Ambassador’s assassination brings Turkey and Russia closer

Sunday 25/12/2016
The Russian Navy’s large landing ship Korolev is escorted by a Turkish Coast Guard boat as it sets sail in the Bosporus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, on December 21st. (Reuters)

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.