US President Donald Trump said he would receive a briefing on Saturday from the CIA about the murder of Saudi journalist and former insider Jamal Khashoggi. The announcement came after reports emerged Friday that the CIA had already briefed members of Congress and had come up with an assessment contradicting Saudi Arabia’s account of the murder.
Also on Saturday, Trump said he was not considering extraditing Turkish dissident and cleric Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, who is wanted by Turkey and accused of involvement in a 2016 coup.
The two cases, Khashoggi and Gulen, are rocking the Trump administration and US-Turkey ties at a complex time for the Middle East.
They come in the context of tensions between Riyadh and Ankara that have grown since Saudi Arabia led a group of Gulf states to isolate Qatar, which is a Turkish ally. At the same time US-Turkey relations
reached an all-time low over Turkey’s claims the US was working with “terrorists” in Syria, and US anger over the detention of an American pastor in Turkey.
And there are other problems, including attacks on protesters by Turkish security in 2017 in Washington, and the country’s increasing detentions of dissidents and academics.
The leaks about the CIA assessment appeared to pressure the Trump administration to do more against Saudi Arabia.
Key Trump allies in the Republican leadership, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, have praised the sanctioning of 17 Saudis over the killing.
“Everything points to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Senator Bob Corker tweeted on Saturday. “The Trump administration should make a credible determination of responsibility before MbS [Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman] executes the men who apparently carried out his orders
The administration is put in an awkward position because of constant leaks in Washington and also in Ankara. For instance, another leak from the US intelligence community to the Washington Post claimed that the Saudi ambassador to the US had told Khashoggi to go to Turkey. Saudi Ambassador to the US Khaled bin Salman, the brother of the crown prince, denied the story. The Washington Post
is at the center of this issue because Khashoggi was their columnist.
There is a sense that the US wants to do something to warm relations with Ankara. NBC reported that the Trump administration was considering extraditing Gulen “to appease” Turkey. Reports characterized the potential extradition as a way to “protect Saudi Arabia,” in a sense a deal where Turkey would lay off the Khashoggi issue in return for Gulen. NBC referred to it as “a mockery of the extradition system.”
“The Trump administration is so desperate to let Saudi off the hook for the murder of a Saudi dissident that they are preparing to send a Turkish dissident [Gulen] back to Turkey, in return for Turkey shutting down the investigation,” Liz Sly, the Washington Post Beirut bureau chief, tweeted.
Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also spoke Friday about the Khashoggi issue.
The way in which the Khashoggi crisis continues to overshadow not just US-Turkish relations, but the entire Middle East is revealed in recent reports pushed by pro-Iranian media that claim Saudi Arabia urged Israel to go to war with Hamas to “distract” from the Khashoggi issue. Press TV calls it a “plot hatched” by the crown prince. Tasnim News Agency claims that the Saudi leader pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to go to war in Gaza.
In addition, stories emerged claiming that Israel has encouraged Trump to reduce pressure on the Saudis over the killing. According to this narrative, which appeared in the Washington Post and elsewhere, Israel and the US administration were concerned that a weakened crown prince might not be able to help deliver on a peace deal with the Palestinians.
A third aspect of the US-Turkish relationship that has been altered by the Khashoggi affair is pressure on the US regarding support for Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria. Ankara accuses the US of working with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party. Last week, according to reports in Turkey’s Hurriyet and Rudaw, the US special representative for Syrian engagement said that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) “is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers Party], but we have not designated it as a terrorist organization, which we did with the PKK.”
The real Turkish pressure is likely not about Gulen as much as it is about the US work in eastern Syria. On November 6, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer said in Ankara that the US was authorizing $12 million in rewards for the top three PKK leaders. This unprecedented move was likely aimed at encouraging Turkey to reduce its rhetoric accusing the US of working with “terrorists,” especially since the US partnership with the Syrian Kurds is key to winning the war against Islamic State.
But Ankara doesn’t agree. On Friday, during the conversation with Trump, the Turkish president urged the US to end support for the PYD and YPG. Turkey has denied it asked about the Gulen issue.
This puts US strategy in eastern Syria in jeopardy if Turkey continues to try to put pressure on the US there, as it has in the past, by threatening to strike at the YPG in Manbij, Tel Abyad or other areas in eastern and northern Syria.
In fact, shelling by Turkey created a pause in anti-ISIS operations earlier this month and the US has sought to urge Turkey to stop its rhetoric about Manbij and Tel Abyad.
Leveraging the Khashoggi killing regarding US policy in eastern Syria is plausible, according to Joshua Landis, an academic and expert on Syria. “Turkey wants one thing from US: Stop arming Kurds. By pressuring MbS, Turkey shows Trump that US Mid East policy is vulnerable,” he tweeted Friday.
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