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Only Donald Trump can end the Jamal Khashoggi standoff

The arguing over the ...

Posted: Oct. 30, 2018 6:07 AM
Updated: Oct. 30, 2018 6:07 AM

The arguing over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is done. Battle lines have been drawn, trenches have been dug and the man who might help smooth it over is distracted.

President Trump has a lot on his plate. His agenda dominated by domestic events: despicable hate crime murders and a spree of politically divisive pipe bombs, not to mention rapidly approaching midterm elections.

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So this is hardly the moment to get drawn into a standoff in the Middle East.

Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are claiming jurisdiction over the trial of Khashoggi's murderers -- and neither is prepared to back down.

Saudi Arabia says the suspects are Saudi nationals and were arrested on Saudi soil. Turkey says that the crime was committed in its territory and was so heinous that there can be no diplomatic immunity.

From their respective command posts in their respective capitals, both nations are girding themselves for a long confrontation.

This weekend I caught up briefly with Turkey's Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu. I asked him how he's going to convince the Saudis to hand over the 18 men that have been detained on suspicion of killing Khashoggi.

He responded: "Can anyone convince them?"

To which I replied: "Well it's down to you. You have the evidence, don't you?"

His answer was instructive: "As we have done since the beginning," we will tackle it "step by step."

So despite the confrontational tone set by his President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatening the Saudis with the release of more evidence and hinting darkly "don't think we don't have more documents," the reality is none of this will be settled soon.

Meanwhile, the court of international opinion outside of Saudi Arabia's closest Gulf allies -- and immediate economic dependents -- has already come down against the desert Kingdom.

Last week became something of a watershed moment, as Saudi's western allies realized that each Saudi explanation of events surrounding Khashoggi's brutal murder -- and we are up to five now -- compounds Saudi's problem, rather than helping.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir calls it "hysteria" and blames the media for making a mess.

In quieter moments of reflection he might be asking himself why he wasn't able to explain to Saudi Arabia's western allies what actually happened for almost three weeks.

Only he will know the answer. But to outsiders, it appears that he wasn't able to persuade the Kingdom's power brokers -- principally Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- that his insights were of significant value, adding to the impression bin Salman is slow to seek wise counsel.

Before becoming Foreign Minister, Jubeir was Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the US. Prior to that, he was a royal advisor. Before that he ran communications for previous incumbent Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. And before that, he was at sharp end of Saudi's international communications during 1991 Gulf war.

He is quietly spoken, a deft diplomat when given the opportunity, as well as seasoned interlocutor well versed in oiling Saudi-US relations.

In short: the Khashoggi murder debacle is not his first rodeo.

He was brought back to DC soon after the September 11 attacks, when his boss Prince Bandar swiftly decried the attacks as terrorism.

Although Jubeir appears now to have full control of the international messaging over Khashoggi, he will know better than most how badly it is going for the Saudis.

It won't be fast: he is playing catch-up and is clearly frustrated. Erdogan has the whip hand. His threats to drop more details of Khashoggi's murder come barbed with hints that he could upend the Saudi narrative any moment he chooses.

After weeks of leaks by officials, Erdogan has finally coming to the fore, revealing his calculus all along is to goad Saudi officials into a full accounting.

Erdogan's questions are becoming more focused and persistent. His demand for answers upped tempo over the weekend, saying:

"Who sent these 18 persons to Turkey? It is the Saudi authorities who must answer this question. Then, a statement was made by Saudi authorities. They said something along the lines of the body being handed to a local collaborator in Turkey. Who is the local collaborator? Whoever made that statement should set this straight."

The points he raises are also becoming sharper, telling the Saudis to hand over the 18 suspects in detention or risk damaging their reputation with western allies even more.

"If you are determined, if you want to remove the suspicion and clear the air, these 18 persons are the bottom line to this. The incident took place in Istanbul. So, hand them to us, and let us judge them."

Jubeir has already made clear that won't happen.

Saudi Arabia's Justice Minister had also declared that jurisdiction is theirs, as has the Crown Prince: "Saudi Arabia will go and implement all necessary rules and investigate this deeply in order to achieve results. And to bring to justice those who are responsible for this heinous crime and they will be fit before courts."

So where does it all go from here?

Erdogan hints at more dirt on the Saudis -- more perhaps than he shared with Trump's CIA chief Gina Haspel last week.

If true, Trump could pay a political price for keeping bin Salman close. He already takes considerable heat for his unaccountable warmth toward Russia's Vladimir Putin as well as North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Proven poor judgment on bin Salman would open his amiable antics with those autocrats to even more scrutiny.

A hole below the water line on any one of those three could see him leaking support from what has until now been an unshakable base. He has yet to say what he thinks of the evidence Haspel has briefed him on.

In short Trump, is in no rush to judgment -- particularly before the midterms.

If Turkey wants more leverage from him over the Saudis, it will have to dump more convincing data at his feet. Absent Khashoggi's body and the forensic details of his death that might be derived from it, Turkey seems to be running short of options.

Saudi Arabia has said its investigation would take about a month. That was almost two weeks ago. And Turkey has yet to put a hard timeline on its investigation.

Both sides are digging in -- and no one should expect clarity any time soon.

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