Erdogan, Trump, and the Khashoggi Murder

Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was posthumously named Time’s “Person of the Year,” along with four other journalists, for “taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths” on December 11. The terrible fate of Khashoggi, who paid the ultimate price in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 at the hands of 15 agents who had arrived from Riyadh the previous day, not only triggered a global storm of indignation but also set in motion a major diplomatic gambit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the pursuit of a number of related objectives involving President Donald Trump and impacting U.S.-Turkish relations.

Erdogan’s primary aim was to effectively and irrevocably tie Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder to Saudi Arabia and, without ever naming him directly, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, who had elevated himself into an obstacle to Turkish regional calculations through his public identification of Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership as ‘a major threat in the region along with Iran’ as well as his ongoing blockade of Qatar. His next goal was to try to force the Trump administration, which had been backing MBS without any apparent reservation prior to the murder as a key partner in its Middle East plans, to review its relationship with him. Lacking significant direct leverage over Riyadh, Erdogan hoped to induce pressure by Trump—inconceivable before Khashoggi’s murder—to either force MBS out or to weaken him into ineffectiveness.

At the same time, Erdogan wished to use interaction on this issue with Washington to improve his relationship with Trump, which had been shaken by the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and the associated U.S. sanctions to bring about his release as well as by the continued absence of progress on issues, which have long divided the two countries, such as Fethullah Gulen’s stalled extradition, Pentagon’s engagement with the Syrian Kurdish YPG, and the Halkbank case. Last but not least, Erdogan expected to leverage Turkey’s vigorous advocacy for justice in the horrible crime against a journalist on Turkish soil to try to reverse the negative stream of news relating to Turkey’s record on press freedom.

The core of the strategy was a daily series of leaks by unnamed officials to correspondents based in Istanbul, especially U.S. journalists, to ensure that the issue remained in headlines while destroying the attempts by Saudi Arabia to deny the murder. On October 23, Erdogan personally escalated the campaign in a speech at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in which he asked Saudi Arabia to “lay bare all perpetrators from top to bottom and hold them accountable before the law” and for the “execution team” to be extradited to Turkey. Erdogan’s broadside was followed on October 31 by a formal indictment issued by an Istanbul prosecutor, which charged after extensive investigations that Khashoggi’s body “was dismembered and destroyed following his death by suffocation…in accordance with plans made in advance.” The constant pressure from Turkey forced Saudi Arabia to change its admittedly flimsy narrative several times from claiming that Khashoggi had left the consulate alive to suggesting he was killed in a fight, blaming it on a “rogue operation” and eventually admitting that it was “premeditated” and indicting 21 officials, including the 15-man hit team.

Despite the apparently irrefutable evidence being released, Erdogan chose to not only refrain from naming MBS as the instigator of the crime but also to maintain contact with Saudi Arabia throughout the month. This included a meeting with Salman’s emissary Prince Khalid bin Faisal on October 11—during which, according to the New York Times on October 22, citing an unnamed Turkish source “close to Erdogan,” he reportedly offered financial aid and investment and an end to the Saudi blockade on Qatar in exchange for Turkey dropping the Khashoggi case, an offer that was “angrily rejected” by Erdogan as a “political bribe”—two phone conversations between Erdogan and King Salman on October 14 and October 20, followed by one with MBS himself on October 24, as well as fruitless discussions in the context of an agreed Joint Working Group with the Saudi Prosecutor General in Istanbul on October 29-30. It is clear, however, as his expression of deep respect for Salman and emphasis on the importance of the Turkish-Saudi relationship in his October 23 speech showed, Erdogan’s offensive against MBS relied primarily on trying to persuade Trump to apply pressure on him.

On October 15, Trump publicly indicated his awareness of the vigorous media campaign being waged by Erdogan on this issue by commenting that “Turkey was being tough, very tough.” He then instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss the case with Erdogan in Istanbul on October 17 on his way back from a meeting with MBS in Riyadh. It is interesting to note that NBC reported on November 15, citing numerous U.S. officials, that Erdogan had used the meeting to once again press Pompeo for Gulen’s extradition. The two leaders then talked on the phone on October 21 and, according to the White House readout, agreed on the “need to clear up the Jamal Khashoggi incident with all its aspects.” This was followed by CIA Director Gina Haspel’s visit to Turkey on October 23, which, unlike that of Pompeo, reportedly included listening to the audio recording covertly obtained by Turkish authorities of the asphyxiation and dismemberment of the hapless journalist.

On November 2, Erdogan tried to increase domestic pressure on Trump through the Washington Post with which Khashoggi was affiliated as a columnist. In an op-ed, he asked: “Where is Khashoggi’s body? Where is the “local collaborator” to whom Saudi officials claimed to have handed over Khashoggi’s remains? Who gave the order to kill this kind soul?” He continued, “Unfortunately, the Saudi authorities have refused to answer those questions . . . We know that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government. Some seem to hope this “problem” will go away in time. But we will keep asking those questions . . . As responsible members of the international community, we must reveal the identities of the puppet masters behind Khashoggi’s killing and discover those in whom Saudi officials—still trying to cover up the murder—have placed their trust.”

However, despite the evidence presented by Ankara and its sustained media effort, the Trump administration did not break with MBS as Erdogan had hoped. Pompeo stated on November 1 that the United States had “important commercial relationships, important strategic relationships, national security relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we intend to make sure that those relationships remain intact.” Following the Saudi public prosecutor’s announcement that he would seek the death penalty for 5 of the 11 charged with Khashoggi murder—a move described by most outsiders as a cover up—the State Department immediately announced symbolic sanctions on November 15 against 17 Saudis for their alleged roles. After his meetings with national security adviser John Bolton and Pompeo in Washington on November 20, where the Khashoggi case was discussed, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu voiced public disappointment with the U.S. position. He said: “Many countries do not want to harm their relations with Saudi Arabia because of the Khashoggi murder. Neither do we. However, the murder must be uncovered.”

Even after it was reported on November 16 by the Washington Post that the CIA had independently concluded that MBS had ordered the assassination, a White House statement bearing Trump’s inimitable style reaffirmed on November 20 that the United States would continue to stand behind MBS. It said “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

On November 22, Trump specifically downplayed the CIA report by saying, “I do not know if anyone is going to be able to conclude the crown prince did it. But whether he did or whether he did not, he denies it vehemently. The CIA does not say they did it, they do point out certain things and in pointing out those things that you can conclude that maybe he did or maybe he did not.” Cavusoglu, who had just returned to Turkey, responded directly to the comments on November 23 by saying, “Trump’s statements amount to him saying ‘I’ll turn a blind eye no matter what.’ This is not a correct approach. Money is not everything. We must not move away from human values.”

Trump’s continuing disinclination to act was confirmed by the secretary of defense Jim Mattis and Pompeo at a closed Senate hearing on November 28. Afterward, Pompeo warned that “degrading ties with Saudi Arabia would be a grave mistake for U.S. national security, and that of our allies. The Kingdom is a powerful force for stability in an otherwise fraught Middle East.” Mattis added, “I must note we are seldom free to work with unblemished partners . . . Saudi Arabia, due to geography and the Iranian threat, is fundamental to maintaining regional and Israeli security and to our interest in Mideast stability.” Pompeo further underlined the administration’s position in a TV interview on December 1 by saying, “I have read every piece of intelligence that is in the possession of the United States government . . . There is no direct evidence linking him [MBS] to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi . . . They are a relationship that has mattered for 70 years across Republican and Democrat administrations alike. It remains an important relationship, and we’re aiming to keep that relationship.”

Haspel, who reportedly was not allowed by the White House to join the November 28 briefing, provided a separate special briefing to the Senate on December 4, which prompted a number of the limited group of participants to declare afterwards that it had confirmed MBS’s direct involvement as well as their inclination to support possible congressional action. Haspel may have also been instrumental in facilitating an unannounced unusual visit to the Senate on December 7 by her Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan, one of Erdogan’s closest aides, which, according to a Reuters report on the same day citing five sources, included a reiteration of the Turkish case on the Khashoggi murder.

However, there would be no change in Trump’s position. On December 10, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, long-identified as MBS’s closest contact in the U.S. government, said that the focus of the administration had shifted away from the Khashoggi case. He said, “We are focused now on the broader region, which is hopefully figuring out how to bring a deal together between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” When asked whether standing by Saudi Arabia meant standing by MBS on December 11, Trump said, “Well, at this moment, it certainly does. He's the leader of Saudi Arabia. They've been a very good ally.” He added "I really hope that people aren't going to suggest that we should not take hundreds of billions of dollars that they're going to siphon off to Russia and to China, primarily those two, instead of giving it to us. You're talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs. You're talking about huge military and other contracts.”

There is little doubt that Trump’s desire to continue to rely on MBS in pursuing the long-shot goal of implementing the “from the outside in” Middle East peace plan Kushner has reportedly been developing for almost two years; maintaining high Saudi production in order to keep oil prices low especially as Iranian oil is being sanctioned by the U.S. and confronting Iran across the entire region, along with the projected arms sales by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia—the value of which has been invariably exaggerated by Trump in all of his statements on Khashoggi—have stymied Erdogan’s goal of driving a wedge between the two countries. Feeling emboldened by the Trump administration’s support, Saudi Arabia rejected Turkey’s extradition request for those involved Khashoggi’s murder on December 10. This led Turkish justice minister Abdulhamit Gul along with Cavusoglu to reiterate Erdogan’s threat that Turkey would continue pursuing the case through the UN, a prospect which is unlikely to have any effect on MBS, whose position, much to the disappointment of Erdogan, seems to be secure for the moment despite the inevitable damage to his reputation.

As the Khashoggi murder fades from the front pages, it is also ceding its prominent position on the agenda of the U.S.-Turkish bilateral relationship. While it is difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy the impact on relations, it is safe to say that Erdogan’s disappointment in Trump’s stubborn reluctance to act against MBS is matched by Trump’s reciprocal disappointment in Erdogan for pursuing an issue he never wanted to handle with such determination. To be sure, Turkey enjoyed the unusually positive press coverage it received in the U.S. as it defended the need to take action against the instigator as well as the perpetrators of the Khashoggi murder. However, as the interest of the U.S. media inevitably drifts elsewhere—not least to Trump’s growing legal problems—attention shifts back to all the other seemingly intractable issues on the U.S.-Turkish agenda.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program