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Dimitar Bechev
Oct 11 2018

The Turkish-Saudi dispute is good news for Russia

There are only two options. That 15-strong Saudi squad that passed through Istanbul on October 2 either murdered or kidnapped Jamal Khashoggi.

“We know nothing about his whereabouts after he left the consulate,” Riyadh’s official version about the journalist’s disappearance, simply does not stand. Nor does the Trump administration’s “know nothing” response.  Everyone who is following the story is hoping for the best but as details emerge, courtesy of orchestrated leaks by the Turkish authorities, fears that Khashoggi, an insider turned prominent critic of Saudi rulers, might not be alive.

Turkey is faced with a hard choice. Does it call out Saudi Arabia and start a public fight? Or does it try to use whatever happened in the consulate to extract some concessions from the Gulf kingdom. At the very least, the Saudis could alter their version of the events to help President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan save face.  He has to respond to a brazen act involving the breach of national sovereignty. One does not just sweep that under the carpet.  And the clock is ticking. 

A consummate politician, Erdoğan, as many have noted, is carefully choosing his words to give the Saudis an opportunity to recalibrate their stance. He is downplaying the murder allegations. But at the same time, Erdogan’s loyal press is feeding us further, and ever more gruesome, details the pressure on Riyadh is mounting. 

Sabah newspaper has now released the names of the 15 Saudi nationals in the alleged hit squad, which, according to the same newspaper quoting Turkish investigators, included a top forensic expert.

We will know fairly soon if this dual strategy works to avert a crisis. The alternative would be a full-frontal collision between Erdoğan and Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince known as MBS. If the Saudis hold firm, the war of words could get nasty because Erdoğan will not u-turn either.

Khashoggi could bring into the open tensions that have been simmering under the surface for a long time. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two major Sunni powers in the Middle East, are not exactly friends.  Yes, they did take the same side in Syria from early on, pushing for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad. They have been channelling aid to same armed groups such as the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, which played a key role in the takeover of province of Idlib in the summer of 2015. 

But from early on, Riyadh looked with suspicion at Ankara’s policy of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology aligns with that of the AKP, across the region. The Saudis backed the 2014 military coup in Egypt ousting the Brotherhood and have been bankrolling the new Egyptian government ever since.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been on the opposite sides over Qatar. The gas-rich emirate remains the Turks’ best friend in the Middle East as well as a sponsor of the Muslim Brothers. It has angered MBS and we are still witnessing the dispute between Riyadh and Doha. In June last year, Turkey sent additional troops to the military base it has maintained in Qatar since 2015.  There is a good chance that move averted a Saudi invasion. Qatar is, understandably, feeling thankful. It gifted a luxury jet to Erdoğan and pledged $15 billion to prop up the faltering Turkish lira. 

Last but not least, MBS is probably not happy about Turkey’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia’s archrival Iran, which, along with Turkey and Russia, is one of the co-sponsors of the Astana peace talks on Syria.

What’s next? Normally, one would expect the United States to step in and facilitate a deal between its two key allies. I suspect Turkish authorities are using all kinds of channels to bring Washington onboard. The trouble is that comes in the middle of the worst crisis in relations between Turkey and the United States. There is little sympathy for Erdoğan either within the Trump administration or amongst its multiple critics. At some point, the White House should take a more definitive position on Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post. Republicans in Congress are speaking out. But it is hard to see MBS’s best buddy Trump, for whom the line between personal affairs and statecraft is blurred, weighing in on Turkey’s side.

In case Turkey and Saudi Arabia clash openly and the United States looks the other way, it is very likely that Erdoğan would conclude there is only one leader worth of engaging with: Russian President Vladimir Putin.  At odds with the alliance formed by Saudi Arabia, the United States, Israel and Egypt and lukewarm about their rival Iran, Turkey has only one power to turn to – Russia.