The Turkish government’s recent record in foreign policy is hardly a success story. It is therefore noteworthy that, so far, Ankara has handled the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi with a singular deftness. Whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can see this through is now the key question.
To recap. Khashoggi visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to receive documents certifying his divorce so he could remarry, and disappeared. The Saudi government, including de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, denied all knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate, claiming he left the consulate within the hour.
With Erdoğan staying officially above it all, a series of intelligence leaks were dribbled to the media that said Khashoggi had been killed and dismembered at the Consulate by a 15-man hit squad, and the Turks had an audio recording of the murder.
The leaks followed a pattern: they contained enough to draw a Saudi response, which was subsequently discredited by further leaks, but there was never enough credible information to definitively settle the matter. Turkey’s information operation created a protracted international spectacle that lasts to the present, inflicting perhaps irreparable political damage on Saudi Arabia and its relations with the West.
The Saudi government initially tried to hold its ground, but in the early hours of Oct. 20, Riyadh admitted in a statement from Saudi King Salman that Khashoggi was dead, claiming he was killed by accident when he was confronted by the 15-man squad, who asked him to return home, and he engaged them in a fist fight. King Salman dismissed several senior intelligence officials and 18 people were placed under arrest. Many believed this was the end of the affair: some scapegoats had been selected after a back-channel accord had been reached. Not so.
The next day, the Saudi story changed again, now conceding there had been an effort to kidnap Khashoggi, and Turkey leaked that Prince Mohammed’s right-hand man Saud al-Qahtani had been directing the killing at the Consulate via Skype. Erdoğan then gave a speech on Tuesday that effectively formalised the leaks, and insisted the killing was deliberate. Prince Mohammed was not mentioned by name, but the speech was pointedly directed at him. Underlining the point, Erdoğan said: “I do not doubt the sincerity of King Salman”. This is a new tone from Erdoğan, given the long Turkey-Saudi tensions on any number of fronts from Somalia to Qatar.
Since then, just after the CIA director was reported to have listened to the audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder and briefed President Donald Trump on it, the Saudi public prosecutor announced he had received information from Turkey indicating that Khashoggi’s death was as a result of premeditated murder.
So, what does it all mean? What does Erdoğan, the man it seems with all the cards, want? And can he get it?
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