The New York Times – This summer, Saudi Arabia promised the Trump administration $100 million for American efforts to stabilize areas in Syria liberated from the ISIS.
That money landed in American accounts on Tuesday, the same day that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for discussions with the kingdom’s leaders about the fate of a missing Saudi dissident.
Securing the funding is a win for President Trump, who has complained about how much the United States spends abroad and has tried to get allies to foot more of the bill. But the timing of the money’s arrival raised eyebrows even among some of the bureaucrats whose programs will benefit from the influx of cash.
“The timing of this is no coincidence,” said an American official involved in Syria policy who spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to speak to journalists. The official confirmed that the money arrived on Tuesday.
The disappearance of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, has battered the image of Saudi Arabia and of its powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a key player in many of the Trump administration’s ambitions for the Middle East. Turkish officials say that Mr. Khashoggi was slain inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents on Oct. 2 while he was trying to secure a document he needed to get married.
Saudi leaders have denied harming Mr. Khashoggi, but have not provided a credible explanation of what happened to him.
Mr. Trump threatened “severe punishment” if it was confirmed that Saudi Arabia killed Mr. Khashoggi. But after speaking with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Monday, he suggested that “rogue killers” could have been responsible and dispatched Mr. Pompeo to Riyadh to see the Saudi king.
In his strongest language to date over the mystery surrounding the missing journalist, Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday: “Here we go again with you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
On Monday, a person with knowledge of Saudi Arabia’s plans said the kingdom was planning to blame the killing on rogue elements who did not act on official orders — a scenario that could allow the monarchy to acknowledge Mr. Khashoggi’s death while protecting its leaders from culpability.
An endorsement of that conclusion by the Trump administration could help limit damage to Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.
Brett McGurk, the United States envoy to the coalition fighting the ISIS, dismissed the idea that Mr. Pompeo’s visit and the disbursement of funds were connected. The Saudis had committed the money in August, he said, and the United States had expected to receive it in the fall.
“The specific transfer of funds has been long in process and has nothing to do with other events or the secretary’s visit,” Mr. McGurk said.
But the official involved in Syria policy said the payment process had been unpredictable.
The money was pledged in August but it was unclear when it would show up, if at all, until it suddenly landed in American accounts on Tuesday.
Since he took office, Mr. Trump has been trying to limit the role of the United States in Syria, where a seven-year war has shattered the country, killed hundreds of thousands of people and left entire cities in ruins.
He has spoken positively about the idea of withdrawing the approximately 2,000 American soldiers who are based in eastern Syria in areas once controlled by the ISIS, although he now appears committed to leaving them there. In August, his administration decided not to spent $230 million that had already been earmarked for stabilization programs in that area.
The Saudi money, in addition to another $50 million given by the United Arab Emirates, will allow American programs there to continue, but on other countries’ tabs.
The funds will be used by USAID and the State Department for a variety of programs, including infrastructure repairs and provision of health, education and sanitation services.