Turkey is not ‘the bad guy’ in the story this time
For the first time in a long time in Washington, Turkey is not “the bad guy” in a controversial story that took place on its soil. The cold-blooded murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in an operation that carries the fingerprints of the crown prince of his home country, provided a certain level of moral advantage to Ankara which it has failed to score despite its most valid arguments on the coup attempt of 2016 or the U.S. relationship with an offshoot of the outlawed PKK.
To the surprise of many, Ankara successfully managed to feed the now universally embraced narrative on the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by constantly leaking crucial evidence to both local and international media. Meanwhile, neither President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan nor the spokespersons in his government have publicly confirmed the content of the leaks yet. Though the leaks, which often sounded like tragedy porn, have been powerful enough to give Ankara some leverage in its rocky relationship with the U.S.
This all happened in the midst of the last trial of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson on Oct. 12, when Ankara finally called the shots for his release. Clearly, if they had missed the momentum, it would have been unlikely to have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Ankara this week even for discussing the killing of Khashoggi. And if it were not for Khashoggi, we still would not see a high level visitor from the U.S. administration in Turkey only four days after Brunson’s release. The two countries have a long way to repair broken trust. Nevertheless, today’s priority for the Trump administration is to kill the Khashoggi story.
The reason behind President Donald Trump sending Pompeo on a quick tour to first Riyadh then to Ankara was simply an effort to fix a narrative to provide a way out to Saudi Arabia to disassociate itself from the murder.
It is not only about the $110 billion worth arms sales, which Trump at least once a day vows not to quit, or his son-in-law’s political bromance with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). On the top of a long-time strategy of Washington to turn a blind eye to human rights violations of Saudi Arabia, hardliner picks in Trump’s national security apparatus picked Riyadh as a strategic partner to counter their obsession in the region: Iran. Furthermore, MBS promised Washington the much-needed reform in the Islamic world.
The Trump administration is reluctant to sacrifice its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, however, with tremendous international public pressure they might be forced to distance themselves from the crown prince. They may have to lean towards King Salman for a while, whom they once saw as “weak.”
It has become crystal clear by now that Ankara will not get in the way of the United States while it tries to figure out a face-saving narrative together with Riyadh. Had Turkey wanted to openly sabotage the U.S.-Saudi relationship, it would have easily done so by publicly releasing those recordings of the killing. Instead, Ankara sent strong signals that they might agree to a compromise with King Salman.
Letting the Saudi Consul General in Istanbul Mohammad al-Otaibi exit Turkey on a flight bound to Riyadh half a day before Pompeo’s arrival in Ankara was probably part of a grand bargain.
I have heard the gruesome details in those recordings from some European diplomats during off-the-record conversations in Washington before those details rocked the headlines of the international press. Thus, there is no way for me to believe that the U.S. mission in Turkey was not given the recordings or at least not fully briefed on them in the last two weeks. Pompeo does not necessarily have to listen to the recordings himself to be convinced!
All this time, the Trump administration has been trying to buy time for Riyadh to come up with a narrative. And that narrative is being determined not between Washington and Riyadh, but rather between Washington, Riyadh and Ankara.
What we do not know yet is how Trump is planning to thank Erdoğan for not escalating the Khashoggi crisis further, which appears to be the most challenging foreign policy crisis of his time in office so far.
Whether or not Ankara will be granted generous waivers from the upcoming U.S. sanctions on Iran, which aims to cut oil and gas imports from Tehran, is definitely a crucial part of the negotiations. Ankara was already given strong signals ahead of Brunson’s Oct. 12 trial that a small fine is plausible for the state-owned Halkbank, which is currently in talks with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) for evasion of Iran sanctions. In this new climate, Turkey will highly likely press more for zero fine. The chances for Turks to cut better deals in both fronts seem undeniably higher compared to the time before Khashoggi’s entrance into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.