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In Khashoggi's death, a battle over regional power looms

In Khashoggi's death, a battle over regional power looms
The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, above, has become entwined in an ongoing struggle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia to exert their influence on the Middle East. (Hasan Jamali / Associated Press)

The slow-speed admission by Saudi Arabia that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul has been more than a begrudging journey toward justice.

It has also become the latest front in a battle for regional power between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, two figures who have sought to stamp their vision on their respective countries as well as the wider region, even as they redefine their relationship with the U.S. and Europe.

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In Khashoggi, Erdogan has found a golden opportunity to strike at the crown prince.

“There’s a big strategic game here, and MBS is in a fragile position,” said Soner Cagaptay, author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey” in a phone interview Monday.

The longstanding competition between the two Sunni Muslim Middle East powers flared in 2013 when Saudi Arabia backed a military-led coup in Egypt that toppled elected President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Sunni transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement.

More than five years later, Erdogan, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, still refuses to recognize the government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Sisi.

“This alliance targets Erdogan because not only has he not recognized the Egyptian government, but has given safe haven to a large number of Muslim Brotherhood opposition types, which the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates see as serious internal threats,” Cagaptay said.

The rift has intensified since Bin Salman’s ascent to power in 2015.

Reacting to a Riyadh-led blockade of Qatar, Erdogan dispatched Turkish troops to protect the tiny Gulf nation from an invasion by its neighbors. Ankara is now setting up a military base in the country, and earlier this month signed a military cooperation pact with Kuwait, another neighbor of Saudi Arabia that has tussled with Bin Salman over oil rights.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s anti-Iran focus — an obsession shared by Saudi leaders about their rival Shiite Muslim neighbor — and his push for Israeli-Palestinian peace have placed Bin Salman at the heart of the administration’s Middle East policy.

The U.S. has given Bin Salman logistic and weapons support to pursue a war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.And presidential advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump's point man in the region, has tasked Bin Salman with lobbying his Arab allies to accept an Israeli-Palestinian deal that many believe would be unacceptable to the Palestinians.

That has served to impair Erdogan’s position as the region’s top figure and leading champion for Sunni Muslims.

Erdogan himself cut ties with Israel for six years after an Israeli raid on a flotilla to the blockaded Gaza Strip killed 10 Turkish activists in 2010. A year later he threw his full support behind Syrian opposition groups, allowing them to use Turkish border towns as staging areas for attack on Syrian government troops. Under Erdogan’s rule, many in the region have viewed Turkey as a model for political Islam, even dubbing him “The Lion of the Sunnis” in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Since the crown prince is now seen as the weakest link among Sunni countries against the Muslim Brotherhood, Cagaptay said, Erdogan’s “goal is to get a consensus from MBS’ father that would see him at least sidelined or neutralized.”

In pursuit of that aim, Erdogan’s operatives seized control of the narrative almost from the first day of Khashoggi’s mysterious disappearance and have refused to let go.

Although there were few official statements, an advisor to Erdogan made clear early on that Khashoggi had never left the Saudi consulate after entering Oct. 2.

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Later, advisor Yasin Aktay revealed that Khashoggi, who had gone there to handle routine paperwork, had been killed inside — long before the Saudis admitted to it.

Erdogan himself was uncharacteristically tight-lipped, saying little more than that he was personally following the issue and “hoping for a positive outcome.” Bin Salman, meanwhile, in an interview with Bloomberg, said Khashoggi had left the consulate.

At that point, the media focus might have faded were it not for a further series of leaks by unnamed Turkish officials that rebutted Saudi and American efforts to downplay the issue.

It helped that the details had all the makings of an old-fashioned spy thriller: A 15-man Saudi hit squad; a gory death followed by dismemberment with a bone saw; an audio recording of the murder obtained by unknown means by Turkish intelligence, reported to exist but yet to be released.

Eventually, the Saudis acknowledged the journalist’s death, but they have offered contradictory explanations, insisting it was a “rogue operation” and then an interrogation that went too far. They have yet to disclose what happened to the body of the 59-year-old Khashoggi, a contributor to the Washington Post.

Monday brought a new round of leaks, with CNN obtaining surveillance footage depicting one of the 15 Saudis wearing Khashoggi’s clothes, along with a fake beard and glasses, and walking out of the consulate, presumably to have set up an early cover story.

"Our assessment has not changed since Oct. 6,” a Turkish official told CNN. “This was a premeditated murder and the body was moved out of the consulate."

The saga could reach a denouement on Tuesday, the day Erdogan promised in a speech over the weekend that all would be revealed “in its naked truth.”

The Khashoggi crisis has also come at an opportune time for a leader beset with problems at home and abroad.

Last month, the lira plunged to half its value to the dollar, and though it has slightly recovered the Turkish economy remains vulnerable. Erdogan’s appointment of his son-in-law Berat Albayrak as finance minister, a 40-year old businessman with no experience in the job, has done little to reassure foreign investors.

Erdogan also remains at loggerheads with the West over his ongoing purge of thousands of political opponents.

Turkey has taken in more than 3 million Syrian refugees, according to the U.N. It is eager to send them home, even as it works to sabotage plans for a U.S.-backed Kurdish enclave in eastern Syria for which Saudi Arabia recently pledged $100 million. (Ankara views Syrian Kurds as a proxy for Kurdish separatists at home.)

But there are limits to what Erdogan can do on his own, said Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

“Erdogan wants to force broader bigger political changes to Saudi foreign policy, which largely emanate from MBS’ office,” said Stein in a phone interview Monday. “He’s rightly seen that the only one that can bring pressure on Bin Salman is the U.S. The question is if team Trump will sacrifice relations, oil and its work on Iran for a murdered journalist.”

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