(CN) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech on Tuesday about the “ferocious murder” of Washington Post journalist Jemal Khashoggi evoked a reversal of the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
After promising to expose a crime in its “full nakedness,” Erdogan’s speech had been more notable for what it concealed: any allegation of involvement in the Oct. 2 killing by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
“The information obtained so far, and the evidence found, shows that Khashoggi was murdered in a ferocious manner,” Erdogan said, as translated by CNN International. “To try to hide such a ferocious murder would be an insult to the conscience of humanity, and so we expect appropriate actions from Saudi Arabia.”
In several respects, Erdogan stepped up the heat on Saudi Arabia, which opened its investment conference Davos in the Desert this morning under the case’s shroud. Erdogan rejected the kingdom’s claim that Khashoggi died during a fight that escalated, but instead described the killing as “planned” and “brutal.”
The Turkish leader dangled several questions that the Saudis so far have refused to answer.
“On whose orders did these people come here?” Erdogan asked, referring to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul — the last place Khashoggi was seen alive. “We want an answer to this question.”
Slamming the Saudis for waiting to open its consulate up to investigation, Erdogan prodded: “Even when the murder was clearly committed, why were many conflicting announcements made, and why is the body of a person who has been murdered still not been found?”
The questions teased out controversies he did not answer, and Erdogan’s only reference to the royal family was directed not to the crown prince but his father: King Salman bin Abdulaziz, whose sincerity the Turkish president said he did not doubt.
Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, called Erdogan’s restraint unsurprising.
“Notwithstanding a lot of the hype in advance of the speech, I was not expecting him to disclose a huge amount of the details,” she said.
The Washington Post noted that Erdogan did share more than what has trickled to Turkish state-aligned media and the international press. Erdogan accused Saudi agents of removing the hard disk on a consulate camera and sending a team to visit wooded areas in and around Istanbul “for reconnaissance” before the murder, the paper reported.
“I think he shared some details which certainly gave high-level cover to a lot of the information that Turkish officials had been leaking to the press,” said Sloat, a former deputy assistant secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs at the State Department, a region that includes Turkey. “So, I anticipate that we’re going to see more specific details leaked to the press in the coming days.”
Less than two hours after the interview, Sloat’s prediction bore fruit. Sky News quoted two anonymous sources in reporting that Khashoggi’s body parts had been discovered “cut-up” and his face “disfigured.”
In a country that leads the world in jailing journalists, the Turkish government exercises de facto control over media companies largely owned by Erdogan’s family and associates. Experts note that information rarely gets out without the government’s approval, and the leaks suggest a strategy to extract concessions from Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Sloat said that Erdogan’s speech “certainly left open space” for negotiations.
“Erdogan was very deferential to King Salman in his remarks, and I think in his ideal world, King Salman would either remove MbS from a position of authority or at minimum remove his control over foreign policy,” she said, abbreviating the initials of Mohammad bin Salman.
“Secondarily,” she added, “it was directed at the Trump administration.”
CIA Director Gina Haspel flew into Turkey’s capital of Ankara hours before Erdogan’s speech.
“Presumably, she is getting more detailed information from the Turks, and I think Erdogan is going to be looking to the U.S. to put pressure on Saudi to try to limit the Crown Prince’s control over foreign policy,” Sloat said of the CIA director.
Asked whether Haspel’s 11th hour trip influenced Erdogan’s speech, Sloat balked: “That’s a good question.”
“I think that she should have gone over two weeks ago, so the U.S. could have made a more informed analysis on what was said,” she added.
Washington’s line certainly changed shortly after Haspel’s visit.
Facing a torrent of criticism for coddling the Saudis, Trump accused an ally that serves as the linchpin of his Middle East policy of bungling the “worst in the history of cover ups.”
“They had a very bad original concept,” Trump said, referring to the Saudi narrative of Khashoggi’s killing. “It was carried out poorly, and the cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.”
“It’s very simple: Bad deal,” Trump said, as if rejecting a business proposal on his former reality TV show “The Apprentice.” “Should have never been thought of. Somebody really messed up.”
And like those contestants, Trump suggested that one may soon get the axe.
“Whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble,” he concluded.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States is revoking the visas of some Saudi officials implicated in Khashoggi’s death, but the Trump administration has steered clear of stronger measures on the country as a whole. Saudi Arabia has arrested 18 people with suspected ties to Khashoggi’s death. Erdogan said that 15 of those people match the names on Turkey’s own list, and he demanded that they face trial within his nation’s borders.
Noting Turkey’s troubled press-freedom record, the Committee to Protect Journalists wants the United Nations to conduct an independent probe.