What is Turkey trying to do in the Khashoggi case?

What is Turkey trying to do in the Khashoggi case?

When illegal PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in Greece’s embassy in Kenya in February 1999, the two countries’ relations had already been suffering from decades-old hostilities. The Greeks were caught red handed and it gave ample opportunity for Turkey to humiliate Greece in front of the world. 

However, the Greek government’s immediate handling of the crisis has changed the course of action and in fact, it has cleared the way for a historic reconciliation between Ankara and Athens.

Then Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis demanded the resignations of three ministers, including his Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, as all three were held responsible for allowing the fugitive terrorist to enter Greek soil and be spirited away to diplomatic protection in Kenya.

Pangalos was replaced by the moderate George Papandreou and Turkey has seen this turn of events as an opportunity to mend fences with Athens. As a result, Ankara has refrained from waging an intensive humiliating campaign against Greece. The Öcalan scandal enabled Simitis to get rid of anti-Turkey names in his cabinet and to endorse a less hostile policy towards Turkey. Seeing that change, Turkey opted to put the Öcalan scandal behind it in order to reset relations. That is how reconciliation began between the two archenemies.

When Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, relations between Ankara and the Saudi Kingdom were not at their best at all. On the contrary, the cool weather that started during the Arab Spring had turned icy following the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar. Turkey openly sided with Qatar and the boycott was largely bypassed thanks to Turkey’s support.

It has been two weeks since the disappearance of the Saudi journalist who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate. The Turkish authorities seem confident of his assassination within the consulate upon the order of Riyadh.

Under normal circumstances, one would have expected Turkey not to miss this occasion to wage a campaign to humiliate the royal House of Saud. Yet, this has not been the case. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not mince his words, especially if he wants to target a country. However, his rhetoric on the affair has been unusually mild, especially in light of the fact that he knew Khashoggi personally.

Despite the time that has passed, Turkey has not taken “visible” action to pressure Riyadh. On the contrary, it has been patiently waiting for Saudi authorities to accept their proposal to cooperate.

The restraint could perhaps be explained by Turkey’s wish to avoid a collision course with the Saudis, which might push the disappearance of the Saudi journalist to the sidelines.

In the meantime, the Turkish authorities’ unusual “openness” to the foreign media, in other words, their deliberate leaking of their findings, might appear to contradict their restrained rhetoric and policy action.

My sources say this is done in order to avoid the case from becoming a crisis in bilateral ties. Meanwhile, I was also told their intention is not to mobilize the international community, especially so governments do not take strong action against Riyadh. The Turkish government wants to avoid a full blown regional crisis.

Whether they will succeed or not is another question but it seems the government is trying to strike a delicate balance; to put pressure on Riyadh while avoiding tension spiraling into a huge regional or international crisis that would make the Khashoggi case a casualty of regional rivalries.

It looks like Ankara is trying to avoid pushing the royal House of Saud into a corner and offer an exit strategy. Admit guilt and blame it on rogue elements; this is what has been suggested by pro-government columnists.

The similarity with the Greek incident is limited to Turkey’s restraint against a country caught red handed. What will happen from now on remains to be seen. It seems Ankara is waiting for its tactic to keep the spotlight on the case and avoiding a shift of focus to an international crisis that would push the Saudis toward an exit strategy.

But how long can Ankara wait? Prolonged inaction cannot be an option and the Saudis cannot go on dragging their feet.

If proven true, Khashoggi’s assassination is taking state oppression of dissidents to an unprecedented level. If the Saudis get away with it, as a colleague had said, it will be the start of a hunt for dissidents all over the world.

Jamal Khashoggi, Politics, Diplomacy