ISTANBUL - After Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, Turkish officials said privately that they knew exactly what happened to him: he’d been murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, dismembered and his body moved out in boxes.
Two weeks later, they’ve yet to go public or release conclusive evidence.
Even as Washington and Riyadh threaten penalties against each other in the case of the missing Washington Post columnist, a prominent critic of his country’s rulers, there seems to be little appetite behind the scenes to push for confrontation. How the dice roll may ultimately fall to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who can either try to link the prince — a favorite of President Donald Trump — to an alleged murder, or defuse a face-off that all three countries might find more convenient to avoid.
“By leaking information on the case in a controlled manner, Turks have signaled their willingness to confront the Saudis if they have enough international support, particularly from the West,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington. “But if that support is not forthcoming, Erdogan may very well choose to pursue a less aggressive approach and offer the Saudis a way out.”
Turkey on Friday got back some of its geopolitical leverage and goodwill by freeing an American pastor imprisoned for nearly two years. That’s opened the way for a reset in Turkish-U.S. relations, with Trump tweeting that Andrew Brunson’s release “will lead to good, perhaps great relations between the United States and Turkey!”
In a meeting with Brunson at the White House, Trump also said the U.S. could take “very, very powerful, very strong measures” against Saudi Arabia if its leadership is found responsible for the disappearance of Khashoggi. That sent the Saudi share index down as much as 7 percent on Sunday, and prompted a threat of Saudi retaliation for any punitive measures.
But the U.S. president, who has made warmer ties with Riyadh and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a cornerstone of his foreign policy, has waffled on how the U.S. might respond. He said on Friday that he planned to speak with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman about the missing journalist “at some point.” And he rejected scrapping U.S. arms deals, saying China and Russia would just swoop up the lucrative contracts. That could have implications for how Turkey moves forward.
“Making it go away works for both sides, especially when the U.S. is unlikely to take a strong interest in the matter,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence in London. “One possible area of cooperation for the Turkish and Saudi authorities is how to make Khashoggi’s disappearance disappear from the public limelight.”
The head of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television published a column on Sunday warning of the consequences of U.S. penalties.
“If U.S. sanctions are imposed on Saudi Arabia, we will be facing an economic disaster that would rock the entire world,” Turki Aldakhil wrote. “If the price of oil reaching $80 angered President Trump, no one should rule out the price jumping to $100, or $200, or even double that figure.”
Turkey and Saudi Arabia work together on some common issues and share business interests, but also share a good deal of political bad blood. In an interview with Egypt’s Al Shorouk newspaper in March, Prince Mohammed declared Turkey part of a “triangle of evil,” along with Iran and terrorist groups, reflecting deep suspicion of the Turkish leadership’s links to religious groups including the Muslim Brotherhood that the Saudi royal family sees as a security threat.
The nature of the act — a brazen alleged murder at a diplomatic mission in Istanbul — may give Turkey a further incentive to hope the Khashoggi issue will just go away, according to Teneo’s Piccoli.
“The Saudis have treated Turkey like a third-class country,” he said. “It is an embarrassing event. It badly undermines Erdogan’s narrative of Turkey being a regional power.”
Khashoggi hasn’t been seen since he entered the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to pick up a document for his upcoming wedding. Turkish officials told the Washington Post that they have audio and video recordings that show a Saudi security team detained Khashoggi in the consulate before killing him. Prince Mohammed has said the journalist left the building unharmed, but Saudi officials have given no evidence to back up that assertion.
At Saudi Arabia’s request, it’s establishing a joint working group with Turkey to investigate Khashoggi’s fate, Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesman, told reporters on Oct. 11. While privately expressing certainty about what happened, Turkish officials have voiced doubts about their ability to link the alleged murder, and the people it says were the assassins, directly to Prince Mohammed.
If Turkey’s accounting of the incident is true, Prince Mohammed would have to trust that not only Turkey but also the U.S. are so reluctant to call him to task that they’d help him dodge the allegations, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Erdogan’s ideal scenario is not drawn-out conflict with the Saudis, it’s to help the Saudis dig out of this with a graceful exit,” he said. “Erdogan knows Turkey is completely isolated in the Middle East and he can’t press against one more country in a region where he has so many problems without securing the backing of the U.S. He wants to make sure he has Trump’s ear.”