With “friends” and allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration must wonder: Who needs an actual enemy like Iran in the Middle East? Almost from the moment that Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi — a legal resident of the U.S. and a contributor to the Washington Post — disappeared mysteriously into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in early October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shrewdly exposed Saudi lies to humiliate a regional rival, keep the story in the headlines and thwart President Trump’s attempts to salvage his administration’s chummy relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The scandal now threatens the U.S. Middle East alliance structure and the Trump administration’s strategy to isolate and contain Iran.
With carefully choreographed leaks, Erdogan’s government has continually undermined a shifting Saudi narrative that originally had Khashoggi leaving the consulate in good health, then dying of strangulation during a brawl with Saudi officials, and then falling victim to a “rogue” hit squad. Even President Trump has characterized Saudi explanations as “one of the worst in the history of cover-ups,” and the most recent version released Thursday is unlikely to put the crisis to rest. The Saudis now say a 15-member team of intelligence and security personnel, many with suspiciously close ties to the crown prince, was dispatched to bring Khashoggi home alive. Instead, the team leader supposedly made an on-the-spot decision to kill Khashoggi with drugs and then dismember his body for disposal.