Analysis

Khashoggi Case: Erdogan Tries to Be Saudis' Judge, Jury and Executioner - but Trump May Save Riyadh Yet

Turkey’s president is particularly keen to booby-trap U.S.-Saudi relations and shed his image as a hostile actor in the Middle East

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking to his party's legislators at the National Assembly in Ankara, October 23, 2018.
AFP

When CIA chief Gina Haspel takes the trouble to fly to Turkey, she’s not going there just to check out a few DNA samples or try to piece together a corpse from body parts found outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Haspel wants to persuade and be persuaded.

She wants to be persuaded that Turkey has a critical mass of evidence based on photographs and recordings for a political if not criminal indictment against the Saudi crown prince. She also wants to convince Turkey that the United States isn’t going to ignore the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, contrary to the impression that President Donald Trump made by saying he found the Saudi explanation “credible.”

It’s no coincidence that Haspel timed her visit for the day President Recep Tayyip Erdogan published the main findings of the Turkish inquest. The revelations and Erdogan’s declarations reveal politically planned intent to focus any action on the case against Saudi Arabia. Erdogan isn’t a police chief announcing the results of an investigation, he’s a politician handling the crime in a way designed to trap Saudi Arabia while not turning Turkey into any more of an enemy than the Saudis and several Arab countries think.

Unlike past crises, such as those over Israel’s policies on the Temple Mount and in Gaza, or when some countries recognized the massacre of Armenians as genocide, Erdogan has handled this affair like a treasure that fell into his lap. Without much drama, angry rhetoric or sarcasm, he has let the “facts,” as he has determined them, do the work.

From his standpoint, the facts aren’t controversial. This was no botched interrogation but rather a plot to murder a journalist. Those who carried it out aren’t the only ones responsible; so are people at the highest levels. And even if Erdogan hasn’t mentioned Mohammed bin Salman by name, it’s clear this is who he means.

Erdogan intentionally distinguishes between King Salman and his son when he says he had a telephone conversation with the king and has no doubts about the king’s sincerity, but the investigation must be carried out objectively; that is, even if his son was involved in the act. Erdogan made clear he won’t let the crime get swallowed up by the Saudi legal system; rather, he proposes that the murderers be investigated and tried in Turkey.

To back up his decision, he said the Turkish investigators were permitted to enter the consulate building only after the Turks had raised the issue with the international media. The murderers will of course not be extradited to Turkey, but Erdogan is laying the foundations for his demand to name an international inquiry commission; his foreign minister has already proclaimed that Turkey is ready to cooperate with any international investigation, as if that were really about to happen.

Finally, Erdogan also says discussions should be revived on the immunity of diplomatic missions. Erdogan is trying to transfer this issue to the international arena because to him, this isn’t a battle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but rather a charge that the West’s favorite Arab country must face in the proper legal setting.

It’s not known whether Erdogan is holding on to further information in case the U.S. administration suffices with a public trial held in Saudi Arabia, or rejects the call for an international inquiry. It seems he may hold additional cards that would affect Turkey’s relationship with the Saudis and the Saudi relationship with other countries in the region such as Qatar.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with a member of the Khashoggi family in Riyadh, October 23, 2018.
Bandar Algaloud/ Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters

Any such information could also be used to fight any attempt by the Saudis to mount a shaming campaign against Turkey in the Arab or Western media. But at this point, what mainly interests Erdogan is to booby-trap U.S.-Saudi relations and shed his image as a hostile player in the Iranian-Qatari-Russian axis of evil.

Erdogan has suffered U.S. sanctions against the backdrop of his insistence to jail American pastor Andrew Brunson, and got the cold shoulder from Trump when he demanded the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. And Erdogan is still waiting for Washington to carry out its part of the Manbij deal, which would arrange the power dynamics in the Syrian city captured by the Syrian Kurds. He never forgets – and rarely forgives.

But sometimes he misreads the political map, as he did three years ago when he ordered the shooting down of a Russian jet over Turkey. Ten months of punishing Russian sanctions made him fold and kiss Vladimir Putin’s hand. Even today the question is how tight he’ll pull the rope with the Saudis and how much mileage he wants out of the Khashoggi affair.

Erdogan, seeking the roles of investigator, judge and executioner, may find himself facing a higher authority. If Trump decides to put the case to rest and restore the Saudis’ reputation in exchange for them holding their own trial, Erdogan’s declarations may run into a vale of criticism and opposition.

Herein lies the significance of Haspel’s Turkish visit. She stands to provide the first hint of what Trump has in store. Whatever she says could determine the fate of a vital political and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially because new sanctions against Iran are due to take effect within about two weeks. And there’s the no less vital relationship with Turkey, a country that could erode the effectiveness of the sanctions by not joining in, an intention that it has already hinted it has in mind.

Erdogan, like Crown Prince Mohammed, is quite aware of the poker cards he holds and the raise to make – or price to pay – in exchange for participation in the American game. Or to use another metaphor, this is bound to be a series that plays out in one short breathtaking season.