Turkey Exploits Khashoggi Diplomatic Crisis to Poke at Saudi Arabia, Trump
It’s an odd mix of outrage, fear, bafflement and a sneaking undertone of satisfaction as Turks watch the international drama over the fate of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi play out on the streets.
The outrage and fear spring from concerns that Saudi Arabia, a diplomatic dissenter and historic rival for influence in the Islamic world, would feel empowered to dispatch a “hit team” into the heart of Turkey’s largest city to take out a meddlesome critic.
The satisfaction, building as the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slowly — some say strategically — dribbles out grisly details of the investigation, fueling a building international outrage against Riyadh and ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
As the Istanbul investigation ground on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed President Trump at the White House on his recent trip to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, saying Mr. Trump was giving the parties a few more days to complete a formal investigation.
In recent years, the increasingly authoritarian Mr. Erdogan has clashed with Saudi leaders over a host of issues on such divisive issues as the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turks and Saudis have also differed over Qatar’s role in supporting militant groups in the Persian Gulf and beyond, the future of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and strategies to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
On his home turf, where he rules with near absolute power, Mr. Erdogan hasn’t held back after demanding that Turkish police examine the Saudi Consulate for signs of a killing. Many of the details Turkish authorities have leaked to the media have also vastly complicated the Trump administration’s efforts to contain the fallout from the Khashoggi case for the rest of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
“The investigation is looking into many things such as toxic materials and the possibility of those materials being removed by painting them over,” the president told reporters at the parliament in Ankara on Tuesday, indicating that detectives found signs of tampering at the crime scene.
“The Turks know what they’re doing,” former CIA officer Robert Baer said Thursday on CNN. “This is a slow roasting of Saudi Arabia and perhaps the Trump administration as well.”
Analysts note that the Saudi-Turk rivalry goes far deeper than the events of the past two weeks, stretching back centuries to the Ottoman Empire, the founding of the modern Saudi kingdom. The protector of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia champions a strict, Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, while Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, promoted a strictly secular, nationalist form of government. Even though Mr. Erodgan is considered an Islamist in the Turkish political context, his vision of how to promote a political version of the faith vastly differs from the Saudi model.
For ordinary Turks, the roller coaster of emotions since Mr. Khashoggi vanished after entering the Saudi Consulate on Oct. 2 can be seen in the evolving reactions of his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside the consulate on that fateful day.
“I will not believe he is dead till I get official confirmation from the government, keep us in your prayers,” Ms. Cengiz, a Turkish Ph.D. candidate in Islamic history at Sabahattin Zaim University in Istanbul, said on Twitter in the first days of the investigation.
But after forensic investigators took away soil samples from the consulate’s inner courtyard and detectives removed a metal door leading to the manicured garden on Tuesday, she took to social media in a fiery recitation of a Koran verse promising divine retribution for killers of devout Muslims.
“Whoever kills a believer intentionally, his recompense will be Hell,” she tweeted. “Allah has become angry, cursed him and has prepared for him a great punishment.”
The most sensational — if unconfirmed — details of the Khashoggi case have been attributed to government and police leaks: that the dissident journalist was tortured before his death, that his fingers were cut off, that a Saudi forensic specialist flown in from Riyadh dismembered the corpse with a bone saw so the remains could be spirited away, and that traces of a bloody interrogation were found when Turkish investigators were allowed into the diplomatic compound.
With all signs pointing to a targeted assassination in the heart of Turkey’s biggest city, the Khashoggi affair dominates conversations in coffee shops, cafes and parks.
“He was the only Saudi journalist to criticize the kingdom’s regime in one of the West’s biggest newspapers,” said Esraa Al-Shaikh, a Palestinian TV presenter at the pan-Arab channel Al-Hiwar’s Istanbul bureau. She was standing vigil outside the Saudi Consulate in the tony Besiktas district on the European side of the Bosporus. “This is frightening to all of us since Jamal was a moderate, honest and realistic person, careful in his criticism.”
Ironically, Reporters Without Borders calls Turkey under Mr. Erdogan “the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists.” The nation has slipped steadily in the World Press Freedom Index since his election to the presidency in 2014 and an attempted coup in 2016. Turkey now stands at 157 in the World Press Freedom Index, but it still ranks 12 places ahead of Saudi Arabia, which ranks 169th out of 180 countries.
“In Muslim traditions, messengers are supposed to have immunity even in the times of war,” said Hussam M. Botani, chief analyst at the Son’i El-Siyasat Center for International and Strategic Studies in Istanbul. “Journalists are the modern-day messengers, and the Saudis seem to have forgotten that we are in the age of globalization where human rights is a priority.”
With Turkish officials tying members of the hit squad directly to the circle around the Saudi crown prince, it will be increasingly difficult for Riyadh to attribute Mr. Khashoggi’s death to what President Trump has called “rogue elements” or claim it was an interrogation that went horribly wrong.
“Security agencies have [linked] the crime to [Saudi diplomat] Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, who often goes on trips with Mohammed bin Salman,” said Mr. Botani, who added that the growing furor in the U.S., particularly in Congress, is only reinforcing the Turkish case against the Saudis.
For many Turkish officials, the most galling aspect of the operation is the violation of Turkish sovereignty.
“Turkey wants good relations with Saudi Arabia, but this does not mean Turkey will allow Saudis insulting its security, committing crimes in their country’s consulate at midday,” said Hamza Tekin, a Turkish analyst close to the Erdogan administration. “Ankara is insisting on finding out who the criminals are, however high their rank might be.”
Yet as outraged as Ankara is, there remains a reservoir of restraint in the Turkish reaction — a recognition of the need to maintain some kind of relationship with the global oil giant, which is also a major export market for Turkish businesses, diplomatic observers said.
“We should err on the side of caution,” said Yasin Aktay, an Istanbul columnist who is known as a frequent informal adviser to the Turkish leader. “There is no point in raging against Saudi Arabia because of Khashoggi’s disappearance in the consulate. Expecting the Saudi authorities to provide answers does not necessarily mean you have to become an enemy of Saudi Arabia.”