The killing of Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov marks one of the most serious spillovers of the Syria conflict, highlighting the fact that world security is more endangered than ever before and a provocation, aimed at harming the warming Turkish-Russian ties. It also comes at a time the two countries are together involved in efforts to evacuate civilians from the ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo.
Adding to the tense situation is the killing spree by a Tunisian man with suspected ties to Islamic extremists, who drove a lorry in a Christmas market leaving 12 dead in Berlin, Germany, which has long supported Syrian people and played a significant role in hosting Syrian refugees.
Both Turkey and Russia have described the killing of the Ambassador as an act of terror and have vowed to punish the perpetrators of the heinous attack. The killer was subsequently neutralised by the security forces immediately after he shot and killed Karlov while he was at a function at an art gallery in Ankara on Monday evening.
Turkish police have identified the killer as 22-year-old Mevlut Mert Altintas, who had worked for the Ankara police for over two years, while detaining six people including the assassin’s father, mother, sister, and two other relatives.
Altintas seemed to be aligned to a radical Islamist ideologue which is evident from the fact that after killing Karlov he was captured on video shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and then talked about pledging allegiance to Jihad in Arabic. Switching to Turkish he then said, “Don’t forget about Syria, don’t forget about Aleppo. Also, those who participate in this tyranny will be held accountable.” Turkey has been witnessing a series of attacks by Islamists and Kurdish militants.
Turkey has blamed the Gulen movement of Fethullah Gulen for the attack. Fathullah Gulen, an aging Turkish cleric living in exile in the US is also alleged to be behind the July 15 failed coup attempt in the Turkey.
Russia is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Its airstrikes helped Syrian troops end rebels’ resistance in Aleppo last week. Turkey on the other hand has been a staunch opponent of Assad and was helping the rebels trying to topple Al Assad. The two countries saw relations plunge last year when a Turkish jet was shot down by a Russian warplane over Syria. Subsequently Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to mend ties.
The killing of the Ambassador has not come in the way of the growing ties between the two countries. This is evident from the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin in a statement said that the shooting was a “provocation aimed at disrupting the normalisation of Russian-Turkish relations and disrupting the peace process in Syria that is being actively advanced by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.”
Despite the killing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted talks with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts and later a declaration issued by them said the priority was to fight terrorism rather than to remove the Syrian regime led by Basher Al Assad.
Making it clear that any Syria settlement should respect the country’s territorial integrity, the declaration said the trio was confident it would revive the moribund peace process.
“Iran, Russia, and Turkey are ready to facilitate the drafting of an agreement, which is already being negotiated, between the Syrian government and the opposition and to become its guarantors,” the declaration said adding they invited all other countries with influence over the situation on the ground help in resolving the Syrian crisis.
Russia by and large enjoys good relations in the Middle East, especially among Arabs because of its support to the Palestinian cause and its backing to the non-aligned movement. But this positive perception has been dented since its intervention in Syria, particularly in Aleppo.
The coming together of Russia, Turkey and Iran on the Syrian civil war is an extraordinary event to the Middle East, Francis Mathew, Editor at Large of Dubai-based Gulf News commented, adding, that the total exclusion of the US shows how radically things have changed in a few years when any such initiative could not have been possible without active participation of the US.
It is too early to see if the new alignment of Russia, Turkey and Iran will succeed in resolving the Syrian crisis. Turkey is deeply suspicious of the Hezbollah, which is backing Al Assad along with Iran. Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party draws strength from a conservative Muslim base, many of whom are upset by the Russian action against rebels in Syria and its backing to the regime of Al Assad, a Shia.
Extremist groups, not just militant ones, have jumped on the bandwagon of emerging hatred towards Moscow, as they realise that regional governments tend to negotiate with Russia in the hope of a sensible political solution that could be accepted by most Syrians and put an end to the war, veteran columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote in Arabic daily Ashraq Al Awsat.
However, Middle East observers feel that the goodwill enjoyed by Russia in the region can help it play a positive role in Syria.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. Views expressed are strictly personal.)