Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was assassinated by Mevlut Altintas in Ankara on the evening of 19 December. Karlov was speaking at an exhibition of photographs in the Turkish capital when Mevlut, a 22-year-old Turkish riot police officer succeeded in gaining entry to the venue, got behind the ambassador and shot him repeatedly in cold blood.
Mevlut cried out, “Allahu-Akbar” after killing Karlov. He also shouted, “Don’t forget Syria, don’t forget Aleppo”. According to one report Mevlut also said, “You will not taste safety unless our fields are safe. Only death can get me out of here. Whoever has a share in this tyranny will pay for this one by one”. Mevlut was gunned down by the Turkish police in a shoot-out at the scene of the crime.
There is no doubt that Karlov’s killing is an affront for Russia. This is all the more as Mevlut was a policeman. Although not on duty, he was able to enter the exhibition venue easily with his weapon. While the Russian foreign ministry correctly called it a terrorist act, President Vladimir Putin reacted soberly. Significantly, Russia did not blame Turkey for failing in its responsibility to protect the ambassador — under international diplomatic conventions, the security of diplomats is the responsibility of the host government. Instead, Putin said that the assassination was undertaken to damage the Russian, Turkish and Iranian peace process to settle the Syrian conflict and also to harm the normalisation of Russia-Turkey relations.
Bilateral ties between the two countries had hit rock bottom last November when a Turkish fighter aircraft had downed a Russian plane, an incident in which a Russian pilot had died. There is no doubt that Putin is thinking strategically in terms of strengthening Russian interests in West Asia, and therefore his restrained reaction to Karlov’s death. In particular, Putin did not wish to jeopardise a Russian-Turkish-Iranian foreign ministers' meeting on the Syrian issue which was scheduled for 20 November, 2015. That meeting went ahead.
Despite the unhappiness of western countries and Turkey, Russia has succeeded over the past two years in sustaining Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing brutal civil war in that country. Under pressure and sanctions on its involvement in Ukraine, Russia has defied the West and has been active militarily and diplomatically in West Asia. Western countries have criticised Russia for taking steps in Syria that have contributed to the suffering of the people. However, Russia has shrugged it off and asserted that its target is the Islamic State which is the greatest threat to international peace and security. On its part, Russia has accused the West of being soft on the IS.
President-elect Donald Trump has a ‘special’ understanding with Putin and has indicated that he considers IS to be a far greater threat than the Barack Obama administration has considered it to be. He has also talked of the need for Russian and US cooperation to counter IS. This, notwithstanding Putin's wishes to act with Turkey and Iran to promote a resolution of the Syrian imbroglio.
It is uncertain if the Russian-Turkey-Iran trilateral effort will make real headway because the three countries have pursued different objectives in the Syrian civil war. Turkey has implacably opposed Assad, supported the Syrian Opposition and overlooked the dangers that the IS represents. Its basic objective has been to prevent the Kurds from gaining strength. On the other hand, Russia and Iran have provided assistance and militarily intervened to ensure Assad’s survival. Their target has been the IS. Iran has assisted the Iraqis and the Syrians on the ground to roll back the IS threat while Russia has largely used air power to do so.
Even if the trilateral effort does not fully succeed, it marks a major move to bypass western countries from imposing their will in a crucial part of the Arab world.
How will Trump react to these moves? Will he change the US stance towards Assad?
The Karlov assassination also puts the spotlight on the rise of Islamism in Turkey. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worked hard to promote Islamic values in Turkey. He has moved away from the secular and modern ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. It was inconceivable till some years ago that the Turkish security forces which were the guardian of Attaturk’s values would become infiltrated by Islamists who would not hesitate to take kill an ambassador for whatsoever reason. But the Turkish army is now under Erdogan’s control.
A section of the Turkish army attempted a coup in July. It was an amateurish attempt and was bound to fail. Erdogan used it to cement his own power and purge large numbers of defence and civil service officials. Although Erdogan may want to bring in only moderate Islam the move from Ataturk’s secular values has obviously unleashed a genie that may not easily go back in the bottle.
The Karlov assassination once again shows that the turmoil in the Islamic world is far from subsiding. The negatives that are emerging from it are going to continue adversely impacting on all countries, including India.
The author is former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Thailand, and headed the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran desk at the Ministry of External Affairs
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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2016 08:27:06 IST