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After the assassination: What next for Turkey and Russia? Open in fullscreen

Cavit Talya

After the assassination: What next for Turkey and Russia?

Andrei Karlov was shot at point blank range during an art exhibition [TASS/Getty]

Date of publication: 20 December, 2016

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Analysis: The killing of Andrei Karlov may have fundamental geopolitical consequences for the Middle East and beyond, writes Cavit Talya.

When a Turkish fighter plane downed a Russian jet over Turkey-Syria border about a year ago, a similar, but reasonable hysteria dominated the news agenda for weeks.

From the spillover effect upon the Syrian civil war to doomsday scenarios, the incident was "contained" with a meek exchange of words and mutual economic sanctions.

The Turkish government had long expressed its unease over Russia's political and military backing for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But it was the first time that Syria's northern neighbour actually confronted Vladimir Putin face-to-face.

The aftermath turned out exactly as Russia could have wished for. With an unintentional trade through the lives of one pilot and one rescue soldier, Putin managed to largely curb Turkey's engagement in Syria on both discursive and practical levels.

Read more: Turkey denies secret 'Syria bargain' with Russia

From that moment, Russia intensified its support for the Assad regime to help regain the territories lost to the Islamic State group, as well as various other armed factions on the ground. And Turkey had to decrease its support for the Turkmen and other groups in Syria, adopting a more cautious stance regarding its direct involvement.

The hibernation of Turkey-Russia diplomatic relations lasted about seven months, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his condolences for the killed pilot and intention to restore friendly ties.

This was in June 2016, a noteworthy time for domestic politics in Turkey. The government's fight with the Kurdistan Workers' Party took a dramatic turn amid multiple terror attacks across the country, and the July 15 failed coup attempt pushed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to take extreme measures to reinstate security, and prosecute the alleged coup attempters.

Since the rekindling of Turkey-Russia relations over the summer of this year, Turkey extended its military operations into Syria with the pretext of fighting IS and the PKK's Syrian extension, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed YPG affiliate.

With Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkish armed forces entered Syrian territory for the first time and "secured" areas from IS and the YPG in the north of the country. While Turkish troops remain in some parts of northern Syria, the onslaught led by Assad's forces to recapture Aleppo with the support of Russia, once again exposed the complexity of the humanitarian disaster that has continued to unfold in the country.

In the meantime, ongoing purges against the alleged coup perpetrators and their affiliates in Turkey - the so-called "Gulenists", followers of the self-exiled United States-based preacher Fethullah Gulen - resulted in a great sense of political and security instability, evident with the weakening of bureaucratic institutions and increasing numbers of terrorist attacks.

The ambassador's death could mean much on domestic, regional and international levels

The assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, comes in the middle of all this. The same hysteria that dominated the news agenda over a year ago is back on the screen, with added confusion over the possible repercussions.

Although it is unlikely that Turkey and Russia will end up in another diplomatic quagmire, the consequences of the ambassador's death could mean much on domestic, regional and international levels.

On the domestic level in Turkey, the assassination of a high-level diplomat means a significant security and intelligence failure. The assailant, Mert Altintas, is believed to be a member of the riot police, a graduate of the police academy who posed as personal bodyguard to the ambassador before the attack.

Read more: Russian ambassador shot dead in Ankara

In a country that has been formally governed under a state of emergency following the failed coup attempt, and where thousands of public servants are suspended as part of sweeping investigations to purge the Gulenists - including many from the security and intelligence circles - it is both surprise and no surprise that Altintas was able to shoot the ambassador at point blank range.

At the time of writing it is still too early to speculate over what connections the killer may or may not have had, but considering the ongoing Gulenist witch-hunt in Turkey, it would not be surprising to see officials and media figures linking Altintas to the "external forces" whom the government and Erdogan blames for attempting to destabilise Turkey.

Speaking in Ankara, mayor Melih Gokcek told the press that "the perpetrators are the same forces that downed the Russian plane", hinting at a Gulenist trend within the military.

Whether or not the killer has connections with the Gulenists, it is fair to say that the assassination will give the government sufficient leeway to carry on with its purges and perhaps extend the state of emergency - due to end in mid-January - for another 90 days.

Combined with the increasing numbers of deadly attacks and a weakened security situation in the country, it is fair to say that normality will not be returning in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, as the killer shouted "do not forget Aleppo" over the dead body of the ambassador, the ongoing Russian and Syrian siege of the city and its humanitarian cost could potentially affect Turkey's efforts to bring Russians to the negotiations table for a ceasefire.

Although Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, announced that the trilateral summit between Russia, Turkey and Iran regarding the situation in Aleppo would go ahead as planned on Tuesday, and reassured that the attack would not harm Turkey-Russia relations, the burden to bring the planners of the attack into light is now squarely laid onto the Turkish government's shoulders.

Shortly after the attack, Erdogan and Putin spoke on the phone, and the Russian president reportedly insisted the investigation be carried out with a joint team - while also hinting at a Gulenist connection.

It is worth remembering that, after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Putin was one of the first heads of state to give full support for Erdogan in his fight against Gulenists - and the apparent reluctance of the US to extradite the Pennsylvania-based preacher to Turkey put a further strain on the deteriorating relations between the two NATO members.

And considering the sane statements from both parties in the aftermath of the killing, and lessons learned since the downing of the jet, this incident may even strengthen Turkey-Russia relations, albeit while giving Russia the upper hand in Syria.

On the international level, however, Turkey could still come out of this strongly. In exchange for Russia's support for Turkey in its fight against Gulenists while conceding Turkey's cooperation with Russia over Aleppo, the NATO member could solidify its position in Syria as an indispensable broker, with the aim of shaping the future of the war-torn country.

In other words, once again, welcome to the multipolar international order, where alliances and allegiances shift overnight - especially in the wake of assassinations.

Let's all hope that Andrei Karlov does not become the new Franz Ferdinand.

Cavit Talya is a freelance Turkish journalist and analyst.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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