Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to leverage the international backlash over the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to damage his arch rival Saudi Arabia, analysts warn.
James Phillips, a Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow, tells questsin that Turkey appears intent on using the Khashoggi murder to hurt the Saudi Kingdom.
“In the Khashoggi affair,” Phillips tells questsin, “the Turks really went out of their way to turn the knife on the Saudis, leaking to the media a lot of sensationalist reports that turned out not to be true.”
Khashoggi was a Washington Post columnist who had been sharply critical of political repression in Saudi Arabia. He walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul last October and never re-emerged.
Initially, Saudi officials maintained he had left the consulate alive. But later they recanted and admitted he had been killed.
President Trump has shown no inclination to break with an ally that is locked in an existential battle with Iran – the nation perennially designated the globe’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism.
Erdogan’s latest attempt to exploit the Khashoggi killing came last week, when he told state-run Turkish television: ‘I cannot understand America’s silence. … We want everything to be clarified because there is an atrocity, there is a murder.”
Despite his high dudgeon, experts say Erdogan has orchestrated a massive crackdown against political opponents in Turkey -- especially since the July 2016 coup attempt he blamed on Turkish expatriate dissident Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania.
Amnesty International, the human rights organization, noted that Erdogan used the coup to arrest some 10,000 political opponents.
Once imprisoned, the organization reported many were subject to brutal “beatings and torture, including rape.”
Another human rights group has chronicled at least 117 murders of detainees at the hands of Erdogan’s regime.
Phillips says Turkey’s propaganda assault on the Saudis is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.
“Erdogan definitely has more political prisoners in his jails than the Saudis do,” Phillips says, “and definitely has more journalists in his jails than the Saudis do.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists says Turkey's Erdogan’s is the “biggest jailer of journalists” in the world, and the group currently counts 68 imprisoned colleagues there.
Phillips adds that Erdogan “is far from a human rights paragon. In fact, his regime has become increasingly authoritarian and arbitrary in arresting people.”
Erdogan has leveraged the 2016 attempted coup to conduct a purge and consolidate power. Among the reasons Western leaders are increasingly alarmed by his authoritarian presidency:
- Over 50,000 citizens have been arrested, and over 150,000 lost their jobs, ostensibly because they did not actively oppose the coup attempt. Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy has stated Erdogan “has demonized, brutalized, and cracked down on [citizens] who are unlikely to vote for him.”
- He has filed lawsuits or arrested thousands of people for the crime of “insulting the president,” an offense punishable in Turkey by up to four years in jail.
- He supported the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups during the Arab Spring, alienating erstwhile allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
- Erdogan, the leader of a NATO-member nation, purchased an S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia two years ago, reducing NATO interoperability and security.
- He has publicly denied that Hamas is a terror organization, and has allowed Turkey to be used as a safe-haven for Hamas operatives.
- On Friday, Bloomberg reported that Erdogan helped embattled strongman Nicolas Maduro remove nearly $1 billion in gold bars from Venezuela, stashing them inside Turkey. “It’s not the first time that Turkey has positioned itself as a work-around for countries facing U.S. sanctions,” Bloomberg News reported, “potentially undermining Washington’s efforts to isolate governments it considers hostile or corrupt.”
- When Iran was suffering under withering U.S. sanctions over its rogue nuclear program, he inked three trade deals with the pariah nation. Phillips says his regime “has helped Iran evade U.S. sanctions to the tune of billions of dollars.”
- In what many saw as an attempt to pressure U.S. leaders into handing over his rival Gulen, his forces imprisoned American Pastor Andrew Brunson for over two years on threadbare charges before letting him return home. “He takes hostages to try to enforce his demands,” says Phillips. “He has adopted tactics from the Iranians.”
- Last month, Erdogan snubbed Trump national security chief John Bolton during his visit to Ankara, saying Bolton made “a serious mistake” by pledging the United States would not abandon the Kurdish fighters who shed their blood to help the Trump administration decimate ISIS. Erdogan has branded the Kurds terrorists, and bitterly opposes the establishment of an independent nation for the displaced Kurdish people.
- Erdogan even once threatened to launch attacks on U.S. Special Operations forces working with the Kurds in Syria, stating “Don’t force us to bury in the ground those who are with terrorists.”
In the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, some cable TV hosts have suggested the United States ought to sever its alliance with the Royal Kingdom. But Phillips warns that could give America’s enemies a terrific boost.
“That would hurt U.S. national security interests,” says Phillips. “If everything were blown up, it would be very serious … it could undermine U.S. interests in the region.”
In fact, the big winners if U.S.-Saudi relations were damaged would be Iran and Russia.
Last year, former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden told questsin that Erdogan’s behavior was becoming “more erratic,” and increasingly oppositional to U.S. interests.
“The behavior of the Turkish government is troubling across the board,” Hayden said in that interview.
“Domestically, [Erdogan] is far more autocratic, far more fundamentalist. In terms of foreign affairs, [he has] a vision of Syria and other problems in the area inconsistent with the United States. So I’m all for getting tougher with Turkey.”
Trump administration officials would prefer to maintain good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but that is increasingly difficult given Erdogan’s broadsides.
One senior Trump administration official told questsin, “Khashoggi affair won’t go away because Turkey won’t let it.”
He noted Erdogan’s effort to use the killing as part of his move to win the hearts of Muslims across the Mid-East while making Turkey the dominant regional power.
Compounded matters, Phillips says Erdogan “turned a blind eye to the rise of ISIS in Syria” -- one of President Trump’s top priorities.
“The Turks allowed known militants to cross their country going to Syria,” he says.
“They allowed wounded ISIS fighters to receive medical treatment inside Turkey. Also, a lot of the oil that ISIS controlled was leaking over the border into Turkey.”
He adds: “One of the reasons ISIS expanded so quickly in Syria is that Turks saw ISIS as the lesser threat, compared to the Syrian Kurds -- and they may have even seen ISIS as a way of preventing the Kurds from carving out an autonomous region there.”