An opportunity for U.S.-Turkey relations?

The Turkish government’s recent record in foreign policy is hardly a success story. It is therefore noteworthy that, so far, Ankara has handled the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi with a singular deftness. Whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can see this through is now the key question.

To recap. Khashoggi visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to receive documents certifying his divorce so he could remarry, and disappeared. The Saudi government, including de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, denied all knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate, claiming he left the consulate within the hour.

With Erdoğan staying officially above it all, a series of intelligence leaks were dribbled to the media that said Khashoggi had been killed and dismembered at the Consulate by a 15-man hit squad, and the Turks had an audio recording of the murder.

The leaks followed a pattern: they contained enough to draw a Saudi response, which was subsequently discredited by further leaks, but there was never enough credible information to definitively settle the matter. Turkey’s information operation created a protracted international spectacle that lasts to the present, inflicting perhaps irreparable political damage on Saudi Arabia and its relations with the West.

The Saudi government initially tried to hold its ground, but in the early hours of Oct. 20, Riyadh admitted in a statement from Saudi King Salman that Khashoggi was dead, claiming he was killed by accident when he was confronted by the 15-man squad, who asked him to return home, and he engaged them in a fist fight. King Salman dismissed several senior intelligence officials and 18 people were placed under arrest. Many believed this was the end of the affair: some scapegoats had been selected after a back-channel accord had been reached. Not so.

The next day, the Saudi story changed again, now conceding there had been an effort to kidnap Khashoggi, and Turkey leaked that Prince Mohammed’s right-hand man Saud al-Qahtani had been directing the killing at the Consulate via Skype. Erdoğan then gave a speech on Tuesday that effectively formalised the leaks, and insisted the killing was deliberate. Prince Mohammed was not mentioned by name, but the speech was pointedly directed at him. Underlining the point, Erdoğan said: “I do not doubt the sincerity of King Salman”. This is a new tone from Erdoğan, given the long Turkey-Saudi tensions on any number of fronts from Somalia to Qatar.

Since then, just after the CIA director was reported to have listened to the audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder and briefed President Donald Trump on it, the Saudi public prosecutor announced he had received information from Turkey indicating that Khashoggi’s death was as a result of premeditated murder.

So, what does it all mean? What does Erdoğan, the man it seems with all the cards, want? And can he get it?

Erdoğan is surely approaching the point of overplaying his hand. Prolonging this heaps the damage on Saudi Arabia, but it also makes Erdoğan look increasingly cynical. But some political retribution was to be expected given Turkish sensitivities over sovereignty.

As to what Erdoğan wants, if it were to exact a primarily financial price from Saudi Arabia, he would long ago have been able to name his price. It has been reported that Saudi Arabia offered “financial aid and investments to help Turkey’s struggling economy, and an end to a Saudi embargo on Qatar,” in exchange for Ankara dropping the Khashoggi case, which was “angrily rejected” by Erdoğan. It seems, instead, that Erdoğan has political goals in mind.

The outline of what Erdoğan is looking for is visible. He wants to make this into a matter of “the world” (or at least the United States) against Saudi Arabia. Erdoğan wants a confession from the Saudis that this was a pre-planned assassination, and in turn Ankara will not make the definitive proof (the audio tape and/or visual footage) public. By ensuring channels are kept open to the Saudi king, Erdoğan has sought to preserve Turkey-Saudi relations while waging political warfare against Prince Mohammed.

Erdoğan must be aware that there is almost no chance to actually remove Prince Mohammed. What is possible is to cripple Prince Mohammed by having the United States come to see him as a liability, and Turkey has much to work with. The Trump team was set to build its regional strategy, concentrated on countering Iran, around Saudi Arabia. Even tangential missions like the stabilisation of eastern Syria have been underwritten by the Saudis. Yet in recent weeks, Prince Mohammed has picked a fight with Canada over a tweet, among other diplomatic blunders, and very likely had some role in the Khashoggi assassination of, either unaware or uncaring about the consequences for the United State, the kingdom’s guarantor. This is not just a moral or public-relations problem; it reflects on the judgment, risk-taking, and competence of Prince Mohammed, and makes the Trump strategy look even more dubious.

The other half of Erdogan’s calculation is that if Prince Mohammed is downgraded in American eyes, Turkey can be elevated, and there is reason to think he might be correct. Erdoğan has relished challenging the prevailing narratives about his country. Just for once, Turkey got to be the “good guy” in an international news story. More concretely, Ankara has helped provoke a widescale public debate about the utility of Saudi Arabia as an ally, and Riyadh has good reason not to be especially welcoming of this debate.

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has never been values-based, but it is something beyond transactional in the American mind, a structural cornerstone of the regional security architecture since 1945. The theory is that America provides a security guarantee, weapons, and logistical support the Saudi government. In turn, Riyadh provides, negatively, stable governance over its own territory and that of its neighbours, while policing the adjacent sea lanes, to ensure a reliable supply of oil at reasonable prices, and, positively, coordination against common foes. The weapons trade provides an economic dimension to the relationship that functions politically since Western jobs and tax-revenue hinge on contracts dispensed by the Saudi government.

The negative aspect of this bargain is unambiguous: even with the Saudi monarchy’s prior use of the oil weapon against the West, it is the most dependable steward of those resources available; its collapse would be a disaster for the world economy and would create chaos in which the worst forces, internally and from outside, would thrive, resulting in a far worse situation from the standpoint of either Western interests or human rights.

The positive aspect, however, is distorted by inertia, the leading role of the Pentagon, and PR companies. It is not that the Saudis provide nothing. Their missionary activity helped blunt the spread of Communism during the Cold War, and in the War on Terror, after a slow start, the Saudis have largely put their own house in order, and become a key intelligence partner against jihadism, particularly on terror finance.

But the notion of Saudi Arabia providing significant muscle in the fight against Iran, or Islamic State (ISIS), is mistaken. The clearest demonstration is Yemen, where the defensible mission of reversing a coup by Iranian proxies has turned into a political-military fiasco, despite the Saudis’, on-paper at least, formidable military. Saudi efforts to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Iranian-backed regime dissolved into an internecine squabble with Qatar, and the blockade on Qatar further split the anti-Iran coalition, while failing on its own terms. Other Saudi initiatives, like working with the UAE to foment the coup in Egypt, justified as a measure to weaken Islamists, have proven disastrous.

The Western relationship with Saudi Arabia has to be preserved, but it should be placed in its proper perspective. The Saudi role in countering Western foes has been most effective when it follows and facilitates the West, by for example opening its territory to troops or overflights, providing financial support, and/or political cover. In short, Saudi Arabia is the junior and dependent partner in this relationship and should be made to understand the limits that this imposes on its behaviour.

For Turkey, comparisons with Saudi Arabia redound in her favour. The Turks have a vast and capable army, and the most strategic geography on the planet that allows the United States to project into the Middle East and to counter the Russians from the Balkans and the Black Sea to Central Asia. Turkey has the ability to help pacify areas liberated from ISIS of Syria, breaking the cycle that the YPG/PKK will perpetuate. And if Turkey can be brought back into the fold, she has the capacity to assist against Iran not only in Syria but well beyond on sanctions and other matters.

A host of problems continue to divide the United States and Turkey - the 20 other Americans in Turkish prisons, the fates of Turkish banker Mehmet Atilla jailed in New York and U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, and the American relationship with the YPG/PKK. But Turkey’s release of pastor Andrew Brunson’s in the middle of all this was a tactical success for Ankara that might pave the way to improved relations with Washington. Just as Brunson’s arrest enraged a particularly active section of the U.S. electorate, his release has allowed Trump to energise this population just ahead of the mid-term elections. It is now in Erdogan’s hands whether he can manage this opening with Washington as skilfully as he has so far handled the Khashoggi saga.