Ambassador’s assassination brings Turkey and Russia closer
Istanbul - “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar. Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria,” Turkish policeman Mevlut Mert Altintas shouted as he stood over the body of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov after firing at least nine bullets into Karlov’s back at close range.
The 62-year-old, long-serving diplomat was no doubt targeted because of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of rebel-held areas of the Syrian city of Aleppo but the attack could be as much a protest against the Turkish government’s new-found friendly ties with Moscow and its relative silence as thousands of Syrian civilians were killed by Russian bombs.
Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the December 19th attack was aimed at derailing their warmer ties, coming as it did a day before a meeting in Moscow between foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss peace in Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had already left for Moscow when he heard about the killing, Turkish media said.
“This crime is undoubtedly a provocation aimed at disrupting relations between Russia and Turkey, as well as disrupting the peace process in Syria, which is being actively advanced by Russia, Turkey and Iran,” Putin said in televised remarks.
“We know that this is a provocation aimed specifically at breaking the normalisation process of relations between Turkey and Russia,” Erdogan said on state television, “but the government of Russia and the government of the republic of Turkey have the will not to rise to this provocation.”
Far from scuppering the peace talks in Moscow and derailing ties between Turkey and Russia, the shooting may have the opposite effect.
At the Moscow talks, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to expand the shaky ceasefire that Ankara brokered in Aleppo to other parts of the country and try to bring government and rebel sides together for wider peace talks.
“This tragedy is making all of us combat terrorism in a more resolute way and is making our meeting today ever more relevant,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said ahead of the talks.
Russia has long backed Syrian President Bashar Assad, and since September 2015, has intervened directly in the conflict using its air power to support government troops and their allied militias. Turkey has supported various rebel factions fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.
The rivalry reached a peak with the downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish F-16 on the Syrian border in November 2015. That risked bringing the two sides into direct confrontation and possibly drawing in Turkey’s NATO allies.
Instead, Russia and Turkey pulled back and appear to have put aside their differences over Syria, possibly striking a deal to allow the other to achieve its aims without coming to blows.
Russia dropped its support for Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara regards as part of the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting for self-rule in Turkey. Russia looked the other way when Turkish troops entered Syria in August to stop Syrian Kurds uniting two areas they control along the Turkish border.
In return, Turkey may have allowed Russia a free hand in Aleppo, the capture of which is the most significant victory yet in the nearly 6-year war and all-but guarantees that Assad will remain in power.
This marks a defeat for Turkish policy in Syria. Before the demonstrations against Assad began in 2011, Erdogan had courted Assad, even going on a family holiday with the Syrian president and their wives.
As a brutal security crackdown ensured the protests morphed into civil war, Erdogan backed rebel groups fighting to overthrow Assad, launching almost daily tirades against his former friend. Assad appears to have correctly assumed he could discount any threat of direct Turkish invasion and largely ignored the increasingly frustrated Erdogan.
As Erdogan’s bluster and his backing for rebel groups failed to dislodge Assad, some 3 million Syrian refugees poured into Turkey and a string of bombings by the Islamic State (ISIS) and the PKK have claimed hundreds of lives across the country.
Turkish economic growth has slowed, per capita income has frozen, unemployment is rising and the lira has slumped against world currencies.
The Turkish president though is still riding high at home after facing down an attempted coup in July, which he blames on another erstwhile ally, the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. After years of being whipped into a rage against Assad, Erdogan’s about-turn in Syria and his restrained reaction to the slaughter of civilians by Russian and Syrian forces may be a difficult manoeuvre for all the Turkish president’s supporters to follow.
Altintas, the policeman-turned-assassin, appears to have links with the Gulen movement, which infiltrated the police, judiciary and armed forces while it helped Erdogan’s party rise to power and consolidate its grip on the state.
Erdogan and Gulen split in 2013 when prosecutors who have subsequently been arrested began corruption investigations into family members of several ministers.
The post-coup crackdown not only provides an opportunity for the Turkish government to both eliminate foes and shift the blame for awkward acts of violence that run counter to current policy. For instance, the F-16 pilot who shot down the Russian jet over the Syrian border has been arrested for alleged ties to Gulen.
For Russia, it helps embarrass the United States, which has hosted Gulen since he began a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania in 1999.
“His links primarily show that he was a member of the [Gulen] terror organisation, so there is no need for us to conceal it. From the place where he grew up, to his contacts, this is what they show,” state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Erdogan as saying.