Turkey's strange shifting story on Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi suggests a dark turn from Saudi Arabia

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters; Middle East Monitor via Reuters; Matt Dunham – WPA Pool/Getty ImagesSaudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
  • Turkish authorities have been leaking more and more information about the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi critic and journalist.
  • The government’s official line has changed multiple times in the past few days.
  • Experts have suggested that this happened: Turkey tried to coordinate its response to the case with Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom didn’t respond, so Turkey started leaking.

Turkey’s response to the international crisis over Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi critic and journalist who vanished after entering his country’s consulate in Istanbul last week, has been confusing at best.

Officials in Ankara have gone from accusing Riyadh of premeditated murder to saying the country’s leadership is not at fault. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the space of a week gone from saying he hoped Khashoggi was still alive to saying on Thursday that “it is not possible for us to remain silent.”

Anonymous Turkish authorities have also been leaking details of their investigation in dribs and drabs, casting increasing doubt on Saudi Arabia’s insistence of innocence.

Experts said that the leaks appeared to be taking place because Turkey tried to coordinate efforts with Saudi Arabia to give it a way out of the crisis but the kingdom hasn’t cared enough to respond.

Turkish leaks and changing stories

On Tuesday, Sabah, a Turkish pro-government newspaper, published what it said were the identities and movements of 15 suspects who travelled from Saudi Arabia and arrived at Istanbul on October 2 – the day Khashoggi went missing – then returned to Riyadh that night. The newspaper did not say how it got hold of the names and whereabouts.

An unnamed Turkish security source also confirmed to Middle East Eye, a London-based news website with a sometimes anti-Saudi bias, that the Saudi consulate asked its 28 locally hired employees to take the day off on October 2.

Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper also reported this week that surveillance-camera footage of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul had mysteriously disappeared.

The government’s official line has also been changing.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post quoted a person familiar with Turkey’s investigation as saying officials believed 15 Saudi agents carried out a “preplanned murder” and snuck Khashoggi’s body out of the consulate.

Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Erdogan and friend of Khashoggi’s, told Reuters over the weekend, “My sense is that he has been killed … in the consulate.”

He then appeared to climb down from that statement. The Guardian reported on Wednesday that he told the Al Araby TV channel that “the Saudi state is not blamed here,” suggesting instead that Khashoggi’s disappearance was the doing of “a deep state.”

Erdogan earlier this week said he was hopeful that Khashoggi was still alive, but he had a much harder line on Thursday, telling Hurriyet that “it is not possible for us to remain silent regarding such an occurrence, because it is not a common occurrence.”

What this means

Ankara is releasing more and more information about the case and casting increasing doubt on Riyadh’s insistence of innocence in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Saudi officials maintain that Khashoggi left the consulate the same day he visited, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman telling Bloomberg last week, “We have nothing to hide.”

Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, has said she waited for Khashoggi outside the consulate for 11 hours and never saw him reappear.

Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, told Business Insider that “it seems as though as the Turkish authorities are leaking and drip-feeding evidence, which clearly contradicts the Saudi line.”

“When you piece together the threads of information that Turkish authorities have leaked and released, there is a story beginning to emerge,” he said.

“The staccato nature of the Turkish response suggests that they were prepared to offer the Saudis a way out of the crisis – at least provide them with an off-ramp – but given the Saudi response or lack of it, the authorities continue to share more and more details.”

Jamal KhashoggiChris McGrath/Getty ImagesProtesters hold photos of Khashoggi outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where the journalist went before he disappeared on October 2.

H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the leaks were “clear evidence” that Ankara had expectations that that Saudi Arabia would respond to the crisis, but the kingdom did not.

Hellyer told Business Insider:

“Ankara seems to be releasing information on the basis of expectations vis-à-vis Riyadh – and the leaks are clear evidence of that.

“What expectations those are, on the other hand, remain unclear – but different reports indicate there are essentially negotiations underway between Ankara and Riyadh about how to move forward.

“But this depends on whether or not Riyadh is really all that concerned about what Ankara does – I’m not sure Riyadh necessarily is.”

Whatever happened to Khashoggi, one thing seems certain: His disappearance is a stark reminder of the kingdom’s brutal crackdown on dissent.

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