However you look at it, the assassination of Andrei Karlov, Russian ambassador in Ankara, is a game changer, just like the downing of the Russian jet on the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015.
That incident increased tensions to a boiling point, igniting a crisis between Turkey and Russia and cementing the Russian military presence in the Syrian conflict.
The December 19th killing of the Russian diplomat in the heart of the Turkish capital caught the volatile balances of power centring in Syria and partly enveloping Iraq at a very delicate point.
The killing of Karlov poses serious challenges for US policymaking as it took place during the transition in the United States from the Obama administration, whose Syria policy has been wobbly at best, to one to be led by Donald Trump. His policy prospects are filled with great unknowns.
The shooting also casts a dark shadow over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Undoubtedly, the circumstances that allowed for a Turkish policeman to carry out the act exposed enormous security breaches in Turkey, downgrading it in the eyes of the international community as unsafe on many levels.
That Iran and the United States the day after Karlov’s killing temporarily closed their representative offices in Turkey speaks for itself. Every country is responsible to protect other nations’ diplomats. In the case of the Russian envoy, Turkey failed grossly.
Resorting swiftly to an ungrounded narrative of “it was a Gulenist plot” will surely not cut it for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Within hours of the act of terror, the main question asked was why the assassin, who had fired almost all the ammunition in his handgun, was not taken alive.
Was it to prevent his revealing something undesired by the Turkish government? This will be a haunting question and is obviously the reason Moscow demanded a team of its experts to be sent to Ankara. Erdogan had no choice but to accept.
This shows how weakened Ankara is forced to be before Russia and gives hints of the scope of Turkish concessions to come.
As Dimitar Bechev, an expert on Turkey, Russia and the Balkans, put in an analysis:
“It (the assassination) actually provides Putin with additional leverage vis-à-vis Erdogan… Turkey will have to go the extra mile in accommodating Russia — most likely in Syria but potentially on other issues as well. Moscow has the higher ground and will undoubtedly milk the opportunity to the best of its abilities. This much is certain.”
Indeed. If the failed coup on July 15th had been interpreted by Erdogan as God’s gift, so is the Ankara assassination for Putin.
The utterly skilful Russian leader had proven how he could maximise the downing of the Russian jet to his country’s undoubted domination over the Syrian chess. So will he utilise this one to turn Turkey into a bit player — a diplomatic tool — to assert his will to cement the Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis to preserve the Assad regime as its protectorate.
Tragic as it is, this will be the result of the killing on the diplomatic field. The first signs of that came the day after the assassination — the meeting planned long before the shooting between Turkey, Iran and Russia ended with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declaring that “all parts agreed that a regime change in Syria is not a priority; the fight against (the Islamic State) ISIS and al-Nusra” is.
Erdogan has no choice but to try to save face by using rhetoric that, however ungrounded, will keep pointing to Gulenists and Washington. For him, what matters more than anything else is his political survival and a successful run through a referendum that will as soon as possible secure him an extremely empowered presidential position — a one-man rule.
To ensure such a survival, Erdogan seems set to perform an extreme form of pragmatism, even if that involves a gamble on placing the United States and NATO against Russia and other members of the Shanghai Five — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Tajikistan — a game he sees as a form of brinkmanship.
This is what will turn the upcoming phase of Turkish drama into another trial-and-error game, which has marked Ankara’s errors in the region since 2012. Erdogan also seems sieged by power circles in Ankara that push for what can be called an “Eurasianist path”, cutting ties with the Western system.
Ironically, the opening of a 5.4km tunnel between the Bosporus and Europe the day after the assassination symbolised the crossroads Erdogan finds himself at. Majestic as it is, the tunnel may come to be remembered on the political level as the dark passage that marks either a dream or a nightmare.