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Turkish-Saudi rift could hinge on US reaction to missing journalist

The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident journalist and Washington Post contributor, has created a triangle of fault lines between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of renowned Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi has irritated some Islamist elements of Turkey's ruling elite, but doesn't seem to have resonated with the Turkish public as much as it has outside Turkey. Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor, hasn't been seen in public since he entered the Saudi consulate Oct. 2 in Istanbul.

The Turkish public is familiar with extrajudicial killings and the disappearance of dissidents. Indeed, for years, dozens of people have gathered in Istanbul’s central Taksim neighborhood every Saturday seeking to learn the fate of their loved ones who disappeared during Turkey’s troubled 1980s and 1990s. The protesters staging these sit-ins are called “Saturday Mothers.”

Also, earlier this year, some Turkish nationals in Kosovo and in Moldova were abducted and brought back to Turkey, allegedly for being linked to Fethullah Gulen, a Sunni cleric the Turkish government blames for the botched coup attempt in July 2016. 

Hence, Turkey perhaps seems an appropriate place to abduct and even kill someone such as Khashoggi. The concern initially expressed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his adviser Yasin Aktay and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on Khashoggi's fate, therefore, is a matter of irony for many Turks.

The case is not only embarrassing for Erdogan and his strongman image within Turkey itself, but could also tarnish his quest to be perceived as the leader and spokesman of the Sunni Muslim world. Though Erdogan refrained from openly accusing Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi's disappearance, Aktay first insisted that the journalist was brutally murdered in the consulate. Amazingly, Aktay backtracked later, saying there was no point in accusing Saudi Arabia; he blamed some Arabs for distorting his words. But on Turkey's broadcast media, everybody heard what he had said.

Aktay's abrupt reversal demonstrates that Erdogan isn't interested in a feud with Saudi Arabia. Kalin, who earlier implied the Khashoggi affair was Saudi dirty work, also changed his tune and announced Oct. 11 that Turkey and Saudi Arabia had agreed to form a joint working group to investigate the case.

For many Turks, that brings to mind the famous Turkish saying, “If you don't want to resolve a matter, you form a committee to work on it.”

It is an unprecedented, bizarre issue for Turkey. On the one hand, Turkish authorities seem reluctant to inflame relations with the Saudis. On the other hand, it appears Turkish police, intelligence officials and some unidentified people holding important positions in the government are feeding The Washington Post and The New York Times sensitive and seemingly accurate information. According to these sources, Khashoggi was tortured and murdered by a Saudi “hit squad” dispatched by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

However, developments in Washington regarding the Khashoggi issue are still fragile and volatile, and could worsen tensions between Ankara and Riyadh.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia — both close allies of the United States — managed a fairly decent relationship over the decades. The dictates of realpolitik and the rise of the quasi-Islamist Erdogan had brought the two countries closer. With King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud crowned in January 2015, a new page in bilateral relations opened. Turkey’s president became a frequent visitor, both privately to Mecca and Medina for pilgrimage, and to Riyadh on official visits.

Yet Ankara and Riyadh have never had genuinely fraternal relations. Turkey’s history of a strong commitment to secularism, reaching even anti-Islamist magnitudes, prevented any relationship based on religious and ideological affinity with Saudi Arabia, where ultraconservative Wahhabism, a Salafi school of Islam, is considered the official religion.

In 2011, Turkey backed the overthrow of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, which had forged close links with Saudi Arabia. Ankara also became close with the Muslim Brotherhood, a fatal enemy in the eyes of the House of Saud. Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood went as far as to host the Egyptian parliament-in-exile — those who belonged to the Brotherhood. Turkey’s close connections with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood allowed the groups to convene their meetings in Turkey, where they enjoyed political asylum.

Thus, the seeds of discord between Ankara and Riyadh had already been sown when, in June 2017, Saudi Arabia came to the brink of war with Qatar, severing diplomatic relations and imposing a blockade. Turkey, which has a military base in Qatar, responded by sending some personnel and hardware to deter a military onslaught over Qatar. It also sent material aid, rendering the embargo imposed on Doha ineffective.

Turkey’s support, along with Iran's, kept the tiny Gulf state afloat against powerful Saudi Arabia and its allies. That action tacitly allied Turkey with Iran and projected the former into volatile Gulf politics, where Iran and Saudi Arabia represent opposing sectarian poles.

This year, Turkey also extended its reach to the southern entrance of the Red Sea, to Somalia and Sudan, establishing a military base at Suakin, a strategically located island belonging to the latter. Cairo considers the Turkey-Sudan rapprochement a strategic threat. Erdogan’s Turkey and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt had hostile relations following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime through a military coup in the summer of 2013.

Against Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia leads a Sunni Arab axis in the Gulf, including Bahrain, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates forming its main pillars. The Saudi-led Gulf axis is endorsed by US President Donald Trump’s administration and Israel — which both see Iran as the main threat to Middle Eastern regional order.

Added to the geopolitical confrontation in the Gulf, the Turkish-Saudi rift is a Sunni-Sunni conflict arising as the Shiite-Sunni conflict — represented by Iran and Saudi Arabia at loggerheads — could turn into the Middle East eqivalent of the 30 Years' War of the 1600s, the bloodiest period of the interreligious wars in European history.

Then there's Turkey’s preoccupation with the Syrian civil war. Ankara's priority of preventing a Kurdish belt of self-rule in Syria, adjacent to Turkey's long southern border, led to an entente with Russia and Iran. And, as long as the Syrian war remains unresolved, Ankara’s alienation with Washington — due to latter providing military and diplomatic support to the Kurds — will continue. Ties forged with Moscow and Tehran will strengthen.

Turkey is dependent on Russia and Iran for its increasing energy needs. Political and economic imperatives keep Turkey on board with Iran, which could cause further rifts in relations between Ankara and Riyadh. The Khashoggi case can exacerbate them further.

Khashoggi disappeared from an Istanbul neighborhood. The mystery has wide repercussions, even apart from the irreconcilable Sunni-Shiite divide in the Muslim world. The endgame of the Khashoggi case will be that, ultimately, the ball will be in the American court. It is a new and big headache for the United States, its global posture and its standing in the Middle East.

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