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What's Behind Turkey's Investigation Into Jamal Khashoggi's Death


Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he'll make a big reveal tomorrow. He'll give a speech detailing what happened to Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Now, all along, Turkey has accused Saudi Arabia of killing the journalist. The Saudis acknowledged it only Friday after denying it for weeks. They say the country's rulers knew nothing about the operation, a claim viewed with skepticism outside the kingdom.

Now, to understand the aims of the Turkish government, we're joined by Amanda Sloat. She's a senior foreign policy fellow at Brookings. She just got back from Istanbul. Welcome to the program.

AMANDA SLOAT: Thank you.

CORNISH: So to give us some context, there was a rift between these two countries - right? - that predates this incident. What's going on there?

SLOAT: Yeah, absolutely. Some of this tension goes back to the Arab Spring of 2010 when Turkish president, then-Prime Minister Erdogan assumed that like-minded governments led by some of these Islamist parties would come to power. This fell apart for him in 2013 in Egypt when the Muslim Brother-elected leader Morsi, who was an ally of Turkey, was overthrown in a coup by Sisi, who was seen as a foe by Turkey and backed by the Saudis.

CORNISH: So essentially Turkey has some enemies in the region now - right? - including Saudi Arabia. So what are they trying to gain in exerting basically pressure on the Saudi government?

SLOAT: I think there certainly has always been a challenge and a struggle for a balance of power there in the region. I think what we are seeing with Erdogan right now is particularly directed against Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.

CORNISH: And this is the crown prince right now.

SLOAT: Absolutely, absolutely, who King Salman designated as the heir in 2017. Erdogan, I think, never has really trusted him. I think he thought that the West was buying into his reformist image while he was engaging in crackdowns. He's 33, which means he's likely to be in power for a number of decades. And I think Erdogan always saw him as being particularly unfavorable to Turkish regional interests. And so I think what we are likely to see from Erdogan in his speech tomorrow is continued efforts to try and impose maximum damage on MBS.

CORNISH: Meaning he wants him replaced, a new heir called.

SLOAT: Ideally I think he would like MBS removed or at least weakened in terms of removing his de facto powers on the foreign policy side.

CORNISH: So is this speech directed really at President Trump, the U.S.? Is that the nation that could bring this pressure to bear?

SLOAT: Erdogan certainly recognizes that Turkey doesn't have the potential to do this on its own, and so it really is going to be, as you say, the United States that is going to have to do this. Erdogan has been quite quiet over the last week and a half. And a lot of the information that we've seen coming out has been leaked from Turkish government sources. And I think it's not in Turkey's interest to have a complete rift with the Saudis.

But I think this weekend, when there was a very weak admission from the Saudis about what happened and, as you noted, some questions about their claims about what happened, the effort has shifted from showing that it was a premeditated murder by a professional team who came to Istanbul to providing possibly in Erdogan's remarks tomorrow more evidence of a direct link of these operations to MBS himself, which then would put further pressure on Trump in terms of his response.

CORNISH: As we said, you just got back from Turkey. What are you hearing in terms of what we're expecting tomorrow?

SLOAT: It's unclear how much detail there's actually going to be in Erdogan's remarks. I think we'll continue to see some of these more specific details coming out from government officials. I think Turkish prosecutors are likely to come forward with their case in the next couple of days. What was particularly interesting in Turkey was there was an initial assumption early last week that perhaps what Erdogan was looking for was a financial bailout from the Saudis given the financial crisis that we've had in Turkey. But that attitude really started to shift in the latter part of the week with an increasing sense that this was being targeted at weakening MBS himself.

CORNISH: That's Amanda Sloat. She's a former State Department official, now a senior fellow at Brookings. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SLOAT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.