Just when it looked like Russia and Turkey were moving closer together, the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey threatens to divide them.
Flowers near portrait of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov in front of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Photo: RIA Novosti
On Dec. 19, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was hosting journalists during a holiday event at the Foreign Ministry mansion in Central Moscow, tragic news came from Turkey. For all gathered, the news was shocking: Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov was assassinated in Ankara during the opening of the photo exhibition, “Russia Through the Lens of Turkish Eyes.”
According to eyewitness accounts, a young man in a traditional black suit for guards shot the Russian ambassador to death and shouted out in Arabic a well-known slogan of radical jihadists in all countries: “We are those who promised the Prophet Mohammed to wage jihad until the Day of Judgment!”
“Don’t forget Aleppo,” the assassin then shouted as he pulled the trigger. “Don’t forget Syria,” the assassin added. “Unless our towns are secure, you won’t enjoy security. Only death can take me from here. Everyone who is involved in this suffering will pay a price.”
The exact details of the incident will be provided within the scope of the investigation, but the assassination was caught live on videotape. It is still unclear why the Turkish police didn’t arrest the assassin instead of eliminating him shortly after he killed the ambassador. Karlov was sent to a nearby hospital but doctors failed to save his life.
The following video contains violent or graphic content. Source: USA Headlines / CNN /YouTube
In no time the Turkish media reported the details of the grim tragedy. The assassin provided an original ID of a police officer and got into the building where the exhibition took place. His identity was provided very quickly. He is 22 years old, a graduate of a Turkish police academy and a police officer dealing with street unrests. Some sources claim that after the July 15 failed attempts of the coup d’état, he was dismissed and currently he is no longer a police officer. However, official media sources haven’t confirmed this information.
High-profile diplomats and, specifically, ambassadors, have been always immune from attacks in the case of war. Who might be behind the villainous murder of the Russian diplomat? Who could benefit from this tragedy? And, most importantly, how will it affect Russia-Turkey relations?
According to the Turkish authorities, the major target of the assassination was not the Russian ambassador, but Russia-Turkey relations, which have been significantly reinvigorated and improved over the last months. At the same time, some Turkish pro-government experts started pointing fingers at the supporters of a resident of the United States, the exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen.
After the failed coup d’état in Turkey on July 15, Ankara accuses the advocates of Gulen’s ideology of all kinds of mortal sins to justify their political repressions within the country. It is not ruled out that the Turkish authorities will launch a new series of purges in the police and pursue the representatives of the Gulen opposition under the pretext of an anti-terrorism campaign.
Today, Turkish policy is seen as the stronghold of the Gulenists. That’s why it faced harsh repressions after the attempted coup. This version of events – that the Gulenists were ultimately responsible for the assassination - might become the leading one among pro-government pundits.
However, the advocates of that conspiracy theory don’t have real grounds to speculate about Gulen’s alleged involvement in the assassination. His supporters from the Khizmet organization have never actively interfered in the Syrian conflict.
Moreover, the statements of the assassin indicate that he had connections with radical Islamists. After all, before he shot the ambassador in the back, he shouted that the assassination was an act of revenge for the Aleppo bombing. He specifically mentioned jihad and the prophet Mohammed. His gestures (a raised pointer finger) and threats indicate that he belonged to one of the Salafist terrorist groups.
At any rate, the Salafists have many more reasons to kill the Russian ambassador over Aleppo than the Gulenists themselves, because the Syrian army defeated them (Salafists) recently, with the support of Russian aerial attacks. Meanwhile, global media pointed their fingers at Russia for the Aleppo bombing.
The key goal of the terror attack is to undermine the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, which started in the summer after the Turkish president expressed his regrets to the Russian people for downing the Russian jet in November 2015. However, the supporters of the Syrian opposition outside and inside Turkey were outraged by the Moscow-Ankara agreement, which became one of the first steps to resolve the Syrian crisis peacefully and diplomatically.
On Dec. 20, the Russian foreign and defense ministers were scheduled to meet in Moscow with their counterparts from Turkey and Iran to discuss the Syrian crisis and their approaches of how to handle it.
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Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem to be satisfied with such a scenario and the format of negotiations, because Riyadh is persistent in promoting its interests in the Syrian conflict and prefers the Geneva format, where it has a bigger say. Given the important influence of Riyadh on the Salafists, some experts dare to speculate that Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services might be involved in the assassination.
At the same time, Turkey is concerned with the alliance of the United States and the Kurds, which results in an uncontrollable arm smuggling from Northern Syria to both the pro-Turkey “moderate opposition” and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is deemed to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the U.S.
This PKK movement has organized a series of terror attacks against Turkish police officers and military over the last several months. And this, combined with the fact that the U.S. continues to protect Gulen from extradition, was enough to spur anti-American sentiment within Turkey and force Ankara to turn to Moscow to reconcile and cooperate on Syria.
The assassination of the Russian ambassador will severely test Russia-Turkey relations. Hopefully, both sides will have enough psychological stamina and be dispassionate enough to avoid the interruption of the reinvigorated dialogue between two countries.
Of course, the Turkish side should undertake all necessary measures to maintain objective and comprehensive investigation with the involvement of the Russian experts. However, the Turkish authorities are highly likely to use the tragedy to continue political purges among police officers, military, journalists and opposition activists. In any case, repression should not become the top priority for Turkey.
Russia’s authorities are concerned primarily with Turkey’s overtures with the Syrian radical groups. If the probe reveals a Syrian trace, it should be vigorously publicized with the involvement of all possible stakeholders of the conflict. In this case Moscow will strictly require the undertaking of decisive measures to fight radical organizations that found shelter in Turkey during the years of Ankara’s active participation in the Syrian civil war on the side of the opposition.
Today, it remains to be seen what Turkey can offer to Moscow to alleviate the tensions and reverse the implications of the assassination. From an economic perspective, Ankara might accelerate the building of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline (a large project promoted by the Kremlin) as well as foster new energy and military contracts.
Politically, Russia might require from Turkey the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia and more concessions in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory located between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia [Turkey firmly supports Azerbaijan in this conflict — Editor’s note].
However, such a scenario is unlikely. First, the situation with the recognition of Crimea is in limbo and even such events as the assassination of the Russian ambassador won’t change the status quo. Meanwhile, the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh standoff is relegated by Moscow to the secondary agenda, with Armenia trying to alleviate tensions with Azerbaijan.
In terms of the regional turbulence in the Middle East, the negotiations between Russia and Turkey are expected to take place on neutral territory - in Astana, Kazakhstan. They will discuss Syria and Moscow is likely to demand that Turkey toughen control within the country to crack down on radicals. Russia might also push Turkey to distance itself from Saudi Arabia, which sponsors numerous Syrian opposition groups.
However, the most intriguing question is whether the Turkish authorities will keep accusing the supporters of Gulen and try to find the Washington trace in the assassination. In this scenario, the level of anti-American sentiment in Turkey might rise, which could drive Turkey to leave NATO. Both Moscow and Ankara might be interested in such a scenario. In this case, both Russia and Turkey will have enough political capital invested to take the political dialogue between all stakeholders to a very different level.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.