December 20, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Assassination of a Russian Ambassador

• On December 19, a Turkish police officer assassinated the Russian Ambassador to Turkey at an art exhibition in Ankara.

• The murder of Ambassador Andrey Karlov will undoubtedly have significant repercussions, though those repercussions are not yet clear.

• The assassin, who reportedly spoke in some Arabic but mainly Turkish during the attack, stated his actions were prompted by Russia’s involvement in the battle for Aleppo.

• Turkey’s relationship with Russia—which had shown signs of rapprochement in recent months—may counterintuitively be enhanced as a result of the assassination.

On December 19, Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was assassinated by a Turkish police officer in Ankara. The incident not only represented a tragedy for the ambassador’s family, but triggered an immediate escalation of tensions that continue to ripple outwards from the war in Syria. While the assassination of any diplomat is an outrage against international norms, it is difficult to imagine an assassination as fraught with peril and intrigue as one involving Russia and Turkey.

In the fall of 2015, tensions between Turkey—a leading proponent for regime change in Syria—and Russia—a main supporter of the Assad regime—were at historic highs. The November 2015 downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey brought the tensions to a head. After a period of economic and diplomatic pressure points, Turkey began to quietly—but very noticeably—shift closer to the Russian side of the Syrian equation. The failed July coup attempt in Turkey pushed the country further toward Russia, as both countries increasingly view the West—and particularly the U.S.—with a high degree of suspicion and hostility. Conspiracies of U.S. machinations in Russian and Turkish affairs, as well as U.S. actions or inactions in Syria, became a common currency for both.

More recently, the crisis in Aleppo had been enough to renew some tension between Ankara and Moscow—at least on a public level. In the week before the assassination, there had been large protests in Turkey over Russian air strikes in support of the Assad regime’s campaign in Aleppo, and the resulting humanitarian disaster. Thus, the rapprochement between the two countries had slowed to a degree. Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have felt it was in Turkey’s best interest to move closer to Russia, yet many Turkish people—for whom the Syrian war is much more than a geopolitical show of influence and leverage—were outraged over Aleppo. 

The assassin of the Russian ambassador, identified as Mevlut Mert Altintas—a member of the Ankara riot police—had been standing behind the ambassador while he spoke at an arts exhibition in Ankara. Altintas was very clear as to his motives. The murder and the aftermath was captured on film by numerous photographers and cameramen; after shooting the ambassador several times in the back at close range, Altintas yelled about killings in Aleppo justifying killing in Turkey. After a shootout with other Turkish police, Altintas was killed by security forces.

Unlike other recent attacks, the focus of speculation in the immediate aftermath of the attack was the potential impact the incident would have on Russian-Turkish relations—and the Syrian war by extension—rather than the shooter’s possible affiliation with a particular terror group. Indeed, there is no shortage of usual suspects that could be behind the attack, whether it be the so-called Islamic State, al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or another group.

In addition, statements from Turkish politicians were quick to point the finger at the accused mastermind of the July coup attempt, Fethullah Gulen, alleging he may also be behind the killing. Such allegations may serve as fuel for one of the more likely outcomes of the assassination: that President Erdogan will use the incident as justification for even further purges of Turkish military and security forces’ ranks. Indeed, such a reaction would only increase the already strained relationship between Turkey and its fellow NATO members, including the U.S. This outcome would play directly into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the assassination will certainly generate a delicate diplomatic situation between Ankara and Moscow—the murder of an ambassador is no small affair for the host country regardless of who pulled the trigger—the extent to which tensions may increase is unclear. Given the marked drift of Turkey towards Russia—and Russia’s demonstrated interest in pulling Turkey further into its orbit and away from the West—it is very possible the assassination leads to further cooperation between the two countries, accelerating both trends. While both the near and long-term impact of the assassination remains to be seen, what is clear is that the radiating negative impacts of the Syrian civil war are increasing, and will likely continue to worsen.


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