Jamal Khashoggi says 'Saudi Arabia shouldn't try to weaken Turkey' in final interview before disappearance

Jamal Khashoggi says 'Saudi Arabia shouldn't try to weaken Turkey' in final interview before disappearance
English-language exclusive: The full video and transcript of the Saudi journalist's interview by Turkey-based Syria TV, held just before his disappearance.
9 min read
08 October, 2018
Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who was formerly close to the royal family in Riyadh. But after he began to criticise de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, he left the country and took up residence in the United States.

Khashoggi was planning to marry a Turkish woman, and visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week to obtain some necessary paperwork.

He's not been seen since. Turkish police allege he was murdered inside the consulate; his corpse smuggled out.

A few days before his disappearance, Khashoggi spoke to Noor Haddad of Syria TV, a channel based in Turkey due to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crushing of media freedom in the country.

Noor Haddad: Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, welcome to our programme. Very pleased to have you with us.

Jamal Khashoggi: The pleasure is mine, Ms Noor.

NH: Did Jamal Khashoggi change after the Arab Spring, from a journalist aligned with government policies to a writer defending revolutions, democracy and freedom?

Khashoggi: I always tried my best to remain [an objective] journalist, despite temptations to support the revolutions. I managed to do that. I believe this is the right thing to do. I even said, while I was in Saudi Arabia on the Al Jazeera channel, that I disagree with Al Jazeera's coverage of the Arab revolutions - but it did the right thing, even if it were professionally wrong.

But, when you hear Umm Kulthum's famous song, "Ana al-sha'bou" [We, the People], which Al Jazeera was playing during the January revolution, you realize that the BBC would not do that, even during the World Wars, it never did. But, such a spirit was nice. Sometimes, as journalists, we can't be…

NH: Moderate?

Khashoggi: Yes, moderate. This was a pivotal moment in Arab history. So…

NH: One had to take a stand.

Khashoggi: Yes, one had to take a stand. It was a pivotal moment indeed. For one thousand years, the Arab world had been waiting for that moment of freedom.

And, there it was. How could a person remain an objective journalist and be cautious in his words? Still, I believe my articles in Al-Hayat at that time covered the news objectively.

NH: You tried to be an [objective] journalist.

Khashoggi: Exactly, I tried to be a journalist rather than a rebel in those articles.

NH: Some Syrians accuse you of giving them false hopes by saying that the next summer would be spent in Latakia or in Damascus. They expected new alliances or a military intervention. Can you say you are among the people who sold Syrians false hopes?

Khashoggi: I was doing two things. First, in my capacity as journalist and analyst, I was encouraging my government to do the right thing.

For example, in 2012, I wrote an article saying that any intervention in Syria at that time would be costly, but it would be less costly than what we would have to bear if we intervened one year or two years later. And, I was right. Saudi Arabia lost Syria. Syria is a strategic point to the north.

I always used to say "our Yemen and our Levant", which is the term the Prophet used to determine the points of strength of the Arabian peninsula. He was in the middle of the peninsula, bordered by the Levant and Yemen.

Iranians struck Saudi Arabia in its Levant and Yemen. Some of my articles and tweets took this direction. I tried to tell my government to do the right thing in Syria. Another thing is that I had real information. The Syrian revolution is seven years old, and one - a girl or a boy studying a certain topic - could write a PhD thesis about the shift in the Saudi stance on the Syrian revolution.

NH: Correct.

Khashoggi: Saudi shifted from support, actually advice at first during the days of King Abdullah who would send his son Abdulaziz bin Abdullah to Bashar...

NH: To threats… The Saudi foreign minister said they would opt for military intervention.

Khashoggi: Yes, it reached the point of sending arms and TOW missiles.

Concerning Latakia, there was actual action early 2015, and Turks were strongly present.

NH: There was this Saudi-Qatari-Turkish alliance.

Khashoggi: Unfortunately, they did not really cooperate. The rebels reached the coast of the Mediterranean at that time. They stayed for a few days, then retreated. But, it did happen. And I have other information… Take the issue of anti-aircraft missiles, for example. It was being discussed in Saudi Arabia. It was on the table. I received information that these missiles even reached Jordan.

NH: Where does Saudi stand now, regarding the situation in Syria, and in Idlib, specifically?

Khashoggi: In the past two years, Saudi Arabia took a stance against political Islam trends. It believed that the victory of the Syrian revolution would trigger the rise of Islamists in Syria somehow.

NH: So, that is the reason why it took a step back?

Khashoggi: Yes, and also because of the strong Russian intervention. The third reason was Putin's emergence. Putin deluded Saudi Arabia into thinking he could succeed where everybody else had failed by expelling the Iranians from Syria.

[US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo still talks about this. Bashar al-Assad can come out and say: "I have no Iranians in Syria, search for them! Everybody here is Syrian, including the Afghans who came to Syria but don't even know Arabic."

NH: He said it once anyway.

Khashoggi: They are all Syrians. He [Assad] gave them the citizenship and Syrians' homes. Now, there is a huge demographic change.

NH: Shouldn't this be a motive for Saudi Arabia to take action?

Khashoggi: 100 percent.

NH: Saudi lost its battle with Iranians, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, even in Yemen.

Khashoggi: Indeed. The only way to expel Iranians from Syria is not through Trump or anyone else. It is through the victory of the Syrian revolution, because its constituents reject Iranians. Its national, philosophical and social constituents do not want Iran.

If Saudi Arabia wants to guarantee Iranians' departure from Syria, it should aim for the success of the Syrian revolution. It is definitely hard. Things have gotten more complicated, but Saudi Arabia should support the revolution once again and ally with Turks. Turkey is the only ally who sees eye to eye with the kingdom in Syria now.

Is this really Saudi Arabia's interest? A Saudi with limited vision might believe so and think that this would weaken Turkey. But who said weakening Turkey was in the interest of Saudi Arabia?

NH: Isn't Saudi now playing a role that goes against its interests? There's a meeting… a Saudi delegation visiting the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] in north-east Syria, and the Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers have been in touch, on the sidelines of this meeting.

Isn't Riyadh afraid of not being able to mend relations with Turkey?

Khashoggi: At the beginning of your question, you asked me whether Saudi Arabia was worried about its interests. The problem is in determining these interests. Saudi Arabia now believes its interests lie in facing Islamists who were supposed to be its historical allies. I often hear Saudi Arabian intellectuals on television attacking political Islam, and my answer to them is that Saudi Arabia is the mother and father of political Islam.

NH: Saudi fostered political Islam, true.

Khashoggi: Saudi Arabia was built on the alliance between the imamate [political leadership] and the clergy, Al-Saud and Al-Sheikh, which is the definition of political Islam.

So, now, the kingdom is focusing on fighting political Islam. It sees in Turkey political Islam, and in Syria, political Islam. The communication falters as a result, and Saudi Arabia looks to the parties that do not hold an Arab or Islamic project.

NH: A 'separatist' project?

Khashoggi: Yes, a separatist and leftist project. Is this really Saudi Arabia's interest? A Saudi with limited vision might believe so and think that this would weaken Turkey. But who said weakening Turkey was in the interest of Saudi Arabia?

NH: Does the [Syrian] regime realise this? In recent statements, Walid al-Muallem said that Riyadh's stance towards the regime has changed.

Khashoggi: Yes, there is an inclination to accepting the regime. But, this acceptance is based on an impossible theory; a formula of keeping Bashar, but without Iran. But, this is impossible.

This is the same difficult formula Saudi Arabia is trying to implement in Yemen: to topple the Houthis without benefitting the Islah party. But this equation is impossible. There is no way to topple the Houthis without favouring al-Islah. You cannot eliminate the two strongest popular entities in Yemen at once: the Houthis and al-Islah party.

At the same time, you cannot separate Bashar from Iran now. Even if Bashar wanted. On this channel, the issue of Bashar being torn between Russia and Iran was discussed many times.

NH: Yes, Bashar might give up on Russia, but not on Iran.

Khashoggi: He can't. Even if he tried to revolt against the Iranian advisers, he cannot.

NH: What is your take on the situation in Idlib?

Khashoggi: Many good things are happening, of course compared to the catastrophe that could have happened. But I am certain nobody is completely reassured. Many parties are involved in Idlib. I think Iran, Syria and the Syrian regime will use their favourite weapons and their obedient arm, IS and al-Qaeda, in plotting operations to foil the Turkish-Russian consensus.

They know the stability of the situation in Idlib, in the absence of the regime, would ultimately force the regime to negotiate with the revolution's bloc. There is talk about a similar situation in Daraa.

NH: And they don't want that.

Khashoggi: Exactly. Daraa is not exactly in the hands of the regime, but in Russia's hands to a large extent. There is also the east of the Euphrates. Bashar wants to tip the balance in his favour. He does not want to sit at a negotiation table with Syrian rebels.

NH: How long can Turkey protect Idlib or halt or delay the battle in Idlib?

Khashoggi: I think Turkey can do that. The West is backing them; Germany is with them, so are France and the US. So far the situation in Idlib is good. Perhaps it will push towards real peace in Syria, forcing the regime and the opposition to a middle ground.

Maybe we, as sympathisers with the Syrian revolution, should lower our expectations regarding a complete victory of the revolution and accept reality which would lead to a national unity government. I know most Syrians watching this programme hate this word because they know what it means. But, one cannot go with the all-or-nothing rule all the time.

NH: Jamal Khashoggi, thank you very much.

Khashoggi: Thank you.

Watch the full interview here: 

Jamal Khashoggi's interview with Syria TV was his last before his disappearance [SyriaTV]

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