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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow, September 2015. Neither Russia nor Turkey want to deal with a crisis right now. Courtesy of The Kremlin.

The Murder of an Ambassador: Russia, Turkey and the Syrian War

Michael Stephens
Commentary, 20 December 2016
RUSI International, Russia, Syria, Middle East and North Africa
The assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, by a Turkish policeman has brought into focus the hugely deleterious impact of the Syrian war upon neighbouring states and the wider region.

The assassination on 19 December of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, in Ankara has added further reputational damage to Turkey’s already blunted international image.

Over the past 18 months Turkey has suffered from unprecedented levels of terrorist attacks, a failed coup attempt and a serious breakdown in relations with Russia – all stemming from the Syrian conflict. This assassination is yet another painful blow to the prestige of the Turkish Republic.

Nevertheless, while shocking, it should not invoke memories of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914; it neither portends another war nor even another breakdown in relations between Ankara and Moscow.

In fact, precisely the opposite is true. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put a lot of effort into repairing his country’s relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin following the downing of a Russian aircraft by a Turkish F16 in November 2015.

It is now likely that he will do everything he can to ensure that the relationship between the two sides is kept on an upward trajectory, despite yesterday’s tragic event. Both nations have been swift to indicate that the attack will not harm their bilateral relationship.

Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was quick to state that the assassination ‘will not cast a shadow’ over relations with Moscow. At the same time, Russia has confined its reaction to general observations about the scourge of terrorism rather than criticism of the Turkish state.

However, there are some complicated questions that arise from the attack, and which are likely to prove problematic in the weeks ahead. The assassination unhappily coincides with a broader divergence between Turkey and Russia over Syria, one which is magnified by the manner in which Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been assisted by Russian forces into bludgeoning his way back into control of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Immediately following the assassination, a combination of the slavishly loyal press and Turkish government officials have spread the line that the much-maligned exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen and his movement were involved in the murder. But these accusations should be treated with a hefty dose of scepticism.

The attacker, a Turkish policeman named as Mevlut Mert Altintas, made repeated references to Aleppo following the shooting, and that detail cannot be ignored. For the fact is that forces loyal to Assad, heavily backed by Russia, triumphed in Aleppo, and this has caused deep anger across the Middle East, including in Turkey. 

In the past week, numerous protests have broken out across the country, with much public opprobrium being directed specifically toward Russia. Protest groups massed outside the Russian Consulate in Istanbul and the Ankara Embassy to vent their frustrations at Russian policy.

Despite these differences, there are powerful reasons why the Turks will continue mending their relations with Russia. Economic relations between the two nations stood at $38 billion before the imposition of Russian sanctions last year, and vast numbers of Russian tourists holidaying in the south of the country have served Turkey’s regional economic zones well.

Moscow’s politically motivated ban on Turkish agricultural exports and its halting of charter flights hit the Turkish economy hard and persuaded Erdogan to compromise. Having done so, he now has little appetite for a repeat performance of the standoff with Moscow.

The important question is whether the Turkish government’s rapprochement with Russia for economic reasons is out of step with the wider population, which objects to the relationship on political grounds.

Erdogan is treading a tightrope, and while the government has legitimate reasons to work hard to maintain its relations with Moscow, Ankara is aware that it will have to do better than just blame Gulenists for the deterioration in domestic security.

The fact remains that, on Syria, Ankara has been forced into conceding time and time again, as Assad has slowly strengthened his grip on the country, backed by indefatigable Russian military power. It is an uncomfortable reality for the Turkish President, and one that will serve as a constant irritant to him.

Nevertheless, the trend appears to have been set. Having survived a coup attempt in July, Erdogan has completed a general ‘house cleaning’ of his General Staff, firing more traditional Kemalist officers, and populating NATO positions with loyalists who have a pan-Eurasian outlook.

The drift in Turkish–European relations has been a parallel, unfortunate and troubling development, but it has also reinforced relations between Moscow and Ankara.

So, notwithstanding Turkey’s misgivings, and despite the pointless, senseless murder of the Russian ambassador, Ankara’s links with Moscow may well be unaffected.

Banner image: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow, September 2015. Neither Russia nor Turkey want to deal with a crisis right now. Courtesy of The Kremlin.

Author

Michael Stephens
Research Fellow for Middle East Studies

Michael Stephens is the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies and Head of RUSI Qatar. He joined RUSI’s London office in September... read more

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