Experts Say Negotiation in Khashoggi Case Trumps Investigation

(CN) – After weeks of leaked details and Saudi denials, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to reveal on Tuesday the “naked truth” behind the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a Feb. 1, 2015, press conference in Manama, Bahrain. A pro-government Turkish newspaper published a gruesome recounting on Oct. 17, 2018, of the Saudi writer’s alleged slaying at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, just as America’s top diplomat arrived in the country for talks over the Washington Post columnist’s disappearance. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

As to how much detail comes to light, however, experts from three countries told Courthouse News that the key lies in behind-the-scenes geopolitical bargaining.

An Istanbul-based journalist who sits on the European Council on Foreign Relations, Asli Aydintasbas for one predicted that that the broad outlines of stories trickling out from the Turkish government will be proven accurate.

“Some of the gory details may be different, but there’s no doubt that he was murdered by the Saudi hit team sent by MBS,” said Aydintasbas, using an abbreviation for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Perhaps one of the grisliest details from Turkey’s Khashoggi probe earned MBS a new moniker: “Mr. Bone Saw.”

According to a Turkish investigator quoted everywhere from the country’s pro-government media to The New York Times, that is the implement that agents from a 15-member member assassination squad used to dismember Khashoggi’s tortured body.

“The gruesome details just make for good television, good media,” observed University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani, a Canadian fellow at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.

“A lot of my nonpolitical friends, who would never know anything about what’s happening in the world, seem to be interested in knowing ‘Did they really chop off his fingers while he was alive?’” she added.

That particular rumor came from the Turkish daily Yeni Safak, a de-facto mouthpiece for the Erdogan government with a long history of publishing fabrications. Most U.S. news stories quoting Turkish state media note that the country has a tightly controlled press, largely owned by the Erdogan family and his business partners.

Momani, who also advises skepticism about Turkish state media sources, predicted that more hard evidence would emerge – but only if Erdogan wants it to become public.

“Let me simplify it for you: The tapes will be released if the Saudis don’t pay the right price,” she said.

For Gonul Tol, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, the ebb and flow of the leaks tracked Turkey’s bargaining with the U.S. and Saudi governments. The first stream of reports brought Saudi Arabia to admit what it had denied for two weeks: that Khashoggi was killed inside their consulate on Oct. 2.

“But I think after President Trump signaled that he was buying the Saudi narrative that this was the work of ‘rogue killers,’ Turkey’s hand was somewhat weakened,” Tol said in an interview. “That’s why we started seeing the leaks started again after a brief hold.”

Though Saudi Arabia has arrested 18 suspects, it initially tried to distance the crown prince from Khashoggi’s killing by claiming the 59-year-old intellectual had died in a “fist fight” that escalated. Updating that story Sunday, a Saudi official said that Khashoggi died in a chokehold.

Saudi Arabia’s shape-shifting narrative only forced the U.S. president on Monday, however, to back down from his endorsement of the kingdom.

“I am not satisfied with what I’ve heard,” Trump said today while departing the White House for a campaign rally in Texas. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

Turkey has been steadily dismantling Saudi Arabia’s plausible deniability for weeks, first with the release of scanned copies of passports of the suspected Saudi agents in Istanbul.

A CNN report Monday showed a man named Mustafa al-Madani – identified by a Turkish agent as Khashoggi’s “body double” – entered the consulate in a flannel shirt and left in what appeared to be the slain journalist’s clothes, which al-Madani reportedly tossed into a dumpster after visiting Istanbul’s legendary Blue Mosque.

A Turkish broadcaster later ran surveillance video purporting to show Saudi consular staff burning documents within one day of Khashoggi’s death.

“That all indicates to me that Erdogan now, that he will have to reveal everything,” Tol said. “Yes, there were negotiations going on, but Turkey apparently did not get what it wanted.”

Reversing course at this point, Tol added, would represent a “huge U-turn” from Ankara.

Erdogan pulled such an about-face recently in releasing Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor who spent more than two years in a Turkish prison on terrorism charges. Brunson’s imprisonment had been seen as an example of hostage diplomacy and his release as proof that Turkey’s judiciary operates based on what its government finds politically expedient.

Momani, the Canadian scholar, thought that it was no coincidence that Brunson went home at the height of the Khashoggi investigation, with the U.S. midterms approaching.

“I think Brunson’s release was intimately tied to the broader objective that the Turks have, which is to get out of the cold internationally, and they know that Brunson was an important issue, particularly to Vice President Pence and much of the evangelical base that does support the Republican party,” she said.

The Trump administration leveled tariffs on Turkey in pursuit of Brunson’s release, although it has said little about other U.S. government workers languishing in Turkish prisons.

“Donald Trump wants this to go away,” Momani said. “He has a midterm election coming up. He wants to be able to avoid more questions about what he sees as an insignificant issue. This is a noncitizen. He’s made that very clear.”

Turkish objectives are diverse: Momani noted that Erdogan’s cronies are intertwined with the country’s construction center, and its ailing economy could use a boost from lucrative contracts from Riyadh, which is losing international business support.

“Everybody else is pulling out,” she said. “Nobody else wants to do this stuff for the Saudis any more. Saudis don’t have the capacity to build. They don’t have enough engineers. They don’t have the type of contractors.”

Erdogan has timed his announcement with the start of Saudi Arabia’s investment conference “Davos in the Desert,” which has been reeling from executives pulling out in protest to Khashoggi’s murder.

Erdogan is also facing pressure from a multibillion-dollar money-laundering case involving Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, whose manager was recently convicted of violating U.S. sanctions to Iran.

The Turkish government could see the Khashoggi case as an opportunity to avoid potentially crippling fine from the U.S. Treasury.

“Erdogan is a master at this,” said Tol, the Washington-based analyst. “He can turn anything into an opportunity.”

Domestically Erdogan is facing pressure from hardliners who criticized him for releasing Brunson, and observers have framed Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry as a struggle for leadership of the Islamic world.

Omer Celik, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, emphasized that the government will “not allow a cover-up” of Khashoggi’s death.

“It is a matter of honor for us that this is uncovered,” Celik said on Saturday. “We will shed light on this using all means we have.

Press freedom is hardly an overriding concern for any of the three nations.

“Look, we’re not talking about a perfect democracy here,” Tol said of Erdogan’s Turkey. “We’re talking about a man who is the biggest jailer of journalists.”

The Khashoggi affair has been calling attention to the sins of the other two powers at the table, such as the U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen, which the U.N. recently estimated threatens 13 million people with starvation.

In his relentless attacks on the media, Trump recently cheered on a Montana congressman’s assault of a journalist, leaving many in the United States looking for human rights help wherever they can find it.

“All eyes are now on Turkey, even in Washington, where Erdogan doesn’t have many friends people are now applauding what he is doing,” Tol noted. “He can now claim that seat by a principled stand. He can reclaim the tarnished image. He can fix part of it, I guess.”

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