Until the killing of Post Global Opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reputation had been under siege in the West. After Turkey detained American pastor Andrew Brunson, President Trump slapped sanctions on Turkey, which was already in an economic tailspin. (“The United States doubled its tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey and froze the assets of the Turkish interior and justice ministers,” Julie Honoré wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. “The Turkish lira hit a low of 5.11 to the dollar, and inflation reached 24.5 percent. Erdogan railed against the United States, and some Turks made a show of burning dollars, boycotting McDonald’s, and destroying Apple products.”)
Erdogan has been under severe criticism from the West for his practice of snatching Westerners, his campaign of domestic repression and his coziness with Russia and Iran. Jake Sullivan and Eric Edelman wrote in February:
Under Erdogan, Turkey carried out one of the largest recorded efforts to evade U.S.-sponsored international sanctions on Iran. Its media published maps of secret U.S. bases in Syria. It arrested an American pastor, a NASA employee and two Turkish employees of the U.S. State Department, on spurious charges, holding them as Erdogan’s de facto hostages. Last spring, Erdogan’s authoritarian lawlessness reached American shores when his bodyguards attacked protesters in Washington. Now, Turkey is purchasing a state-of-the-art air and missile defense system from Russia (that will be incompatible with NATO systems) and attacking U.S. partners in Syria, presenting both as part of the country’s heroic resistance to U.S. imperialism.
Khashoggi’s disappearance provided Erdogan with a rare opportunity to go on offense. He decided to release Brunson, and further, to conduct a campaign to embarrass Riyadh and upset the relationship that Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have cultivated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known). In doing so, he has elevated Turkey’s profile and put MBS’s defenders in the United States in a bind. State-controlled Turkish media have dribbled out news that contradicts the lies offered by Riyadh. Now Erdogan himself is stepping up the pressure. The Post reports:
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was a “planned” and “brutal” murder and called on Saudi Arabia to extradite 18 suspects to Turkey to face justice for the crime. …
The Turkish leader did not directly accuse the Saudi leadership of involvement in the killing but strongly indicated that the Saudi investigation, which has resulted in the arrests of 18 people so far, had not reached high enough into the kingdom’s ruling circles.
“It will not satisfy the public by just pinning this kind of matter on a few security and intelligence officers,” he said. “Covering up this kind of savagery will hurt the conscience of all humanity.”
In describing the Saudis’ meticulous planning for the murder, Erdogan severely undermined the Saudi cover story that Khashoggi’s death resulted from a fistfight inside the consulate. (“Erdogan highlighted attempts by the Saudis to obstruct or cover up the killing, including a ruse involving a Saudi agent who was dressed like Khashoggi and captured on camera exiting the consulate,” The Post reports.)
The timing of the speech seemed designed to embarrass Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who despite criticism arrived in Saudi Arabia for a conference on combating terrorism financing. It also comes as CIA Director Gina Haspel arrives to discuss Turkish intelligence on the killing. The administration should be concerned that Turkey has the ability to discredit a whitewash designed to keep the U.S.-Saudi relationship on track and help the Saudis put the Khashoggi killing behind them.
So long as Turkey engages in conduct that undermines U.S. interests in combating Iran, there will likely not be any improvement between the two countries. The next best thing from Erdogan’s point of view is damaging the U.S.-Saudi alliance, and in that regard, his recent actions seem to be successful.
If it was not apparent before, Erdogan’s clever maneuvering should convince the Trump administration that the only viable path forward is an international, impartial investigation to determine the universe of conspirators and hold the Saudi kingdom to account. If that’s not possible, either Erdogan or Congress — which will demand U.S. intelligence information on the killing — will retain the power to undercut Saudi excuses and humiliate Trump and Kushner.
Erdogan, regardless of his motives, points to the only feasible solution: The Saudis must consent to an international investigation and sideline MBS, perhaps permanently.