Turkey’s strange shifting story on Saudi critic Khashoggi suggests a dark turn from Saudi Arabia

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Turkey’s response to the international crisis over Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi critic and journalist who vanished after entering his country’s consulate in Istanbul last week, has been confusing at best.

Officials in Ankara have gone from accusing Riyadh of premeditated murder, to saying that the country’s leadership was not at fault. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself has also, in the space of a week, gone from saying that he hoped Khashoggi was still alive to saying: “It is not possible for us to remain silent.”

Anonymous Turkish authorities have also been leaking details of their investigation in dribs and drabs, which are casting increasing doubt on Saudi’s insistence of innocence.

The leaks appear to be taking place because Turkey tried to coordinate efforts with Saudi Arabia to give it a way out of the crisis, but the kingdom just hasn’t cared enough to respond.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in February 2018.
Reuters

Turkish leaks and changing stories

On Tuesday, Turkey’s pro-government newspaper, the Daily Sabah, published the identities and movements of 15 suspects who traveled from Saudi Arabia who arrived at Istanbul on October 2 — the day Khashoggi went missing — and returned to Riyadh that night. Sabah did not say how it got hold of the names and whereabouts.

An unnamed Turkish security source also told the Middle East Eye, a London-based news website with a sometimes anti-Saudi bias, that the Saudi consulate asked its 28 locally hired employees to take the day off on October 2.

Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper also reported this week that surveillance-camera footage of consulate in Istanbul has mysteriously disappeared.

Surveillance footage published by Turkish newspaper Hurriyet purports to show Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
CCTV/Hurriyet via AP

The government’s official line has also been changing.

Over the weekend, country officials told reporters that 15 Saudi agents carried out a “preplanned murder” and snuck Khashoggi’s body out of the consulate.

Yasin Aktay, an advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and friend of Khashoggi, said according to Reuters: “My sense is that he has been killed… in the consulate.”

He then appeared to climb down on his statement, telling the Saudi-owned al-Araby TV channel that “the Saudi state is not blamed here,” suggesting instead that Khashoggi’s disappearance was the doing of “a deep state.” Those comments were cited by The Guardian.

Erdogan on Monday said he was “hopeful” that Khashoggi was still alive, but had a much harder line on Thursday, telling Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper: “It is not possible for us to remain silent regarding such an occurrence, because it is not a common occurrence.”

Erdogan, pictured in August 2018, said on Thursday: “It is not possible for us to remain silent” over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
REUTERS/Umit Bektas

What this means

Ankara is releasing more and more information about the case and casting increasing doubt on Saudi’s insistence of innocence in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Saudi officials maintain that Khashoggi left the consulate the same day he visited, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saying last week: “We have nothing to hide.” Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, said she waited for Khashoggi outside the consulate for 11 hours and never saw him reappear.

Dr Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, told Business Insider: “It seems as though as the Turkish authorities are leaking and drip feeding evidence, which clearly contradicts the Saudi line.”

“When you piece together the threads of information that Turkish authorities have leaked and released there is a story beginning to emerge,” he added.

“The staccato nature of the Turkish response suggests that they were prepared to offer the Saudis a way out of the crisis – at least provide them with an off ramp, but given the Saudi response or lack of it, the authorities continue to share more and more details.”

Protesters hold photos of Khashoggi outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where the journalist went before going missing, on Monday.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Dr HA Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, also said that the leaks were “clear evidence” that Ankara was trying to release information on a scale that would please Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh hasn’t been responding.

Hellyer told Business Insider:

“Ankara seems to be releasing information on the basis of expectations vis-à-vis Riyadh — and the leaks are clear evidence of that.

“What expectations those, on the other hand, remain unclear — but different reports indicate there are essentially negotiations underway between Ankara and Riyadh about how to move forward.

“But this depends on whether or not Riyadh is really all that concerned about what Ankara does – I’m not sure Riyadh necessarily is.”

Whatever happened to Khashoggi, one thing seems certain: His disappearance is a stark reminder of the kingdom’s brutal crackdown on dissent.

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