The Republic of Turkey currently ranks as the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 73 behind bars at the end of 2017. Since a failed coup in the summer of 2016, the government has pursued a massive and brutal crackdown against thousands of its critics and opponents, both real and probably imagined. This has included U.S. citizens: Pastor Andrew Brunson was finally released after two years in custody on laughable terrorism charges earlier this month. Former NASA scientist Serkan Golge remains in prison.
Turkey’s dragnet has extended beyond its borders from Kosovo to Mongolia, sometimes with little respect for local laws. The U.N. has accused the Turkish military of killing thousands and razing entire neighborhoods in the southeast of the country in recent years as part of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against Kurdish militants.
So it’s a little strange to note that for the past few weeks, American outrage over the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi—which has led to rare public scrutiny of Saudi influence in Washington, U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and the seven-decade-old U.S.-Saudi relationship—has been driven in large part by that very same Turkish government.
Ever since Khashoggi disappeared into the consulate on Oct. 2, Turkish government sources been steadily dripping out the grisly details of what happened inside. This strategy has worked brilliantly to keep the anger over the story boiling and overwhelm the efforts of the Saudi regime and its enablers in Washington to contain the scandal. Now, Erdogan has promised that in a televised speech on Tuesday, he will reveal the complete Turkish account of what happened to Khashoggi “in full nakedness.” There have also been reports that Turkish authorities possess recordings of Khashoggi’s killing, which would presumably contradict the shifting Saudi accounts of how he died.
It’s telling that the Turks have not yet released this evidence and appear to be giving the Saudis an opportunity to make it worth their while not to release it. But Turkish officials have so raised expectations for what they’re going to a reveal that it’s hard to imagine they can simply brush it all under the table to give the Saudis an out.
Given the Turkish government’s penchant for conspiracy theories, the lurid reports, of what’s on these recordings, usually sourced to anonymous officials or state-run media outlets, should be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, none of the major Turkish reports have been disproven so far, and shifting and laughable Saudi explanations have hardly cast doubt on them.
Erdogan was a personal friend of Khashoggi’s, but of course it’s unlikely his government is acting solely out of concern for the dissident writer. They’re certainly not motivated by concerns about press freedom or human rights. Turkish relations with Saudi Arabia as well as its ally, the United Arab Emirates, have been frosty for a while now. Erdogan was a strong backer of the Arab Spring protests and Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, against strong Saudi and Emirati opposition. When the two Gulf States began a blockade of their neighbor, Qatar, last year, in part over its military cooperation with Turkey, Ankara responded by sending additional troops.
At the same time, U.S.-Turkish relations, which had reached a nadir in July when Trump announced sanctions in response to Brunson’s continued imprisonment, have shown signs of improvement lately after the pastor’s release and some recent agreements over contentious issues in Syria. In that context, Erdogan was unlikely to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
None of this context should interrupt this unexpected moment of soul-searching over just how much the U.S. should be willing to compromise its values to preserve a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, the strategic benefits of which are a lot less obvious than they used to be. This moment is welcome and long overdue, but it isn’t happening in a vacuum. The moment of questioning the relationship with one unreliable longtime U.S. ally with an atrocious record on freedom of speech and the rule of law may serve to benefit a different one.