It seems as if it’s all of the above. Erdogan is Erdogan. He is a mercurial man from Turkey’s Black Sea coast who is upset about a brutal murder on his home terrain. Since Khashoggi’s disappearance, Ankara has been using a “slow drip” strategy of media leaks to prevent Riyadh — or Washington — from burying the case. Tuesday’s speech was not about backing off from the Khashoggi story but about pressuring the Saudis to cough up more.
The explanations from the kingdom have not convinced anyone. Clearly, the Turkish president wants a real mea culpa, a recognition that the crime was “premeditated” and ordered by higher-ups. “Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned,” the president said. “From the person who gave the order, to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account.”
At this point, we all have a good sense of who ordered the killing, whose men quietly arrived in Istanbul with a bonesaw. Does the demand for accountability mean Erdogan is going after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? The Turkish president refrained from mentioning his name in his speech, putting the onus on the Saudi king to carry out the investigation. Most Turkish officials I have spoken to since the murder believe that the Trump administration will stand by MBS. Erdogan possibly wants to clip his wings but knows that Ankara is not powerful enough to push him out. With strong backing from the White House, MBS could survive this mess, albeit tainted and weakened. And that might be all Turks can hope for.
Now let’s address the negotiation part. Turkish officials have privately told me they have a gory audio recording of the murder, but Erdogan made no mention of that. That’s his Trump card. No, he is not trying to extract a hefty sum from the Saudis. The real negotiation is between Ankara and Washington. Turkey wants the United States to scale down its partnership with Syrian Kurds — who are partially funded by the Saudi regime — and possibly hope for exemptions on oil and gas imports on the upcoming Iran sanctions.
But more important, Ankara seeks a readjustment of Washington policy in the region. Khashoggi’s murder happened as the United States was on the verge of constructing its entire Middle East policy around MBS. A disaster of epic proportions. Erdogan wants the United States to pivot to a more traditional engagement in the region, with a huge role for Turkey, of course.
The problem is that Turkey can’t fully claim the moral high ground. Yes, it’s important to lure Americans back to the idea of supporting institutions and democratically elected governments in the Middle East, as opposed to repressive regimes that produce unstable outcomes such as the crown prince’s war in Yemen and the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister. But to be an alternative to the Saudis, the “Turkish model” has to return to its roots.
Until a few years ago, Turkey was a moderate Muslim nation with a huge democratic promise. Today, it’s run by an authoritarian regime that imprisons journalists and critics and has curtailed liberal norms.
Returning to a democratic order will make Erdogan’s claims to moral leadership much stronger — and make it impossible for Americans to ignore Turkey’s role in the region.