The assassination of Andrey Karlov will not herald a downturn in relationsby David Barchard / December 20, 2016 / Leave a comment
When Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey who was gunned down at an Ankara art gallery opening on Monday evening first arrived in the country in 2013, Turkish-Russian relations were still locked in a post-Cold War chill. His term of office was turbulent. Relations between Ankara and Moscow went through some very bad moments, particularly after Turkey shot down a Russian jet last year.
But Karlov was one of the architects of a revolution in international affairs which has probably permanently transformed the eastern Mediterranean in favour of Russian strategic interests.
Though Russia moved ever deeper into Syria, checkmating Turkey’s original aspirations to evict President Bashar al-Assad and set up a Sunni government in that country, Karlov kept Russian-Turkish relations warm at a time when Turkey’s view of the United States was becoming ever more unfriendly. He was, Turkish journalists recalled after his death, friendly and personable towards the Turkish media in a way that his predecessors had not been. Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s prime minister, declared in a voice shaking with emotion that Karlov had been a true friend and helped him in the task of piloting Turkish-Russians relations back to normal this summer and autumn.
The outcome of Karlov’s work as a diplomat was a burgeoning strategic partnership between Turkey and Russia, which was crowned on Tuesday this week, the day after Karlov’s murder with a tripartite agreement in Moscow over the future of Syria between Russia, Turkey and Iran, a deal which cuts out the United States and which the Russians would not have dared hope for a year ago.
The three countries will now act as guarantors of a settlement to the Syrian civil war in which the west has no part. Turkey will presumably act as the sponsor and patron of the Syrian Sunni opposition, encouraging the feuding and anarchic rebel groups to coalesce into some kind of coherent authority under its protection. It is a signal triumph not only for the Russians but also for Turkey, even if it falls well short of its original goal of a united and Assad-less Syria. The United States now appears simply as the outside power which helped fan the civil war but stopped the Turks from getting what they wanted.
On the very eve of this triumph for Putin’s Realpolitik, Karlov fell victim to an incidental product of Russia’s ruthless but successful military policies in Syria: Islamist fury over the fall of east Aleppo and the exodus of its rebel population. His murderer called out the prayer Allahu akbar (it is also a battle cry) and told shocked onlookers that “We will always remember Aleppo.” Just who he meant by “we” is perhaps the biggest puzzle of the killing.
So far, despite cries in the pro-government Turkish media that the US-based Fethullah Gülen movement must have been behind Mevlut Mert Aydinbas, the 22 year old special forces policeman who shot Karlov, there seems to be no genuine evidence for this. Nor is there any apparent basis for other claims in the Turkish and parts of the Russia media that the assassination was the work of the CIA, the United States and NATO.
Though the impatience and even anger among Russians at Turkey’s failure to protect the life of their ambassador—one of the most important duties of a government as the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev declared on Monday—no one in Moscow nor in Ankara wants for minute to see a downturn in Russian-Turkish relations.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was swift to invite Russia to send a team of experts to investigate the murder of the ambassador. The killing is unnerving for him personally. Despite the build up of terrorism and political violence, and the attempted coup last July, his government has always been able to rely on the loyalty and the obedience of the police force.
One of the key turning points in the abortive military putsch last summer was a virtual pitched battle between soldiers and police at Turkey’s main satellite ground station outside Ankara in which 42 policemen successfully fought and died to ensure that the coup-makers did not take over the airwaves. Why was the 22-year old youth Aydintas, who had served two and a half years in the special police, escorting the president himself on at least two occasions different? Was he indeed a Gülenist or – something which currently looks more likely—a secret convert to militant Jihadism? If so, how many others are there in the security forces? Or was he simply mentally unstable?
Whatever the answer, Turkey’s security chiefs now have to reassess the loyalty not just of officials tainted by links with Gulenism, but possible Islamists. The purges and upheavals in Turkey mean that many of its young recruits are new comers and screening them will not be an easy task. This summer the authorities began recruiting an additional 10,000 special forces police—the sort of people who would have been Aydintas’s colleagues—and were flooded with applications. Over 1.1m applicants expressed at least initial interest even though they are in effect being recruited for war time duties.
Beset by internal security problems, plagued by terrorism and the challenge of Kurdish nationalism, and above all emotionally strongly anti-western, Turkey’s authorities are likely to cling to Russia as their only friend in the storm and the Syrian deal with it as their only palpable foreign policy success.