In cold blood

Print edition : January 20, 2017

In this December 19 photograph, Mevlut Mert Altintas (right) points his gun at onlookers after killing Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov (lying on the floor), at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey. Photo: Yavuz Alatan/AP

Andrei Karlov during a speech moments before he was shot. Photo: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

An internally displaced Syrian boy in the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp near the Syrian-Turkish border in northern Aleppo. Photo: KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

The killing of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey may have been an attempt to undermine the ties between the two nations and scuttle the moves to bring peace to Syria.

The assassination in cold blood of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, may not just have been the result of an embarrassing security failure. It may have been part of a well-planned plot aimed at undermining the strong ties that have evolved between Russia and Turkey and at the same time scuppering the chances of a peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict. The assassin was a 22-year-old off-duty policeman named Mevlut Mert Altintas. He was heard shouting “God is great” in Arabic and slogans in praise of the rebels in Aleppo after shooting the diplomat at point-blank range. Karlov was opening an exhibition at a private gallery in Ankara. He is the second senior Russian diplomat to be assassinated while performing his duties. The Soviet ambassador to Poland was assassinated in Warsaw way back in 1927. But many Turkish diplomats have been killed in the line of duty in the last century. Most of the attacks were by Armenians wanting to avenge the genocide of their people at the hands of the Ottomans.

The assassination of Karlov happened the day before the scheduled talks on Syria between the Russian, Turkish and Iranian Foreign Ministers in Moscow. The Presidents of Turkey and Russia, Recep Tayip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, immediately condemned the terrorist act in strong terms and emphasised that the talks would be held on schedule and that the incident would not have an adverse impact on bilateral ties. Erdogan stressed that he “would not allow anyone to harm Russian-Turkish relations”. Putin said on Russian TV that the diplomat was “despicably killed” with the aim of adversely impacting relations between the two countries.

Putin and Erdogan were quick to announce that the two countries would jointly investigate the killing. The two leaders also pledged that they would continue to jointly combat terrorism in the region. After an emergency meeting held in Moscow following the killing, Putin announced that the only response to the heinous act would be the “stepping up of the fight against terrorism”. His Turkish counterpart said that the killing was a deliberate “provocation, given our cooperation on Aleppo” and was aimed at “destroying the normalisation process” in the relationship between the two countries. Relations between the two countries deteriorated sharply after a Russian fighter jet was shot down by a Turkish Air Force plane in November 2015.

The war in Syria, for which Turkey owns much of the responsibility, has had a negative impact on the internal politics of the country. Turkey’s encouragement and support for jehadi elements fighting to overthrow the government in Syria has led to severe domestic repercussions. There are more than three million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. Initially, the Turkish government encouraged them to come, in the hope of persuading the United States to use humanitarian issues as a pretext to militarily intervene in Syria. Sections of the Turkish military, along with the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who had gained considerable influence in key state sectors, were not happy with the course the country was taking. The war in Syria had radicalised many Turks, with many of them going to fight inside Syria on the side of the radical Islamists.

The young policeman responsible for the killing of the Russian envoy could have been inspired by the Daesh, as some reports suggest. The Army of Conquest, a jehadist group fighting in Syria, has claimed that the assailant was acting on its orders. Senior government officials, however, asserted that the killer was part of a Gulenist cabal that was out to destabilise the country.

Turkish authorities have a lot to answer for the serious security lapse that allowed the armed assassin entry into a function hosted by the Russian embassy. According to reports, there were no special measures in place at the venue despite heightened concerns about the safety of Russian diplomats. Big demonstrations were held outside the Russian embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul even as the rebels were being flushed out of their last pockets of resistance in eastern Aleppo. The killer himself was shot dead by security forces sent to the murder scene. If he had been taken alive, the conspiracy could have been more credibly investigated and concluded.

Within days of the Russian envoy’s murder, Turkish investigators definitively stated that the assailant was a Gulenist. He studied in a Gulenist-controlled school, and according to the authorities, the Gulenist organisation helped him get into the police force. The Gulenists, including their leader, have strongly rejected the accusations, saying that the assailant was an Islamist militant. Putin has said that his priority was to know which group or organisation that gave the directions to the killer.

For the past two years, Turkey has been wracked by terror attacks. In recent months, the frequency and scale of attacks have increased. The Turkish army has been taking casualties in its operations against the Kurds and the Daesh in Syria. The coup attempt in 2016 was the most serious crisis faced so far by Erdogan since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in 2003. Senior Turkish officials have said on several occasions that the coup had the tacit backing of the U.S. and some other leading North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) powers. Turkish officials have told the media that both Turkey and Russia are aware that the U.S.-based Gulen was the mastermind behind the assassination of the Russian envoy. The cleric and his spokespersons have vehemently denied the charge and have instead blamed the mass arrests of army and police personnel by the Turkish state for the breakdown in security.

The Turkish government is extremely peeved with the Barack Obama administration for refusing to extradite Gulen from his sanctuary in the U.S. and for the military backing of the Kurds in Syria in their efforts to establish an autonomous enclave on the Syria-Turkey border. Syrian Kurds are fighting under the banner of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). This party is considered a sister organisation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for an independent Kurdistan for many decades. The ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK ended in 2015. The Turkish army has been concentrating its firepower on the Kurds, inside and outside the borders of Turkey. The Kurds have retaliated in many ways, including suicide bombings. Most of the suicide bombings in Turkey have been claimed by Kurdish outfits known to be close to the PKK.

Thaw in relationship

Russia, meanwhile, has been using the thaw in the relationship with Turkey to bring about a speedy cessation of hostilities in Syria. The Prime Ministers of Turkey and Russia, Binali Yildirim and Dmitry Medvedev, met in Moscow in the first week of December. They issued a joint statement agreeing that the “normalisation of the situation in Syria is a priority task for our two countries and it will definitely serve as a benefit for the whole region, not to mention Syria, where the situation is very complicated”. The Turkish Prime Minister even criticised NATO for its “double standards” on terrorism. Yildirim said that terrorist groups challenging governments “operate across borders” and were allowed to go unchallenged. He was referring to Gulen.

The Turkish government has classified the Gulenists as a “terror” outfit. Ilnur Cevik, Erdogan’s top adviser, said after the killing of the Russian ambassador that the West, especially the U.S. and Germany, were angered by the growing closeness between Turkey and Russia, which are now cooperating closely on counterterrorism. Bilateral trade is on the upswing again. “It was inevitable that the West would try to sabotage these relations. It is sad that they used a policeman affiliated to Fethullah Gulen’s terrorist organisation to assassinate the ambassador,” Cevik said.

Alexei Pushkov, a former chairman of the Russian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the Western propaganda about Russia presiding over a massacre in Aleppo was a factor that played a role in the murder of their envoy. “The hysteria around Aleppo raised by the Western media has consequences. They are completely ignoring the crimes of the fighters in Aleppo, and that forms a distorted and false picture of what is happening in the city. This contributed to the terrorist act.”

The tripartite Foreign Ministers’ meet in Moscow in the third week of December set out a road map for peace in Syria. A Moscow Declaration was issued by Russia, Turkey and Iran for ending the Syrian conflict. The three countries agreed to take the role of guarantors to ensure that the territorial integrity of Syria was preserved and to bring about a lasting ceasefire in all parts of the country. The declaration stated that the three countries would together continue to fight the Daesh, the Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups fighting in Syria. The three countries also agreed to seriously consider the Russian President’s proposal of holding peace talks involving the Syrian government and opposition groups in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

The peace talks in Geneva under the auspices of the International Syria Support Group, in which Washington is a key player, has failed to produce any concrete results in the last five years. After the liberation of Aleppo, it is now taken for granted that Russia, Iran and Turkey are the three powers capable of influencing events on the ground in Syria. Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik said in Moscow that Turkey would do everything needed for cooperation with Russia on Syria. He said that a new page in defence cooperation had opened between the two countries.

Turkey, a NATO member, is in talks with Russia to buy S-400 long-range air defence missiles. The two sides are talking about enhancing defence relations in more fields, including procurement deals in electronic systems and missile technology. Turkey and Russia have already announced that they plan to go ahead with the ambitious Turkish Stream Gas project. Turkey has also expressed keenness to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, viewed in the West as a potential rival to the NATO military grouping.

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