Intel: Why Ankara is refraining from retaliation against Riyadh over missing dissident

al-monitor Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, Sept. 25, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.

Oct 7, 2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared reluctant to go on a diplomatic war with Saudi Arabia today as he made a low-key statement on the fate of a missing Saudi dissident. Turkish police sources said they believed the man was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Erdogan said the prosecutor’s investigation into the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi was continuing. “God willing, we will not face an undesired situation,” he told reporters, avoiding confirming claims that the journalist was killed. Turkish investigators are analyzing footage from security cameras outside the consulate as well as airport entries and exits, he added. However, before Erdogan spoke, unnamed Turkish police sources as well as an adviser to Erdogan told the media that they believed that Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Consulate, which he entered Oct. 2. According to some reports, police believe his body was removed from the building in a diplomatic vehicle. Saudi officials have denied the murder claims, insisting they are unaware of Khashoggi's whereabouts.

Why it matters: The incident threatens a diplomatic crisis in Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Bilateral relations are already strained over Ankara’s political and military support for Qatar in the Saudi-led drive to isolate the tiny emirate and Turkey’s close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh considers a terrorist organization.

Despite the rift over Qatar, Ankara has maintained a cautious approach toward Riyadh and bilateral contacts have continued. Saudi cooperation is important for Turkey in Syria. Also, Ankara has continued to encourage Saudi investments in Turkey, with the Saudis eyeing especially the real estate sector. Such investments are all the more important now that Ankara is struggling with deepening economic woes.

Yet, Ankara appears to see a hostile motive in the Khashoggi affair. Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Erdogan, wrote in an Oct. 6 column that whatever happened to the journalist was “an operation not only against him but also an operation against Turkey.”

What’s next: Erdogan’s statement today suggests he is not keen on escalating tensions with Saudi Arabia — at least for now — and that Ankara is inclined to await the official outcome of the probe into Khashoggi’s disappearance before making a decisive diplomatic move.

Fusun Arsava, an international law professor at Ankara’s Atilim University, told Al-Monitor that even if reports of Khashoggi’s murder were true, that would be extremely difficult for the Turkish authorities to prove. She likened the situation to “a dead end,” adding that one measure Ankara might take was to ask the Saudi consul to go “on grounds that the incident has cast doubts on mutual trust.”

Know more: Check out Al-Monitor’s previous coverage on the matter and Al-Monitor’s report on volatile Saudi-Turkish relations here and here.

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