Analysis

Khashoggi Killing: Turkey's Erdogan Will Not Waste His Leverage Over U.S. and Saudi Arabia

By the time Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began speaking to Ankara’s parliament on Tuesday morning, both Saudi Arabia and the United States knew that he would not deliver all the evidence purportedly in the hands of Turkish authorities, including audio and video recordings, of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

He did accuse the Saudis of "premeditated murder," but he did not yet "bring down the hammer," as one U.S. official put it. 

The reason was clear enough: Erdogan had spoken on Sunday with President Donald Trump—their first lengthy conversation in months, U.S. officials said. Before that he had spoken to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. On Tuesday morning, CIA Director Gina Haspel held meetings with her counterpart, and with Erdogan himself ahead of his speech.

The message from Washington and Riyadh was the same: Give this some time, let’s do a thorough investigation and then release the details. Erdogan readily agreed, because he knows in the Khashoggi affair, time is very much on his side.

U.S. and Saudi officials are said to believe Erdogan when he says Turkish authorities have graphic evidence of the crime committed at the Saudi consultate in Istanbul on October 7.

This evidence may well implicate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and put his continued reign as de facto leader in Riyadh in jeopardy. The U.S., having backed the crown prince as Washington’s principal ally in the region, is now in an excruciatingly awkward position, and late Tuesday announced the first of its steps against the kingdom in the wake of the journalist’s murder. It revoked the visas of those allegedly involved.

Aykan Erdemir, a former opposition parliamentarian in Ankara, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, said: "The Khashoggi affair has given Erdogan the most precious commodity in international affairs: leverage."

How will he use it? Expansively, in the minds of most observers. Current and former diplomats believe Erdogan seeks nothing less than to see Crown Prince Mohammed sidelined in Riyadh. "He's very serious about the reshuffle [in Riyadh]" where thus far the crown prince has dismissed five senior officials—including two close allies—and is overseeing a restructuring of the kingdom’s intelligence service, says a senior U.S. official briefed on Trump’s conversation with Erdogan on Sunday.

But that’s not all, says Erdemir. Erdogan seeks to weaken the alliance between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—which all view the Muslim Brotherhood (for which Khashoggi had long-standing sympathies) as threats to their respective regimes.

Erdogan backs the Brotherhood across the region, and has used that as a key tool in trying to expand his profile among Sunni Muslims in the region and globally. Erdogan recently said: "Turkey, with its cultural wealth, accretion of history and geographical location, has hosted diverse faiths in peace for centuries, and is the only country that can lead the Muslim world." The biggest obstacle in reaching that goal is Saudi Arabia, said Erdemir.

Under different circumstances, Erdogan’s desire to be King of the Sunnis would seem fanciful. In his own backyard he had called for the overthrow of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—as had the Saudis—but that prospect is unlikely now at best, given how much territory forces loyal to Damascus have recouped.

In Iraq, the Saudis have maintained a much higher profile in backing the Sunni minority in a country now dominated by its Shia majority. Critics say for Erdogan to criticize the Saudis for an egregious human rights abuse—in this instance the killing of Khashoggi—is laughable given his use of "hostage diplomacy." He only recently released American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, and has jailed many journalists and others as he tightens his grip on autocratic rule.

But the evidence Erdogan presumably now has changes the equation. A week ago, Trump administration officials were hoping that Crown Prince Mohammed could "ride this out," as one foreign policy adviser put it. Now "it's not necessarily clear if that will happen if what the Turks have is as damning as they say."

Erdogan’s leverage doesn’t just extend over Riyadh. He is likely to squeeze both Washington and Riyadh when it comes to Syria, where Turkey remains deeply fearful the U.S. (with Saudi assistance) will install a de facto safe zone for the Kurdish fighters who have been Washington’s principal ally.

Turkey believes in the so-called "People’s Protection Units," the Syrian military wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984, and whose goal is the establishment of an independent Kurdistan across three borders: Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Late this past summer, after the U.S. decided to withhold some $230 million in stabilization funds for Syrian territory captured from the Islamic State militant group in the northeast, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates stepped forward to make up the difference.

That unnerved Ankara, and since then Erdogan has been insisting on his own roadmap for stabilization, in which Kurdish fighters would withdraw from a key city in northeastern Syria and be replaced by U.S. and Turkish forces. He and Trump talked about the plan this past summer, the last time the two men had spoken directly until Sunday.

A White House spokesperson would not detail what Erdogan and Trump talked about this weekend, but given Syria's importance to Turkey, there is little doubt Erdogan laid out exactly what he wants to happen if the U.S. and Saudi Arabia know what’s good for them. 

Diplomats believe Erdogan will now be dictating a lot of terms if the U.S. and Riyadh want to prevent further upheaval in the House of Saud. In diplomacy, a little bit of leverage is a terrible thing to waste. 

Join the Discussion

Editor's Pick
Gary Cohn

Gary Cohn Calls Shutdown 'Completely Wrong'

“I don’t understand what the outcome is here, and I don’t understand where we’re going with it,” said Cohn. “I’m confused as to what the White House’s strategy is on this a little bit.”