As we suggested on Saturday, the suspected extrajudicial torture, murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post columnist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is already straining tensions between Riyadh and Ankara. To wit, on Saturday, Turkish prosecutors officially launched an investigation into the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, according to Turkey’s official Anadolou news agency, after a “Turkish security team” was allowed inside the consulate by Saudis (presumably under the assumption that they would produce a clean bill of health). Meanwhile, a handful of anonymous Turkish officials reportedly tipped off the Washington Post and Reuters about the murder.
Commenting on the potential fallout form this latest diplomatic crisis, the BBC’s Mark Lowen said Saturday that if these reports are accurate, the clandestine state-sponsored murder on Turkish soil of a high-profile dissident would further strain already deteriorating relations between Turkey and the Saudis. Tensions between the two countries date back to 2011, when Ankara encouraged the Arab Spring uprisings that helped plunge Syria into a brutal civil war, and also prompted a crackdown by the Saudi government on its own brush with domestic unrest.
And in the latest hint that Khashoggi’s disappearance is becoming a national issue, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has confirmed to Reuters that Turkish authorities believe Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week, in an example of KSA’s deliberate targeting of a prominent dissident.
Erdogan added that Turkish authorities were looking into all camera records and monitoring incoming and outgoing air transit, but cautioned that Turkey would “await the results of the investigation.” Khashoggi’s fiance, who was reportedly waiting for him outside the Consulate, said he simply never left the building.
What’s more, Erdogan said that he would “personally” would be involved in the case (though he said he is holding out hope for a positive outcome).
Saudi officials have vehemently denied even detaining Khashoggi and have repeatedly said he freely left the embassy not long after he entered. Saudi Crown Prince MbS himself on Friday invited Turkish authorities to enter the building, saying “We are ready to welcome the Turkish government to go and search our premises.”
However, reports published by Middle East Eye claimed that Khashoggi was brutally tortured and murdered inside the consulate, and that his body was dismembered and disposed of by a 15-man hit squad “sent specifically for the murder.” Turkish police told MEE that about 15 Saudis, including government officials, arrived in Istanbul on two private flights on Tuesday and were at the consulate at the same time as Khashoggi. They left the same day, and reportedly smuggled out a video tape of the killing as “evidence” that Khashoggi had been dealt with.
While these gruesome details have horrified journalists across the world, there’s an interesting twist to this story that involves the US. Khashoggi became persona non grata in Saudi Arabia after criticizing then President-elect Trump in late 2016 at a sensitive time for US-Saudi relations. And if Turkey does pin the blame on Saudi Arabia, it could strain what has been a relatively placid relationship between the US and the Kingdom since Trump took office.
And why might Turkey want to meddle in the US-Saudi relationship? Well, for starters, it would be a convenient deflection as Erdogan’s feud with the US – and the sanctions enforced by Trump – has strained Turkish capital markets, send inflation soaring, and brought the country to the brink of a debt crisis.