Mert Altintas behind Russian Ambassador just before killing / AP
Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was killed yesterday in cold blood by a Turkish police officer. The murderer, Mevlut Mert Altintas, was a 22-year-old who had become an officer two years ago and was only 17 when the Syrian Civil War began. Thus he came of age at a time of extreme state-sponsored Islamisation, xenophobia and war, reflected in the Erdogan-led AKP government’s support and creation of jihadist Sunni groups in Syria and Iraq.
It was no coincidence then that Altintas shouted “Don't forget Aleppo, don't forget Syria. As long as our cities are not safe you are not safe!" just after firing several rounds at the Ambassador from close range. The incident – without denying that a massacre and tragedy has occurred in Aleppo- can be viewed as an extension of the ‘hysteric’ narrative created around it by most Turkish and western media.
The attack came on the eve of trilateral talks between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Moscow. Although the attack on the Ambassador was likely aimed at sabotaging this meeting, the talks have now ended successfully with all sides happy about cooperating in Syria. Russian FM Lavrov has said, "Turkish-Russian-Iranian cooperation ensures the evacuation of civilians and armed groups from eastern Aleppo."
Thousands of civilians had remained in the embattled city, prevented from leaving by groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) and Ahrar Al-Sham. The success of this meeting means Turkey will effectively discard the unwanted jihadist elements and incorporate into its proxy forces ones that can still be salvaged. It will also mean more concessions from Turkey to Russia and further acceptance of Bashar Assad’s role as President in a projected transitional government. But it does not mean a tectonic shift in Turkey’s pro-Sunni and anti-Kurdish policy in the region.
According to commentators, Turkey traded Aleppo for Al-Bab, meaning essentially that its support for the rebels in Syria has been trumped by its enmity against Kurds. Fortifying itself in Al-Bab and the surrounding area up to Jarablus, Turkey hopes to create a safe zone for groups it is propping up to prevent a contiguous federative area in the north of Syria. The Rojava-Northern Syria Federation is a threat to Turkey on two fronts: firstly it has a Kurdish character and secondly proposes a democratic solution to the Syria crisis, which will not benefit or include "moderate" groups supported by Turkey.
Max Fisher in the New York Times has written “After years of pursuing Mr. Assad’s downfall, Turkey shifted this summer to a more modest strategy: preventing Syrian Kurdish groups from accumulating too much territory along the border. That change aligned the country with Russia.”
Although Russian officials have voiced support for a federative solution in Syria, this latest deal over Aleppo with Ankara has changed their position in relation to Kurds. The Russians, along with the Iranians and Syrian regime gave tacit support to Turkey’s incursion into Syria in August. Since then the Turkish army has been bombarding Kurdish positions and civilian settlements without restraint. This has served the Assad regime by disrupting Kurdish plans but it has also encouraged Turkey's reckless policy of cracking down on Kurdish and democratic aspirations both inside and outside the country. It is within this chaotic climate in Turkey that the Ambassador was killed.
Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council has rightly said: “Turkey needs Russia to advance its war interests. Russia needs Turkey to win, as it defines winning, in Syria. Everyone has an incentive to handle this like adults.”
To off-set Turkey’s operation into Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched the ‘Operation Wrath of Euphrates’ in November to liberate the Islamic State group’s self-declared capital Raqqa. This operation, supported by the US-led anti-IS coalition is continuing with a level of success. If Raqqa is liberated it will strengthen Kurdish claims for autonomy in the north but may also open the path for a final battle against Turkish presence there in 2017. This will inevitably mean that the war will intensify within Turkey’s borders and may lead to a Kurdish-Turkish war that has thankfully been avoided so far.
It will be interesting also to see how the US positions itself in relation to strengthening ties between Russia and Turkey. Anti EU and US sentiment has grown exponentially in Turkey since July’s coup attempt and discussion has been centred on whether Turkey will leave NATO and its western-axis in favour of a turn to the East and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Some have called Turkish officials’ posturing a bluff to blackmail the US into ceasing support for Kurds in Rojava, but this may yet backfire if Kurds’ and their partners continue gaining military victories there. As Fehim Tastekin has written, there is the possibility of the US and its regional partners Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are financing some of the larger jihadist groups in Syria, making countermoves to spoil the new Russian-Turkish designs.
Whatever happens though, it seems Turkey is intent on continuing its anti-Kurdish policy in the Middle East. This has dragged the country into a lot of mess and seems like it will continue doing so. Regardless of the tactical alliances it makes, the Turkish government has made too many enemies over the years to go a week without being targeted by one. Its forsaking (and possible assimilation within Turkey) of the jihadist groups it supported against Assad (a large population of Syrian Arabs) and Kurds, its purging of opponents in Turkey and its polarising and xenophobic rhetoric means the country is struggling to hold on to stability. For a while now Turkey has been going from one crisis to another, the new year promises many more.
- Memed Aksoy
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