The identity of the man who killed Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara on Monday – whom the Turkish authorities identified as Mevlut Mert Altintas – seemed secondary to fears over a new crisis between the two countries, only a few months after they healed their rift following the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey in November 2015.
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However, after Moscow officially announced its position on the assassination, it seems Russia doesn’t plan to place direct blame on the Turkish administration or to void the reconciliation agreement – although it does want answers to some tough questions.
How did a 22-year-old police officer from the Turkish riot squad manage to infiltrate the Russian ambassador’s entourage? Why wasn’t he checked at the entrance to the art museum where Karlov was speaking, and how did he get past the intelligence filter that for many months has been scanning every piece of information about terror operatives, political rivals and potential assassins?
There have been seven serious terror attacks in Turkey this year, the most recent one in Istanbul 10 days ago – and the same questions could have been asked about all of them. But if in all the other attacks there was someone who took responsibility, or a clear address for assigning responsibility – like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the Islamic State – this time not only is there no clear address, there are also millions of refugees or citizens in Turkey that long to hurt Russia.
But despite their tepid diplomatic relations (Russia still hasn’t removed all the sanctions it imposed on Turkey after the plane incident), the two countries have succeeded in building a reasonable basis for cooperation over the Syrian crisis in general, and Aleppo in particular.
It was this cooperation that produced the cease-fire in Aleppo last week, which began with the additional killings of fleeing residents but was then upheld relatively normally. The foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran are scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss more effective ways to enforce the cease-fire agreement, and especially to broaden the options for besieged residents to leave and for humanitarian aid convoys to enter.
At the same meeting, participants are expected to discuss the future of negotiations to resolve the Syrian crisis. None of the parties have as yet canceled the meeting because of the assassination, and it’s reasonable to assume that it will go ahead because of its strategic importance.
Turkey made it clear on Monday that it opposes leaving Syrian President Bashar Assad in office, which conflicts with the persistent positions of Russia and Iran. They view Assad as the anchor who will preserve Syrian unity and their influence in the region. Despite these opposing positions – or maybe because of them – it seems as if Russia decided to provide Turkey with a strategic embrace when it chose it as a partner to the Aleppo cease-fire negotiations, leaving Iran and Syria out. Because they had been excluded from the talks, Iranian-backed militias blocked the exit of residents at the checkpoints they held during the first two days of the cease-fire.
The partnership with Russia is also crucial to Turkey to halt the spread of Kurdish forces along the Turkish border with Syria, and to ensure Russia’s silence about the depth of Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory.
Turkey also hopes to get Russia to agree to set up security zones in Syria, to which it will be able to transfer hundreds of thousands of refugees now living in Turkish territory. The establishment of security zones had been avoided because of American opposition, with the United States fearing such a step would require it to provide wider air support. But now the United States has more or less withdrawn from the Syrian arena (except for the campaign against ISIS), the alliance with Russia will help Turkey achieve this objective.
Russia, meanwhile, needs Turkey to support Assad – or at least to agree to Assad remaining president for a transitional period until elections can be held. Such an agreement, if forthcoming, means that some of the militias being funded by Turkey, and most of the militias of the Free Syrian Army that launched the rebellion against Assad, will be required to lay down their arms – or to aim them solely at ISIS.
If this goal is achieved, most of the militias will probably agree to a comprehensive cease-fire so that a Russian-led diplomatic process can be launched.
Russia seeks to bring not just a new military reality to these negotiations, one in which the regime’s army will look like the dominant force in the country, but also a few agreed-upon diplomatic facts. The most important one is a Turkish-Iranian-Russian axis that speaks with one voice and adopts one slogan: “The Syrian people will determine their future.” Assad is still an option, in other words.
Russia also wants as broad a consensus as possible among the rebels, who have suffered a serious setback. The mutual dependence of Russia and Turkey will obligate them, therefore, to set aside the ambassador’s assassination and avoid making it a diplomatic casus belli.