I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan comes to believe bin Salman is murdering people in Istanbul, he (Erdogan) will lose his damn mind. In other words: This appears to set the stage for a bitter diplomatic row between Ankara and Riyadh at a time when Qatar and Turkey are seemingly closer than ever after Doha offered Erdogan a financial lifeline amid the collapse of the lira in August.
That’s from “Mohammed Bin Salman May Have Sent Hit Squad To ‘Murder’ Journalist Khashoggi In Turkey“, published here on October 6, just before the Khashoggi story began to grab seemingly every international headline.
Over the past several weeks, Erdogan has deftly wielded Turkish media in the service of delivering tantalizing details from what Ankara claims is damning evidence of a premeditated plot to murder Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate.
The leaks have been non-stop. There was, for instance, CCTV footage documenting the arrival, movements and departure of the 15 men who were dispatched to Turkey from Riyadh the day Khashoggi was killed. Erdogan also leaked gruesome details of the actual murder, which reportedly found Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, chief of forensic medicine at the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, putting in earphones to listen to music as he dismembered the victim. And on, and on.
Turkish authorities searched the consulate on multiple occasions last week and on Monday, Anadolu Agency said Turkey has discovered a car belonging to the Saudis at an underground car park in Istanbul just 9 miles away from where Khashoggi was killed.
Separately, CNN Turk released surveillance footage that appears to show one of Khashoggi’s killers dressed up in the late dissident’s clothes.
Presumably, that was a bungled attempt to create a diversion and to give the Saudis something to point to in support of their initial contention that Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed less than an hour after arriving to collect papers for his wedding.
“CNN has obtained exclusive law enforcement surveillance footage, part of the Turkish government’s investigation, that appears to show Mustafa al-Madani leaving the Saudi consulate by the back door, wearing Khashoggi’s clothes, a fake beard, and glasses”, CNN wrote Monday, adding that “the same man was seen in Khashoggi’s clothing, according to the Turkish case, at the city’s world-famous Blue Mosque just hours after the journalist was last seen alive entering the consulate on October 2.”
This is just further evidence to support the contention that this was one of the most ham-handed cloak-and-dagger operations in the history of shady international dealings.
The bottom line is that Erdogan is hell-bent on ensuring the Saudis don’t get away with this and that determination stems directly from his desire to see Crown Prince bin Salman replaced.
That previously unthinkable outcome is considerably less far-fetched than it was a month ago and Erdogan knows it. Over the weekend, Erdogan promised to reveal “the truth” about Khashoggi’s death on Tuesday. “[I’ll] go into details”, he declared on Sunday, at an AKP meeting, adding that Turkey is “searching for justice here”.
Erdogan is apparently timing these revelations to coincide with the Crown Prince’s “Davos in the Desert” spectacle, an event that global media outlets and business luminaries have abandoned in droves, in what amounts to an international boycott of the Kingdom in response to Khashoggi’s slaying and Riyadh’s less-than-convincing account of how he was killed.
Obviously, the idea of Erdogan as defender of press freedom and guardian of human rights is absurd in the extreme. His post-coup crackdown in Turkey could serve as a veritable blueprint for authoritarians seeking to stamp out dissent, and his hardline attitude towards unfriendly media outlets is legendary. We are, after all, talking about a man who once sued a physician for comparing him to Gollum from Lord of the Rings.
This has nothing to do with “justice” and everything to do with Erdogan making a regional power grab. Having cemented his own authority after consolidating power in June, Erdogan sees an opportunity to undermine bin Salman, in the process snatching victory from the jaws of defeat after the Arab Spring fizzled out. This is, at heart, a kind of revenge, exacted by Erdogan on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and on behalf of Ankara’s allies in Doha.
Erdogan’s spokesman Omer Celik on Monday claimed Khashoggi’s death was “planned in an extremely savage manner”, before saying Turkey is “faced with a situation where there has been a lot of effort to whitewash this.”
There has undoubtedly been “a lot of effort to whitewash” the situation (both figuratively and, in the case of the fresh paint Turkish officials found when they searched the Saudi consulate, literally). But the idea that Erdogan cares about that is laughable. The Turkish strongman stumbled upon an unbelievably fortuitous set of circumstances in October that now finds him in a position to repair his international image by revealing what happened to Khashoggi while pointing to Turkey’s decision to release detained Pastor Andrew Brunson as evidence that Ankara is committed to due process.
“From the start, the line of our president has been clear. Nothing will remain secret in this case,” Ibrahim Kalin (another Erdogan spokesman) told reporters on Monday.
For good measure, Hurriyet’s Abdulkadir Selvi said this:
We cannot close this file until the crown prince is brought to account and removed from his post. For 50 years we cannot live with a crown prince who is an enemy of Turkey.
We’ve said this time and again over the past several weeks and we’ll say it again here ahead of Erdogan’s big unveil on Tuesday: The Crown Prince, as powerful and charismatic as he most assuredly is, simply was not prepared to go toe-to-toe with Erdogan quite yet.
Ankara’s weakness is of course Turkey’s burgeoning financial crisis, but with Qatar in tow and Europe not particularly keen on allowing the country to careen into an outright financial collapse for fear of spillover, it’s not clear bin Salman’s deep pockets are going to be enough to make up for the experience deficit between himself and the boss of the Bosphorus.