LONDON — If the Trump administration had hoped to take some pressure off its close ally the Saudi Crown Prince amid an international murder scandal by forcing a Turkish dissident out of U.S. exile, Turkey isn’t playing ball.
NBC News claimed on Thursday that the White House was looking for ways to remove Turkish religious scholar Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Turkey of backing a violent attempt to overthrow its government, from the U.S. Turkey’s president has wanted Gulen extradited back home for years. Hours after the report, however, a senior Turkish official in Ankara said the country had, “no intention to intervene in the Khashoggi investigation in return for any political or legal favor.”
The U.S. National Security Council and the State Department have both rejected, sort of, the NBC report. The NSC told CBS News that it had “not been involved in nor aware of any discussions relating the extradition of Fethullah Gulen to the death of Jamal Khashoggi.”
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert accused media organizations of trying to “conflate” the two cases, but said Gulen’s case was still under consideration by the Justice Department.
The Justice Department has not issued any new statements regarding it’s consideration of evidence from Turkey, which Ankara says implicates Gulen in a 2016 failed coup attempt. For years the U.S. government has rejected Turkish requests for his extradition, saying their evidence is insufficient.
Turkey keeps pressure on the Saudis
“At no point did Turkey offer to hold back on the Khashoggi investigation in return for Fetullah Gulen’s extradition,” the senior Turkish official said on Thursday.
It is clear the Turks want to keep the fire to the Saudi royal family’s feet.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his country is convinced that an order to kill Khashoggi came from the “highest levels” of the Saudi government. That can only mean one thing in the tightly controlled, ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom; the all-powerful royal family.
Turkish officials have said on the record that they don’t believe Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was behind the killing, but they have not exonerated his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Senior U.S. lawmakers, intelligence officials and many analysts believe the crown prince, often known by his initials MBS, was in fact aware of the operation to kill Khashoggi, and likely ordered it.
Speaking to journalists in Riyadh on Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir called the killing a “very big mistake” but insisted the crown prince had “absolutely nothing to do” with it.
His remarks came after Saudi Arabia announced that its own investigation into the Khashoggi case had found that an ex-intelligence chief, who had close ties to MBS, was responsible for the killing. The Saudi chief prosecutor said the kingdom would seek the death penalty for five people found guilty of the actual murder, which took place in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Turkish officials were unconvinced by the outcome of the Saudis’ own investigation into the murder, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu calling the Saudi prosecutor’s announcements “insufficient.”
“I want to say that we did not find some of his explanations to be satisfactory” and that “those who gave the order, the real perpetrators need to be revealed. This process cannot be closed down in this way,” Cavusoglu said, according to The Associated Press.
Buzzfeed quoted an advisor to Turkey’s president as saying the Saudi prosecution’s charges, at least, amounted to a cover-up.
“They expect us to believe the killers carried this out on their own. This isn’t very credible,” Erdogan advisor Yasin Aktay said, according to Buzzfeed. “Everything is clear as day, but there is an effort to cover it up a bit.”
What the U.S. has and hasn’t done so far
The U.S. government has tread cautiously thus far in its handling of the Khashoggi case and the allegations that a close ally and key trading partner ordered the journalist killed in its own diplomatic mission.
President Trump has made it clear that he doesn’t want to endanger the U.S.-Saudi financial relationship, worth $450 billion dollars including $110 billion in arms sales alone, over the murder of a U.S.-based journalist.
“I don’t want to lose all of that investment being made into our country. I don’t want to lose a million jobs,” Mr. Trump has said.
The Saudis, and Crown Prince Salman in particular, are also vital allies to the White House as it pushes to contain Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter regional foes.
On Thursday, just after the Saudis announced their charges against 18 individuals the kingdom accuses of the killing, the U.S. government announced its own sanctions against 17 people it has concluded were culpable.
“The Saudi officials we are sanctioning were involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement announcing the measures.
Missing from the list of individuals sanctioned by the U.S. was the man the Saudis accuse of ring-leading the killing, ex-deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri.
The U.S. sanctions target 15 people identified by Turkey as the “hit-squad” which traveled from Saudi Arabia to Turkey specifically to kill Khashoggi. Also among the 17 is Saudi Arabia’s former top diplomat in Istanbul, Mohamed al-Otaibi and Royal Court advisor Saud al-Qahtani.
President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton has said audio evidence the Turks have, which they claim proves Khashoggi’s murder was premeditated, does not implicate MBS. He has not heard the audio evidence himself, but CIA chief Gina Haspel has.
But the pressure will remain on the Trump administration to keep prodding Saudi Arabia to come up with a full explanation.
“The intel that I’m aware of points to MBS,” Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said. “There’s no smoking gun, but I don’t think there’s any question that he directed it, knew it, and we’ve got to figure out a way to cause (Saudi Arabia) to pay a price.”
Announcing the sanctions against the Saudis on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said the U.S. “continues to diligently work to ascertain all of the facts and will hold accountable each of those we find responsible in order to achieve justice for Khashoggi’s fiancée, children, and the family he leaves behind. The government of Saudi Arabia must take appropriate steps to end any targeting of political dissidents or journalists.”
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