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Biden administration faces major foreign policy tests in the Middle East

The last 24 hours have seen two major foreign policy developments. Overnight, the Biden administration launched its first known airstrike of Iranian-backed militias in Syria, and Friday, the U.S. intelligence community released a damning report tying Saudi Arabia's crown prince to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The last 24 hours have seen two major foreign policy developments. Overnight, the Biden administration launched its first known airstrike against Iranian-backed militias in Syria.

    And, today, the U.S. intelligence community released a damning report tying Saudi Arabia's crown prince to the murder of a journalist.

    To discuss both now, we turn to our Nick Schifrin.

    So, hello, Nick.

    First of all, on the intelligence community report, tell us what is in here. What is it saying about what the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, his connection was to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Judy, this is the first time we have seen the intelligence community's assessment on who murdered Jamal Khashoggi.

    And from the very first sentence, it is damning. The Office of Director of National Intelligence report begins: "We assess Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi."

    It says it makes that assessment based on the crown prince's control of decision-making, the direct involvement of one of his key advisers, and his personal protective detail and his prior support for using violent measures on dissidents. It does not include any firsthand intelligence that MBS was responsible.

    Now, you will recall, Judy, that Khashoggi was once a palace insider who became a prominent critic of MBS. And on October 2018, Khashoggi walked into the consulate in Istanbul, and was brutally murdered inside.

    And, afterward, one of his murderers actually put on his clothes and left the embassy in an apparent attempt to cover it up. The assessment itself, Judy, is largely what we knew already. But administration officials and human rights advocates admit it is remarkable to see it out in public.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, the Biden administration moved quickly to announce how it's going to punish Saudi Arabia. Tell us about that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the State Department created what it's calling the Khashoggi ban.

    It imposes restrictions on visas on anyone who harms, suppresses or even threatens journalists, activists and dissidents. And it used that today to sanction 76 Saudis.

    In addition, the Treasury Department sanctioned what it called the ringleader of the murder and MBS' personal protective detail, which was involved in Khashoggi's death. But who is not on the list sanctioned today, Judy, is MBS himself.

    Senior officials confirmed to me that President Biden decided not to sanction Mohammed bin Salman. And that means that human rights advocates say today's actions is simply not enough.

    Take a listen to Amrit Singh. She is the director of the Accountability Division of the Open Society Justice Initiative, who brought forward the lawsuit that led to today's release.

  • Amrit Singh:

    If MBS does not face any sanctions at the current time. Nor will he, apparently, face any in the future, the message that the United States is giving to MBS is that he goes unpunished, even though he's the ringleader for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

    Even though administration officials say it is holding MBS accountable by recalibrating the relationship, not only the release today, but freezing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, ending targeting assistance to the Saudi military, and downgrading MBS, so he only speak to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

    Now, today, Secretary Blinken said that the administration was trying to recalibrate, but not rupture the relationship.

  • Sec. Tony Blinken:

    We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom. But we also want to make sure — and this is what the president has said from the outset — that the relationship better reflects our interests and our values.

    And I think that we have to understand as well that this is bigger than any one person.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, if human rights advocates say the administration did not go far enough, others argue Saudi Arabia must remain a key U.S. partner.

    Take a listen to Simon Henderson with the Washington Institute.

  • Simon Henderson:

    The Biden administration has just recalibrated in a very obvious manner its relationship with Saudi Arabia in general and MBS in particular.

    But next week, it still has to deal with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia will almost certainly put out MBS as the interlocutor in dealing with Washington.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, today, the Saudi government has responded — quote — "rejecting the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the kingdom's leadership. The concerned individuals were convicted and sentenced by the courts in the kingdom. And we look forward to maintaining the enduring foundations that have shaped the framework of the resilient strategic partnership between the kingdom and the United States," which means, Judy, the relationship between the United States and MBS himself is going to continue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very interesting.

    Let's turn quickly to the other story today, Nick, and that is the U.S. targeting airstrike on Syria. Who exactly were they targeting and why?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the Pentagon says the target was a group of militias responsible for recent attacks in Iraq that injured five Americans and killed a foreign contractor.

    The Pentagon says two F-15s dropped seven bombs on a militia checkpoint that the militia had been using in order to get arms into Iraq. Senior administration officials emphasize it was a proportional strike means they tried to hit the same number of casualties as were hit in Iraq.

    But there is a local report duty that more than a dozen people were killed. But the administration says it's confident they got the militias responsible for the attack. And they do hold Iran responsible for controlling those militias.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, give us a little more context. What is the strategy, the U.S. strategy when it comes to Iran?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, President Biden said this afternoon that the message was to deter Iran. And we heard the same thing from Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, who spoke to us in the Pentagon Briefing Room a few hours ago.

  • John Kirby:

    The strike sends a message to anyone in the region that we will defend ourselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But senior officials tell me, Judy, that the strike was calibrated to actually avoid military escalation with Iran, which is why they tried to have the same number of casualties and tried to have this goal, that this round be done, so the diplomats can create momentum and the Biden administration can try and reenter the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Nick Schifrin following two major stories today.

    Thank you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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