Turkey’s endgame in Khashoggi case comes under scrutiny
ISTANBUL - Turkey’s endgame in the affair surrounding the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul is coming under scrutiny.
Ankara denied it is trying to get the United States to extradite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s enemy Number One — Fethullah Gulen — in exchange for easing pressure on Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi affair.
While Erdogan critics say such a deal would fit a pattern, some analysts insist Ankara’s priority is to keep its focus on trying to destabilise Saudi Arabia and specifically weaken Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s hold on power.
Riyadh has been on the defensive since Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The Erdogan government has been drop-feeding results of the investigation to media outlets to undermine Riyadh’s credibility and damage Saudi Arabia’s prestige in the Middle East, while improving Turkey’s own standing.
Some observers say Erdogan wants to force out Crown Prince Mohammed, a known critic of Turkey and an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Turkey’s Islamist ruling party is affiliated.
There is also speculation that Ankara would like to draw other fringe benefits from the crisis. Citing four anonymous sources, US television network NBC reported that US administration officials asked law enforcement agencies about “legal ways of removing” Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, from the United States to persuade Erdogan “to ease pressure on the Saudi government.”
For some commentators in the region, the NBC report offered an insight into a motive for Ankara’s orchestrated leaks. “I never had any doubt that Turkey was trading with the blood of Jamal Khashoggi,” Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi columnist, wrote on Twitter.
Erdogan has been asking Washington for Gulen’s extradition for years. Ankara says the 77-year-old was the puppetmaster behind a coup attempt against Erdogan in which 250 people died in 2016 but US officials have said the Turkish side has not presented sufficient evidence to convince courts to extradite Gulen.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert insisted that “there is no relation” between the Gulen extradition issue and Turkish pressure on Saudi Arabia. A senior Turkish official also said the Gulen’s extradition and the Khashoggi investigation were separate issues.
Pointing out that NBC reported administration officials inquired in October about ways to extradite Gulen, Turkey analyst Howard Eissenstat said a link to the case of Andrew Brunson, a US missionary freed from two years of detention in Turkey in October, was more likely than a connection to the Khashoggi affair.
“What else happened in US-Turkish relations that month?” Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at Saint Lawrence University and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, asked on Twitter. “Oh, yeah, Brunson was released on October 12.”
Without naming Crown Prince Mohammed, Erdogan has said in several speeches that the Khashoggi killing was ordered from the highest level of the Saudi government. The Turkish leader has also said several times he does not think Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was involved in the case but pro-government media in Turkey have openly accused the crown prince of being behind the killing.
The Turkish government is likely to find a boost in US media reports November 16 that the CIA concluded Crown Prince Mohammed was behind Khashoggi’s killing. The Saudi Embassy in Washington denied the report and the New York Times cited officials as saying US and Turkish intelligence had not found direct evidence connecting the crown prince to Khashoggi’s death.
The CIA’s assessment became public while Turkey found itself confronted with accusations over its handling of the Khashoggi affair and especially if Turkish officials knew beforehand, as some of media leaks suggested, of a plot to kill the Saudi journalist.
Iyad el-Baghdadi, the founder of the Kawaakibi Foundation, a liberal think-tank in Norway, said supporters of the Gulen theory were misreading Erdogan’s motivation.
“I doubt there’s anything you can offer Erdogan at this point that’s more valuable than what he has: His hands around MBS’s (and MBZ’s) neck,” Baghdadi wrote on Twitter, using the initials of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a key ally of the Saudi crown prince.
In a sign that Ankara does not intend to lower the pressure on Riyadh, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu rejected a statement by Saudi Arabia’s top prosecutor who said Khashoggi was killed, after a struggle, with a lethal injection and his body dismembered. Cavusoglu said it was clear that the killing was premeditated: “Dismembering a body is not something that can be spontaneously,” he said. “They brought the necessary tools to kill and dismember him.”
Saudi prosecutors announced indictments against 11 people and said 21 individuals were in custody in connection with Khashoggi’s death. They plan to seek the death penalty for five of them who “are charged with ordering and committing the crime.” Riyadh insists Crown Prince Mohammed had nothing to do with the killing.
Washington has announced sanctions targeting 17 Saudi officials implicated in the Khashoggi case.
Turkey has promised more evidence contradicting the Saudi version, including an audio recording made shortly before Khashoggi was killed, a Turkish newspaper reported.