ the Palestinian mission in Washington. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) quickly denounced the US move, calling it “the use of cheap blackmail as a political tool. The Palestinian people and leadership will not be intimidated and will not succumb to coercion.” America also cut off $200 million in aid to Palestine to divert money to “high priority projects elsewhere.” All along the year, Israel continued to massacre Palestinians in Gaza, with the toll having crossed the 200 figure.
Even though in December 2017 Trump spoke of his “dream” to clinch an Israel-Palestinian deal, there is little chance of his success, given the Trump administration’s total surrender to Israeli policies. He has virtually repudiated the two-state solution to which previous American administrations have been party.
After meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sideline of the UN General Assembly meeting in September, Trump played with words: “I think probably two-state is more likely but if they do a single, if they do a double, I’m okay with it if they’re both happy. If they’re both happy, I’m okay with either. I think the two-state is more likely.”
Meanwhile, blood continued to flow in Syria, with casualties nearing the half a million mark. While the so-called Islamic State has been wiped out in Iraq, and almost so in Syria, mass graves containing hundreds of bodies were discovered near Albu Kamal, a region once ruled by the IS. In July, an IS suicide-bomber killed 156 people, nearly 100 of them being pro-regime fighters, in Sweida city in the south. In February, in another operation to dislodge Syrian rebels from their only enclave near Damascus, an 11-day operation by government air force resulted in heavy civilian casualties in Ghouta, the UN secretary-general calling the city “hell on earth”.
The humanitarian disasters in Yemen and Syria shouldn’t blind us to the savagery of the Afghan conflict, which has become the longest war in American history. While there were some hopeful peace moves, it was also the bloodiest year, with casualties likely to pass the 10,000 figure recorded for 2017.
Despite the surge in American military presence, the Taliban show no sign of defeat and exhaustion, with US estimates of their strength going up from 10,000 at the beginning of the war to 60,000 now. They also control more territory than before and have become bolder, with fierce attacks taking place virtually daily. In August the Taliban attacked Ghazni city and held it briefly before being driven out. Earlier, they penetrated into the diplomatic enclave, attacking foreign embassies and killing over 100 people. The rise of the IS’s Khorasan faction has added to the ferocity of the war, with the Taliban and IS-K fighting some bloody battles. However, it was the IS-K that owned suicide bombing in Kabul’s Shia neighbourhood, killing 48 people.
Mercifully, in this worsening military situation, America seems to have felt the need for abandoning its Pakistan-bashing policy. Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan confirmed he had received a letter from President Trump seeking Islamabad’s help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. This was in sharp contrast to President Trump’s vicious attacks on Pakistan and the aid cut-off. The letter and the visit by US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the US-Taliban talks in Doha indicated a realisation in the US that the road to peace in Afghanistan goes through Islamabad.