Opinion

'Don't Forget Aleppo': Assassin of Russian Envoy Spoke - if Not Acted - for Many in Turkey

Will Erdogan’s vocal, consistent opposition to the Assad regime, which has significant popular support, be the second victim of the Andrey Karlov assassination?

Protesters shout slogans and hold placards in support of Aleppo in Hatay near Turkey's border with Syria, December 17, 2016.
Bulent Kilic, AFP

Although the slaying of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, on Monday evening was the first time that an ambassador had been killed on Turkish soil, it was certainly not the first time that a diplomatic representative had been murdered in Turkey.

In November 2003, Britain’s consulate in Istanbul was bombed, as were the headquarters of HSBC Bank by a home-grown Turkish Al-Qaida cell. Among the 27 dead lay British consul-general Roger Short. The attacks came just five days after Al-Qaida rammed two bomb laden trucks into Istanbul’s Neve Shalom and Bet Israel synagogues killing dozens.

Let us also not forget the 1971 kidnap and murder of Israel’s Istanbul Consul-General Ephraim Elrom by a radical leftist terrorist group. Elrom’s slaying took place just months after Turkey’s military launched a political intervention to stop the lawlessness and violence that had pulverized Turkey and saw armed battles in the streets between radical leftist and rightest groups, demonstrations, strikes and widespread social unrest.
 
Although the assassination of Ambassador Karlov took place under different circumstances, one will note that it happened at a time of great instability in Turkey. Since July’s attempted military coup, blamed by the Turkish government on the Gulenist movement, followers of the self-exiled Islamic preacher Fetullah Gulen, Turkey is currently under a state of emergency. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested or suspended from their jobs, especially those from the armed forces and police service.
 
Turkey has been hit by multiple terrorist outrages over the past 18 months perpetrated by both the so-called Islamic State and groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ten days ago an offshoot of the PKK claimed responsibility for the Besiktas football stadium bombing that killed 46 people, including riot police, as well as last Sunday’s bus attack that killed 13 off-duty soldiers in the central Anatolian industrial city of Kayseri. Meanwhile, ISIS was the main suspect for the October 2015 bombing of an election campaign rally in Ankara which killed 103 civilians, as well as the bombing of a wedding party in the southeastern city of Gaziantep that killed over 50. Such attacks are a spillover from the crisis in Syria.
  
Regardless of whether Mevlut Mert Altintas, the off-duty police officer who killed Ambassador Karlov, was a member of the Gulen Movement, ISIS, or an al-Nusra sympathizer acting on his own volition, Turkey’s leading political figures scrambled to control the damage.
 
Expressing his condolences on the phone to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the attack “a provocation” against Turkey, Russia and Turkish-Russian relations in general. Although Russian officials, Putin included, shared similar sentiments, Duma member Alexi Pushkov blamed the Western media, commenting that its coverage of Syria whipped up anti-Russian hysteria "supported by a certain part of Turkish society."
 
Indeed, Turkey’s government has been a vocal critic of the Russian-backed Assad regime. Erdogan himself was one of the world’s first leaders to demand that Assad step down and has been vociferous in his opposition to the Assad regime despite continuous criticism from Turkish opposition parties.
 
Ankara was careful to tone down any anti-Russian sentiment over Syria, especially in the wake of the rapprochement with Moscow after Erdogan apologized in June for the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 that appeared to cross into Turkish airspace. The incident brought Russian-Turkish relations to a low ebb with harsh words, economic sanctions and visa restrictions.
 
Nevertheless, the worsening crisis in Aleppo struck a cord within Turkey. In July, the country’s Foreign Ministry called Aleppo’s humanitarian situation “sorrowful and unacceptable.” Just several days ago Erdogan himself called Aleppo “humanity’s 21st century shame,” while in October he remarked that it was Turkey’s duty to “blow out the fire in Aleppo.
 
Also just a few days ago, the youth branch of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched a country-wide solidarity campaign with Aleppo that roughly translates to “give way to Aleppo,” citing Muslim solidarity and Erdogan’s call for national mobilization after the Besiktas football stadium attack. The international slogan for Aleppo solidarity – ‘Aleppo is Burning’ – is also prominent during Turkish shows of public support. The women’s branch of the AKP followed suit and also launched a campaign for donations for residents in the besieged Syrian city.  
 
The assassination could not have come at a worse time for Turkey. Ankara needs Russia to help boost its ailing economy and wean itself from its increasing international isolation, especially after the European Parliament’s motion in November to freeze Turkey’s EU accession. Turkey also has boots on the ground in Syria since last August’s Operation Euphrates Shield, designed to create a buffer by its border free of Kurdish and ISIS militants.

No doubt, Moscow will use the assassination for political capital and to push Ankara to give in to Russian demands in Syria. In light of the assassination, it is highly likely that Turkey will acquiesce.  

Dr Simon A. Waldman is Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and the co-author of "The New Turkey and Its Discontents." Follow him on Twitter: @simonwaldman1

FILE - In this Monday, Dec. 19, 2016 file photo, Mevlut Mert Altintas shouts after shooting Andrei Karlov, right, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey. At first, AP photographer Burhan Ozbilici thought it was a theatrical stunt when a man in a dark suit and tie pulled out a gun during the photography exhibition. The man then opened fire, killing Karlov.
Burhan Ozbilici/AP