by Mark N. Katz
Some initially expected that the shocking assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by an off-duty Turkish policeman would have soured Russian-Turkish relations. If anything, though, this episode appears to be drawing Moscow and Ankara even closer together. The Russian government has accepted Turkish declarations that the assassination was the unauthorized action of a rogue policeman. And Moscow and Ankara have both stated that this episode reinforces the need for them to act jointly against terrorism. In other words, Putin and Erdogan appear determined not to let the assassination of the Russian ambassador interrupt the progress they have made since this past summer in restoring Russia-Turkish ties which had sharply deteriorated in November 2015 when Turkish forces shot down a Russian military aircraft flying in the vicinity of the Turkish-Syrian border.
Indeed, the claims by Turkish officials and media (which has become increasingly influenced by the Erdogan government) that the assassin was a “Gulenist” raises the prospect that Ankara may even be seeking to blame Washington for his actions. This would certainly be in line with Ankara’s logic with regard to the failed coup attempt against Erdogan this past summer: the coup plotters, Ankara claimed, were Gulenists (i.e., followers of the Turkish Islamist leader Fethullah Gulen who was initially allied to Erdogan, but then fell out with him and has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania); and Obama’s not condemning the coup attempt fast enough for Erdogan’s taste as well as Washington’s refusal to extradite Gulen to Turkey after the coup attempt are “proof” that the U.S. supported the Gulenist coup attempt. Applying the same logic, it would not be surprising if declaring the police assassin as a Gulenist were followed by voices in Ankara asking whether the U.S. had engineered his actions in an attempt to derail the recent improvement in Russian-Turkish ties.
But was the assassin a Gulenist? Leaving aside the question of whether the Gulenists played any role in the coup attempt against Erdogan this past summer or were simply blamed for it by him, the Turkish government’s subsequent arrest or dismissal of tens of thousands of suspected Gulenists from the Turkish security forces and other institutions suggests that since the assassin had not been caught up in this before now, he was actually someone who had been considered trustworthy by the Erdogan government; if there had been any doubts about him previously, he would have either been fired or arrested along with all the rest. Whether or not Ankara tries to link him to America, its linking the assassin to the Gulenists (just like Erdogan’s subsequent declaration that those who shot down the Russian aircraft were Gulenists) may be more an attempt to disclaim Turkish government responsibility for a hostile action against Russia.
But while the Turkish and Russian governments clearly do not want this episode to impede their improving ties, its occurrence suggests that there may be limits to their further rapprochement that will be difficult to overcome. After killing the Russian ambassador, the assassin shouted, “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” Moscow and Ankara have sharply differed on Syria ever since opposition to the Assad regime began as part of the Arab Spring in 2011. Since then, Russia has strongly supported Assad while Turkey has called for his departure and has supported some of his opponents. Despite their continued differences on this point, however, the improvement in Russian-Turkish ties that began in mid-2016 has led to some cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in Turkey, including recent efforts to allow refugees to flee from rebel-held parts of Aleppo being heavily bombarded by Russian forces in support of Assad regime efforts to retake it.
Erdogan may have decided that the Assad regime is actually less of a threat to Turkey than the Islamic State or Syrian Kurdish ambitions, and so is willing to tolerate the Russian bombardment of Aleppo both for the sake of maintaining good Russian-Turkish relations as well as furthering Turkey’s own interests in Syria. The bombing of Aleppo, however, has generated a strongly negative emotional reaction on the part of many Turks, as well as Sunni Arabs. The assassination of the Russian ambassador by a Turkish policeman raises the possibility that this feeling may be present in the Turkish security services as well.
This poses a problem for Erdogan. While he has shown that he is willing to overlook Russian actions in Syria, the Turkish public may not be. Indeed, Erdogan cannot be certain that the Turkish security services will be either. If nothing else, this suggests that his tolerance of Russian actions in Syria that many in Turkey find objectionable could negatively impact Erdogan’s domestic support.
This also poses a problem for Putin—and not just in Turkey. For while Erdogan and the leaders of many countries in the Middle East may accept Putin’s logic that the Assad regime is less problematic than its most likely replacement (a Sunni jihadist regime or chaos, as in Libya), negative public reaction in the Sunni world will serve to limit the extent to which even governments willing to cooperate with Russia in Syria can actually do so.
Putin, then, may have succeeded in eliminating the possibility that the Assad regime will be overthrown by its opponents. He may even, along with Iran and its Shi’a militia allies, be able to help the Assad regime retake most (if not all) of Syria. But if public revulsion in the region against harsh Russian military tactics in Syria is strong enough, Turkey and Sunni Arab governments may be neither willing nor able to help Moscow in the reconstruction and reconciliation effort that will be needed to pacify Syria by means other than the continued use of force. That’s an outcome that will not at all be in Russia’s interests, no matter how “victorious” it is militarily in Syria.
Photo: Mevlut Mert Altintas in the moments after he assassinated Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov (YouTube)