Istanbul – Turkish officials leaked information about missing Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi to the media as part of a carefully calibrated bid to gain political leverage over Saudi Arabia and repair Turkey’s relations with the United States, analysts said.
Khashoggi, a veteran journalist and contributor to the Washington Post, disappeared more than a week ago following a visit to the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul.
Days later, in a series of explosive leaks to the media, anonymous Turkish officials told reporters they believed a team of 15 Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi – a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – in the consulate.
The claims, for which Turkey has not offered any evidence, sparked an international uproar, with US President Donald Trump promising the kingdom “severe punishment” if the claims are true.
Saudi Arabia has dismissed the allegations as “baseless” but has failed to produce proof that Khashoggi ever left the consulate.
The pressure is escalating on the kingdom, however. International business leaders are pulling out of the kingdom’s upcoming investment forum in Riyadh, while investors have taken fright, sending Saudi stocks plunging to a ten-month low on Sunday.
Serhat Guvenc, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, told Al Jazeera that Turkey chose to deal with Khashoggi’s disappearance through “political and diplomatic mechanisms instead of pursuing judicial or legal proceedings”.
He explained that on the other hand, if Turkish authorities had treated the incident as a criminal case, evidence found would have been declared publicly.
“By leaking some information, Turkey is trying to shape the public opinion and influence other states drawn into this case to run negotiations with them,” he said, referring to Saudi Arabia and the US.
Ahmet Yavuz, a retired army general, said Turkey could have launched a search of the consulate grounds as part of a criminal investigation but chose not to because it did not want to risk aggravating Riyadh to cut off ties altogether.
Turkish police could have searched some areas of the consulate grounds because consulates, in contrast to embassies, are partially under the jurisdiction of the host country.
“An embassy is the territory of its respective state, where officials from the host country cannot enter without permission,” Yavuz told Al Jazeera. “In the case of consulates, the host country cannot enter into the offices or working areas but can enter for example its garden or coffee house.”
Guvenc, the university professor, agreed, saying there was no legal obstacle for a state to run investigations within consulates.
“According to international law – especially the Vienna Accord, the consulates do not have diplomatic immunity, unlike the embassies,” he explained.
But it was custom for states to treat consulates like embassies, he said.
“Hence if one state takes the risk of deteriorating its relationship with another state, it can run investigations within the consulates. Turkey could have done that, but it does not want to.”
That is why – the analysts said – Turkey sought to “politicise” the incident.
“The political and state authorities decided to leak some intelligence in order to shape the course of events,” Yavuz, the retired army general, said. “That marked it as a political decision, which in turn could be used as leverage against Saudi Arabia.”
One example of how Turkey could wield its clout against Saudi Arabia, the former general said, was to force the kingdom to drop its support for the Kurdish rebel group YPG in Syria, which Turkey regards as a terrorist organisation.
Ankara and Riyadh have found themselves on opposite sides of a host of other regional issues in recent years, highlighting the brittle and uneasy relationship between the two countries.
They include Riyadh’s backing of a military coup in Egypt in 2013. Ankara supported former President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown and jailed after the coup.
Furthermore, the two states took polar opposite sides regarding the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar since 2017 and differ when it comes to policies in Iran and Syria, spelling out their differences on regional developments and alliances.
But Ankara has been careful not to “alienate or aggravate” Saudi Arabia, according to Ferhat Unlu, a journalist for the pro-government Daily Sabah paper.
“Turkey is sensitive to its actual and possible allies in the Middle East, and does not want to lose Saudi Arabia totally in the region,” Unlu said.
“Turkey is very experienced in diplomatic flare-ups and knows how to navigate them,” he continued. “That’s why Turkey follows a controlled tension strategy,” he added.
In maintaining some form of a measured approach, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi King Salman spoke by phone on Sunday night to discuss Kashoggi’s disappearance, as reported by the state-run news agencies in both countries.
Guvenc, the university professor, said there was another reason why Turkey “wants to back Saudi Arabia to the wall”.
That was to “disparage the ‘reformist’ image that Saudi Arabia has been constructing in the West”, in a bid to get the US to choose Ankara as its primary ally in the Middle East, he said.
If the Saudi image is damaged, the US will be forced to address human rights violations committed by the Saudi government, despite being wooed earlier this year by bin Salman and his purported reformist programme.
“The leaks are aimed at the international public opinion, in order to show that Saudi Arabia is not reformist as it alleges,” the professor said.
“Currently, the Trump administration prefers strengthening alliances with Saudi. Turkey also wants to fix its relations with Washington, DC, in the sense of telling the US to work with them in the Middle East and not with Saudi Arabia.”
It seems that Turkey has got what it wanted: the joint investigation by Saudi and Turkey,” he said.
Also known as the joint action investigation committee, it was suggested by Saudi Arabia last week. After Turkey agreed to the initiative, a Saudi delegation arrived in Ankara last Friday.
This presents the opportunity for negotiations to be hashed out behind closed doors, he said. Following the result of the investigation, Turkey will once again reevaluate how to use the media in its favour, he said.