Murder in Ankara

If the Russian ambassador’s assassination was a protest against Turkey’s rapprochement with his country it is likely to back-fire

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Monday’s assassination in Ankara of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov, and the way it was carried out, sums up the troubles facing Turkey and the region and could be a portent of things to come in the next few months.

The ambassador was shot eight times by an off-duty member of the Turkish security forces while preparing to give a speech at a cultural event. The killer repeatedly shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and slogans proclaiming that he was acting to exact revenge for Aleppo.

The assassin was delivering a message of protest from a segment of Turkish society – the size of which is not precisely known — against the country’s growing rapprochement with Russia. This has led in recent months to a radical, if only partial, change in Ankara’s attitude to the crisis in Syria, reflected in its failure to intervene militarily in support of the armed opposition in eastern Aleppo, and its greater participation in the war against extremist Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Ambassdor Karlov was no ordinary diplomat. A veteran with over 30 years of diplomatic experience, he was the principal point man in relations between Moscow and Ankara, and played a major role in the reconciliation achieved and the understandings reached between the two sides in recent months. He was described as the architect of the agreement that led to the evacuation of fighters from eastern Aleppo. His murder is a big loss for Turkey, particularly at this time when the Syrian crisis is at a possibly crucial turning point.

Ankara’s immediate concern will stem from the fact that the killer was a policeman in his early 20s who flaunted his jihadi sympathies and Islamist extremism. This indicates that extremist groups have succeeded in infiltrating the Turkish security and military establishments, possibly on a substantial scale, and raises the prospect of sleeper cells embedded in their ranks poised to carry out further assassinations or bombings. This will alarm the Turkish government at a time as it faces a rash of terrorist attacks by a variety of groups (both Islamist and Kurdish, home-grown and foreign), especially as it has already conducted a big purge of security and state institutions in the wake of last summer’s attempted coup.

The authorities may not have been surprised if Syrian extremists tried to carry out attacks inside Turkey in protest at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s failure to live up to his pledge not to abandon the fighters in eastern Aleppo. But for such an action to be undertaken by a young Turkish policeman is a new and worrying phenomenon.

Moreover, this brazen attack in the heart of the capital deals a major blow to Turkey’s image as a relatively secure country, and this could have a damaging effect on the country’s economy which is already suffering from low growth and a steep fall in the value of the national currency.

In terms of relations with Russia, the killing of the ambassador will obviously have a negative impact, not least due to the Turkish authorities’ apparent negligence in providing him with protection. But it is unlikely to derail the rapprochement between the two countries, and both have clearly signalled that they have no intention of allowing that to happen.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had been due to fly to Moscow on Monday for a three-way meeting with his Russian and Iranian counterparts on Syria. They were to discuss plans to combat jihadi groups in the country, and also arrange negotiations under their joint auspices between the Syrian government and the moderate opposition on a political solution that would lead to the formation of a government of national unity and a permanent political settlement that is not beholden to the US, Europe or Gulf Arab states.

We do not believe that the assassination will prompt the Turkish president to reconsider his improving relationship and growing cooperation with Russia. The opposite could well happen. He may well move even closer to Moscow —

and perhaps seek contact and possibly  cooperation with the Syrian government too – in order to combat terrorism as it increasingly reveals itself to be their common enemy.

Some years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, while criticizing Western and regional powers for sponsoring armed extremists in his country, remarked in a Western newspaper interview that anyone who puts a scorpion in their pocket should expected to be stung by it one day.

It seems that the Turkish president has his pockets filled with scorpions, snakes and other venomous creatures, as some regional specialists have long been warning. Hence the outbreak of stings and bites from a variety of sources.