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Erdogan's End Game


Ever since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi leadership has been struggling to explain what exactly happened. President Trump has been criticized for not responding more forcefully against the kingdom, though his tone has shifted in recent days.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Somebody really messed up, and they had the worst cover-up ever. And where it should have stopped is at the deal standpoint when they thought about it because whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble.

GREENE: Now, in addition to the president's remarks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. would be revoking the visas of Saudi operatives who are accused of killing Khashoggi, though many of those suspects were already under arrest. Pompeo insisted that this would not be the last steps the United States would be taking on this matter. But for Turkey, where this killing took place, the uproar has offered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a chance to boost his regional influence.

Yesterday, in a speech to Turkish lawmakers, he demanded Khashoggi's killers be brought to account and suggested holding their trial in Istanbul. Fawaz Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, also the author of numerous books on Mideast politics. And he joins us on the program this morning.

Professor, welcome.

FAWAZ GERGES: Thank you.

GREENE: So what are Erdogan's motivations here for coming out so forcefully and so publicly in this case?

GERGES: Well, I think President Erdogan has managed the crisis in a very strategic and very clever way. Compare the way that Turkey has managed the crisis to the monstrous miscalculation by the Saudis. What President Erdogan wants to do is to polish the standing - his standing and image in the world by insisting that he wants justice for Jamal Khashoggi. He wants to improve relations with the United States, which deteriorated in the past year or so. He has consistently and systematically exerted pressure on the Saudi leadership. He wants to maximize, basically, his interests vis-a-vis not just the Saudis but in the region.

But most of all, if you ask me - what's the one thing that President Erdogan wants? - I think he wants the head of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. He smells blood, and he's going for the kill. And everything we know, almost everything we know - that you and I and all of us - it really comes from leaks by Turkish security forces and the Turkish press. And he's keeping the story, basically, in the news in order to keep the pressure on the Saudi leadership.

GREENE: So this is very personal, you're saying. This is not just what Erdogan feels about Saudi Arabia. This is what Erdogan feels about the crown prince himself. Why is it so personal?

GERGES: You know, what we need to understand - we keep talking about the so-called Sunni-Shia divide between Saudi and Iran, even though the Shiite element is less really important than the geostrategic struggle. What we have overlooked is another major fault line between Sunni-dominated Turkey and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. And this is a struggle about regional leadership.

On the one hand, you have Turkey and Qatar that provide support for religious activists or Islamist support and refuge from all over the Arab world, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other Arab states view Islamists as subversive, threatening regional order and stability. So on the one hand, you have popular nationalism, the Saudi and the Egyptian type. On the other hand, you have Islamism - or light Islamism, by Turkey and Qatar.

GREENE: Oh, that's interesting. I want to ask you about one other thing you said, though. You said that this is a way for Erdogan to polish his image. I mean, Erdogan does not exactly have the best record when it comes to journalists. He's imprisoned and intimidated journalists in his own country. Is defending Khashoggi and going after Saudi Arabia in the killing of a journalist a way for him to sort of set aside his own problems?

GERGES: Well, I mean, I think we need to remember - remind our audience that there are more correspondents jailed in Turkey than any other country in the world. We need to remind our audience that thousands of activists and dissidents and civil society activists are jailed in Turkey. And for President Erdogan, the moral grandstanding - and we've taken everything that he has said, sadly, for granted, in particular in the U.S. and the American media.

This does not mean that the ethical and legal and moral responsibility does not lie on the shoulders of the Saudi leadership to tell us, really - what happened to Jamal Khashoggi? Who is responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi? Where's the body of Jamal Khashoggi? These are legitimate questions. But we need to keep in mind that Erdogan is not just interested in justice for Jamal Khashoggi. He has greater and bigger geostrategic interests. And basically, the Saudis have provided him, as you said, with a golden opportunity to really drive his agenda.

GREENE: Fawaz Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. He's written numerous books on Mideast politics, talking to us this morning about Turkey, its leader and its reaction to the killing of a Saudi journalist.

Professor, we really appreciate it.

GERGES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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