Turkey may seek to reshape relations between US and Saudi Arabia over Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance

Borzou Daragahi

Washington dispatched its top diplomat to the Turkish capital on Wednesday to confer with president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other high-rank officials amid a mounting crisis over the disappearance and presumed murder of a Washington Post journalist at the hands of alleged Saudi enforcers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swept in and out of Ankara just hours after leaving the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he met with King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old de facto ruler of the kingdom and the man suspected of ordering the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi.

A photograph showed Mr Pompeo in a meeting with Mr Erdogan, foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, national intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, and presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul, Turkish investigators were for the first-time allowed to enter the residence of the Saudi consul general, one of the stops the alleged Saudi operations team made after leaving the consulate on the day of Mr Khashoggi's disappearance. Saudis had stonewalled for 15 days on granting Turks access to the site, finally giving in a day after Consul General Mohammed al-Otaiba flew back to Riyadh.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have been frayed over a number of matters, including the imprisonment of US nationals and consular employees and stark differences over the conflict in Syria.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (3-L) during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (3-R) in Ankara on Wednesday (EPA)

The administration of President Donald Trump has appeared eager to sweep the Khashoggi matter under the rug and resume its robust partnership with the Saudi kingdom in confronting Iran, which the president’s conservative supporters consider the Middle East’s greatest threats.

Mr Trump, echoing Crown Prince Mohammed’s talking points, insisted on Twitter that the Saudi royal “totally denied” knowing anything a disappearance that took place in his own country’s consulate at the hands of 15 Saudi nationals, some of them with confirmed ties to his own security apparatus.

Mr Cavusoglu told reporters the officials discussed Mr Khashoggi but also raised the issue of the ongoing conflict in neighbouring Syria, where Washington and Ankara have clashed over US support for militant Kurds linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Turkey demands the fighters leave a pocket of Syria called Manbij, east of the Euphrates River, and has repeatedly accused the US of dragging its feet on a deal to remove them.

“We conveyed to the US the importance of applying the Manbij roadmap,” Mr Cavusoglu said, according to CNN Turk. “Although it was a brief meeting, it was useful and efficient.”

A three-way partnership between Washington, Riyadh, and Ankara dates back to the 1950s, forged first in the confrontation against the Soviet Union and its proxies and later against Iran’s Islamist revolutionaries. But the ties have become strained with the rise of the Crown Prince, whose aggressive opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar clashes with the Turkish leadership, and whose proximity to the Trump administration creates what Turks consider imbalance in the region.

Analysts speculate that backroom talks between the three countries are a possible attempt to reconfigure the relationship on Turkey’s terms.

“Nobody can guess what kind of negotiations are going on between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States,” said Behlul Ozkan, an associate professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Marmara University. “No one’s going to destroy relations because of Khashoggi. What the Turks are trying to do is shape this relationship based on their own interests.”

Mr Khashoggi, Saudi dissident journalist and US resident, vanished after entering his own nation’s consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

Public pressure to get to the bottom of the Khashoggi affair has mounted in both NATO countries. Trump administration allies, including Republican Party Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, have publicly called for a reconsideration of Saudi-US ties over the presumed murder of Mr Khashoggi.

Nobody can guess what kind of negotiations are going on between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States

Behlul Ozkan, associate professor of international relations at Marmara University

German foreign minister Heiko Maas announced Wednesday he was delaying a trip to Riyadh to meet Saudi officials, while IMF chief Christine Lagarde said she would be a no-show at a Saudi economic summit next week dubbed “Davos in the Desert”.

The Turkish media has been filled with grisly details of Mr Khashoggi’s death, much of it apparently leaked by security forces under the likely approval of Ankara.

The daily Yeni Safak, close to the Erdogan government, published a report on Wednesday citing audio recordings taken inside the consulate that, the paper reported, strongly suggest Mr Khashoggi was tortured and murdered, in a gruesome scene with the presence of Saudi Consul General Mohammed al-Otaiba, who departed Istanbul for Riyadh on Tuesday.

“Do this outside. You’re going to get me in trouble,” Mr Otaiba is reportedly heard saying to Mr Khashoggi’s allegedly assailants.

‘If you want to live, shut up!’” he was reportedly told.

Security camera footage leaked to local and international media suggested that 15 Saudis, including a forensics physician, arrived on private jets in Istanbul hours before Mr Khashoggi was scheduled to arrive at the consulate, then sped away hours later, making a stop at the residence of the Saudi consul general before zipping back to the airport and out of the country..

The revelations have captivated the Turkish public and dominated headlines and broadcast news reports.

“Saudis do not have the power or chance to cover up the murder they committed in front of the eyes of the world,” said a commentary in the pro-government newspaper Aksam on Wednesday. “Riyadh cannot absolve itself by blaming a few civil servants in the Khashoggi murder. Visuals and photos prove that a ‘death squad’ that arrived in Istanbul in two jets were Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s men.”