How will the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov impact Russian-Turkish relations over Syria?
The world breathed in as one when Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was shot dead as he addressed a crowd gathered for an art exhibition in Ankara. Brandishing his weapon, the shooter, whose actions were caught live on camera, shouted “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget” and “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). Shortly afterwards, Mevlut Mert Altintas, an off-duty officer of Ankara’s riot police, was himself shot dead by special forces.
With varying degrees of certainty, Turkish media later in the week linked Mr. Altintas to the outlawed Gulenist network, formerly allied with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but now referred to as the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation by the Turkish government. Several arrests, including of various Altintas family members – who were later released – followed.
The attack came just as Ankara and Moscow were working to improve relations over the conflict in Syria, where the two countries back opposing sides. The downing of a Russian fighter jet at the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015 had led to months of heightened tensions.
Turkey was quick to grant the participation of a large investigative team from Russia, a move widely seen as aimed at defusing tensions. President Erdogan said this was “an attack on Turkey, the Turkish state and the Turkish people”. Turkish and Russian officials called the assassination a “terrorist” act.
Both sides played down fears that the attack would derail the rapprochement process and commentators dismissed references to the outbreak of World War I, stressing this was not an Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident “a provocation against the good relations that Turkey and Russia carried out in Syria”.
A previously scheduled trilateral meeting between Turkey, Russia and Iran also went ahead one day after the shooting. Zeynep Coskun, a research fellow at the Istanbul-based Sharq Forum think-tank, saw the meeting as a sign of “real commitment to bilateral relations”. Turkish media, she told The World Weekly, was “very sympathetic” towards Ambassador Karlov after his death.
Nevertheless, the incident in the immediate term put pressure on Mr. Erdogan, Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria who is currently teaching at Yale University, told TWW. Mr. Ford and other analysts, however, did not see the killing as having a major impact on Turkey-Russia relations when it comes to Syria. During his tenure as Russia’s representative in Ankara, Mr. Karlov was often in the middle of the action when it came to easing tensions between the two countries. But Mr. Ford saw Russian President Putin’s grip on foreign policy from the Kremlin as quite tight in this context.
“Turkey and Russia have decided to work together months ago, they need each other now,” Mohamed Okda, an expert on Syria who has been involved in negotiating with Syrian groups, told TWW.
The assassination did however serve as a brutal reminder of the events in Aleppo, where Turkey and Russia earlier this month had struck a deal to evacuate civilians and rebel fighters from besieged areas. Amidst all the assurances of ongoing cooperation it should not be forgotten that many Turks have watched the situation in Aleppo with great horror and frustration. Before the evacuation plan, Ms. Coskun said, the Turkish public displayed “animosity” towards Moscow’s role in Syria.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the trilateral format with Turkey and Iran was “the most efficient and effective format for solving the Syrian crisis”. Citing a joint statement, Mr. Lavrov said the “ministers agree with the importance of widening the ceasefire, of free access for humanitarian aid and movement of civilians on Syrian territory”. They also offered to act as “guarantors” for an agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition, while reiterating their determination to fight against IS and the Nusra Front, now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Despite this show of unity, Ms. Coskun, the Turkish research fellow, said it was “still too soon to tell whether Turkey will make concessions about its vision regarding Syria”. Mr. Okda predicted that Ankara will continue to give some assistance to the rebels, but not enough for them to win, because of its awareness of the relationship with Russia. Operation Euphrates Shield, which targets IS in northern Syria and limits Kurdish influence at the same time, was Turkey’s “priority”.
As winter is setting in, Mr. Okda foresaw the fighting to calm down until spring.
The Syrian government meanwhile, is facing three main choices regarding which battleground it will focus on, all also depending on support from its foreign allies. Mr. Ford said Damascus would in the immediate future focus on capturing suburban areas around the capital, however, after that it will choose between pushing into rebel-held Idlib province, focusing on al-Bab or aiming to retake Palmyra, now back in the hands of Islamic State militants.
This article was first published by The World Weekly