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An 'Archduke Ferdinand' Moment, Or Merely Latest Event In Middle East Realpolitik?

  • David Patrikarakos

Will Mevlut Mert Altintas be remembered as a 21st-century Gavrilo Princip?

It could have been a still from a Quentin Tarantino movie: the image of a photogenic young man -- armed and dangerous, and impeccably dressed in a dark suit and white shirt -- surrounded by an audience of TV cameras and smartphones, went viral in minutes.

He shouted in fury while the body of his dead victim lay motionless in the background. His right hand tensed by his side, clutching a gun. His left raised skyward to denote "Tawhid" (the oneness of God), usurping the traditional Muslim symbol for declaring God's unity in prayer, long since subverted by jihadists across the world.

In fact, he got it wrong. He should have raised his right hand, but it had just been used for murder and was otherwise engaged. Even this mistake seemed somehow to encapsulate our posttruth age. It was terrorism of the most contemporary kind, likely not conducted by a well-indoctrinated holy warrior, but by a frustrated, hopeless young man.

Mevlut Mert Altintas, a 22-year-old policeman from Ankara, had just shot dead Andrei Karlov, Russia's ambassador to Turkey. His motives in the December 19 killing seemed clear enough as he shouted a series of religious and political slogans, beginning with an Arabic hadith (an ancient text that reportedly recorded some of the teachings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad) from Sahih al-Bukhari that referenced the Battle of the Trench (Ghazwah al-Khandaq‎) in which Muhammad and a band of followers tactically overcame a numerically superior army.

The assassin then laid out his grievances in Turkish. "Don't forget Aleppo; don't forget Syria. Don't forget Aleppo; don't forget Syria," he raged. "Until our provinces are safe and secure, you will not taste security," he continued, ordering the crowd to "stay back" before completing his diatribe: "Only death will make me leave this place; and whoever has played a role in this brutality will have to give an account for their actions."

The massive bombing campaign Russia carried out against the Syrian city of Aleppo, allowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces to reclaim the city from rebels, was clearly at the heart of the assassination. Russia killed thousands of Syrians in Aleppo; Altintas killed a Russian official in response, shooting him first in the back, for a reported total of nine times.

This has been a year of tumult, unexpected political events, and geopolitical uncertainty -- including Brexit, the U.S. presidential election, the continuing global refugee crisis, massacre in Syria and Yemen, and more Russian aggression in Ukraine. Fears that the world is in a pre-1914 period -- slowly drifting toward war -- are rife. Then, an assassination became the spark that caused World War I. Now many are asking whether the killing of a Russian ambassador could be an "Archduke Ferdinand moment."

The answer is an unequivocal "no," at least not in the way that some may conceive it. Far from being a source of increased tension between Turkey and Russia, bringing the two countries closer to war, Karlov's assassination could bring them closer together and have repercussions on the ongoing war against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

Gift To Erdogan

For Turkey, the assassination can be seen as a gift to its increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in July crushed an alleged attempted coup against his rule that Ankara claims was orchestrated by the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is accused of leading what Turkish officials have labeled the Gulenist Terrorist Organization (FETO), and following the botched coup attempt thousands of officials, from the army to the judiciary to even the education system, were arrested or expelled from their posts, accused by the government of being "Gulenists."

Now, in the wake of Karlov's killing, which Gulen has condemned, Ankara has wasted little time laying the blame squarely at the feet of his followers, informing the United States on December 20 that it believed they were responsible.

Erdogan will now have even more of an excuse to purge supposed Gulenists from all branches of government and state apparatuses. A foreign diplomat has been killed: he has a blank check on which to write the names of yet more of those who oppose him. He will only become stronger now.

But his alliance to the United States may become even weaker, a process that has been ongoing for some time but was made worse by the failed coup attempt. Turkey is a NATO ally, but the United States has been slow to act on Ankara's demand that Gulen be extradited immediately to face trial in Turkey over his alleged role in the coup attempt, which the cleric denies.

Green Light For Moscow

As far as Moscow is concerned, the picture, perhaps counterintuitively, could be more advantageous. The killing of a Russian diplomat on Turkish soil is hugely embarrassing to Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin now has significant political leverage over him. The Turkish president is in his debt. The two have had closer relations since the July coup attempt. Instead of that process being interrupted, it will likely gather momentum.

Interestingly, Russian media coverage of the assassination reveals a clear pattern. It is sticking to the Turkish "Gulenist" line, but is taking care to cite it as the Turkish view on events rather than fact.

Moscow is keeping its options open. Soon after the assassination, Putin went on Russian state TV to say that the assassination was "undoubtedly...aimed at disrupting the normalization" of bilateral ties between the two countries. More pertinently, he said it was also aimed at disrupting the "peace process in Syria." And more chillingly, he declared that "there is only one possible response to this -- the strengthening of the fight against terror, and the bandits will feel it themselves."

WATCH: Russian President Vladimir Putin said the killing of his ambassador in Turkey was a "provocation" aimed at spoiling Russia-Turkey relations, and derailing the Syria peace process. He spoke about the incident during a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Kremlin. (Reuters)

His import was clear. As Karlov's killing will allow Erdogan to further his primary domestic goal -- the crushing of all and any opposition to him -- it will allow Putin to further his primary foreign-policy goal in the Middle East: winning the war in Syria. Russia will now be able to pursue its war with even more confidence that Turkey will not try to stop it. There is suspicion that a deal may have been cut between Erdogan and Putin in August that would allow both Russia and Turkey to advance their own agendas in Syria. That deal will now almost definitely remain in place.

The Russian argument will be clear, and simple, and deadly. A terrorist sympathizer shot a Russian diplomat in revenge for the carnage of Aleppo. The terror threat from IS and other jihadist groups that Russia claims it is fighting in Syria has not diminished. The only response must be to strike at IS and its affiliates harder. Aleppo has fallen. The Russians will not stop. Idlib may well be next. Thus will Putin's Russia continue to project its "imperial power" in the world while at the same time ensuring that its puppet Assad remains in nominal control of the country, preserving Moscow's naval facility at Tartus in the process.

To Putin, it does not matter how much of Russia's narrative is true, and much of it is not. What matters is that Moscow's military campaign remains unchallenged, and its narrative is just one way that the Russian government has ensured that a strong opposition to Putin's methods has yet to materialize, at least not at the state level.

Was the killing of Andrei Karlov an assassination that draws the world one step closer to all-out war? No, it was merely a tragedy that Moscow and Ankara could exploit to further their own political and military ends. This is not a step toward a wider war -- except for the Syrians, many more of whom will now be killed in the name of "fighting IS." This is realpolitik, at its dirtiest and most cynical. It is realpolitik, in the style that has come to characterize the Middle East in the post-Arab Spring era -- just with a Russian twist.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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