According to the New York Times, Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri will soon have the dubious honor of falling on his sword (or, more likely, having a sword fall on him) for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who is under enormous diplomatic pressure to explain the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On Thursday, Turkish media reported that at least one of the men who arrived in Istanbul earlier this month on the day Khashoggi was (almost assuredly) killed, himself died in a “suspicious” car “accident” in Riyadh.
At this point, evidence implicating the Saudis is definitive. Over the past 10 days, media reports based on, among other things, the accounts of Turkish officials who have reviewed an audio tape of the murder, CCTV video evidence and U.S. intelligence intercepts, prove Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
After initially claiming Khashoggi exited the consulate shortly after entering to obtain necessary papers for his marriage, Riyadh is now preparing to change their story to a tale of “rogue” generals who were dispatched to kidnap Khashoggi but were not authorized by the Crown Prince to commit murder. Details of the above-mentioned audio tape surfaced on Tuesday and painted a particularly gruesome picture of how Khashoggi met his end.
The Trump administration is reserving judgement “for a few more days”, according to Mike Pompeo, who is now back in the U.S. after meeting with King Salman and the Crown Prince earlier this week.
For his part, the President has repeatedly stressed that he will not cancel a $110 billion arms deal with Riyadh no matter what the outcome of the “very serious” Saudi “investigation” (and the scare quotes are there for a reason) shows. It doesn’t hurt that Riyadh wired Trump $100 million earlier this week on the same day Pompeo was wheels down in the Kingdom.
Still, bin Salman needs an out here. Nobody is going to believe that 15 Saudis were somehow able to procure not one, but two Gulfstream IVs, fly to Istanbul and murder a well-known journalist under the watchful eye of Turkish intelligence without the Crown Prince’s consent. Further, the New York Times reminds you that Tubaigy’s “stature [means] he could be directed only by a high-ranking Saudi authority.”
In short, bin Salman needs to find himself just such a “high-ranking Saudi authority” to blame and according to a new piece published by the Times on Thursday afternoon, that guy will be Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri. To wit, from the Times:
Blaming General Assiri could provide a plausible explanation for the killing and help deflect blame from the crown prince, who American intelligence agencies are increasingly convinced was behind Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.
General Assiri, who previously served as the spokesman for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, is close enough to the crown prince to have easy access to his ear and has considerable authority to enlist lower ranking personnel in a mission.
Apparently, the Saudis are going to try and tell the world that bin Salman gave him the green light to capture Khashoggi, but not to kill him and that whatever happened in Istanbul was the result of Assiri “misunderstanding his instructions or overstepping”.
Obviously, that is laughable (to the extent this situation can be “laughable”), but as the Times goes on to say, it might just be enough to give the international community the plausible deniability they need to maintain reasonably cordial relations with bin Salman.
“Assiri’s seniority makes the notion that he carried out the operation without the further participation of Prince Mohammed at least technically plausible”, the Times writes, adding that “lower-ranking Saudi officers might have trusted that the general was giving them orders on behalf of the prince.”
Still, Assiri was promoted by bin Salman himself, so this is reminiscent of Trump’s claims that he “hires the best people” only to have those same people screw up in “big league” fashion later on down the road.
Assiri was elevated only last year, and there’s something tragically ironic about the prospect that the General who served as the public face of the war in Yemen will now turn into the scapegoat for the murder of a man whose death finally drew the world’s attention to the plight of Saudi Arabia’s war-torn neighbor.