Erdogan Pressures Saudi Crown Prince on Journalist Murder Anniversary

2019-10-01

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ISTANBUL - With the first anniversary of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul approaching, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pledging to "continue to shed light" on the killing.

Khashoggi, a reporter for the U.S.-based Washington Post newspaper, was a staunch critic of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The journalist's murder one year ago Wednesday remains a focal point of tension between Erdogan and Salman.

International human rights groups, Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and United Nations special rapporteur, Agnes Callamard, will be joined Wednesday by Yasin Aktay, a member of Erdogan's inner circle, at a commemoration outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to mark Khashoggi's murder.

On Oct. 2, 2018, Khashoggi entered the consulate to collect papers for his forthcoming marriage.  He never left the building alive.

According to secret recordings by Turkish intelligence, the Saudi journalist was suffocated with a plastic bag by a hit team sent from Saudi Arabia. An international investigation led by the U.N.'s Callamard concluded the journalist's body was dismembered and disposed of at an unknown location.

Erdogan, who knew Khashoggi, took a lead role in seeking the truth about the killing and bringing those responsible to justice - efforts that continue one year later.

"Turkey's response to the Post's contributing columnist's killing is based on our desire to uphold the rules-based international system," wrote Erdogan Sunday in The Washington Post. "Going forward, Turkey pledges to continue its efforts to shed light on the Khashoggi murder. We will keep asking the same questions," he added in the op-ed piece.

'Moral higher ground'

"This certainly gives Erdogan the rare opportunity to take the moral higher ground," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. In recent years, local and international rights groups accused Erdogan of turning Turkey into the world's worst place for reporters to work, a charge Ankara denies.

"Erdogan is no friend of free speech, as Turkish prisons are still full of journalists and citizens jailed for dissenting views," wrote Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas in The Washington Post Sunday. "Whatever his reasons, Erdogan was on the right side of history this time," she said.

Analysts suggest Erdogan's dogged pursuit of the killers is behind an increasingly bitter rivalry with Salman. The two leaders are seen to be engaging in a regional battle for hegemony.

"President Erdogan never liked MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) and found himself increasingly at odds with him vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood and Syria policy," Yesilada said.

Erdogan is a strong backer of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, an organization deemed to be terrorists by Riyadh. In the Syrian civil war, a bitter rivalry emerged, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia supporting rival factions fighting the Damascus government.

'Shadow state'

The Turkey-Saudi rivalry intensified with Salman's rise to power. In his op-ed, Erdogan reiterated his loyalty to Salman but repeated his accusations of a "shadow state" in Saudi Arabia responsible for Khashoggi's killing. The Turkish president repeated his commitment to finding all those responsible for the journalist killing in what is widely interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to the crown prince.

Saudi authorities have charged 11 people with Khashoggi's murder. Prosecutors are demanding the death penalty for five of them.

The growing rivalry between Erdogan and Salman is felt increasingly across the region.

"Turkey is close to Qatar, and Saudi (Arabia) is closer to Egypt, so we see the region more and more splitting along this divide," said Emre Caliskan of Oxford University's International Relations Department.

Last week, Erdogan broke ranks with his Western allies, rejecting their claim Iran was responsible for this month's attack on a Saudi refinery.

"If we just place the entire burden on Iran, it won't be the right way to go, because the evidence available does not necessarily point to that fact," Erdogan said last month.

Erdogan will likely use the anniversary of Khashoggi's murder to again step up diplomatic pressure on Riyadh and Salman. But analysts point out, with the international community appearing to have accepted the crown prince back from a short exile, Ankara faces a weakening position against Riyadh.

"Riyadh is on the ascendancy against Ankara in the region. With Qatar as Turkey's only ally, Turkey is isolated," said International relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "The rivalry is increasing, and Saudi Arabia is a defiantly primary rival in the Arab world."