Difficulties ahead of Turkey after assassination of Russian ambassador

Difficulties ahead of Turkey after assassination of Russian ambassador

“The murder of an ambassador is among the gravest crimes under international law. Russia will not let this go unpunished.”

That was the message posted by Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev on his official government Twitter account on the morning of Dec. 20. He was referring to the assassination in Ankara of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov on Dec. 19 by a member of the Turkish police.

At about the same time as that statement, two key developments taking place: One in Ankara and one in Moscow.

In Ankara, a team of 18 Russian security experts arrived, following a demand from Russian President Vladimir Putin during a telephone conversation with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan shortly after the killing.

In Moscow, delegations from the Russian and Turkish foreign ministries, led by Sergey Lavrov and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu respectively, were in a meeting ahead of the first three-party meeting together with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif over the future of Syria.

Çavuşoğlu learnt about the assassination after his plane had taken off from Ankara to Moscow the night before. The meeting had been set days ago, coming after a difficult period of diplomacy, and the Russians decided to keep the process going despite the assassination of their diplomat. (The last Russian ambassador who was killed on duty was Alexander Griboyedov in 1829 in Tehran. Karlov in Ankara was the first foreign ambassador ever killed on duty in Turkey.)

If the Russians - whose anger was reflected in Medvedev’s words - had cancelled the meeting because of Karlov’s assassination, the Turkish government would have had difficulty finding a reply. It would have meant that all the Turkish government’s efforts to find an exit in its failed Syria policy through cooperation with Russians, after getting little help from its NATO ally the U.S., would have been in much bigger trouble.

Erdoğan’s approval of Putin’s demand for a Russian team to carry out the investigation along with Turkish security units is quite a rare thing. Under the circumstances, both the Russian government and the Turkish government have difficulty in having full trust in Turkey’s police force - and the murderer of the ambassador was a police officer. 

If Putin’s words from a night before, when he said Moscow wanted all those behind the murder to be revealed immediately, are read together with the Medvedev message, it can be assumed that the Russians will not be satisfied with explanations that “Karlov’s killer was a Gülenist, just like the pilot who shot down your plane last year in order to push us into conflict.” They will instead ask for solid evidence. 

If the investigating teams find evidence that the killer had links within the government or with Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in the U.S. and accused by Ankara of masterminding the failed July 15 coup attempt, it would not only put the Turkish government in trouble but also Washington. It must be recalled that Putin’s Russia banned all Gülen-linked schools in Russia in 2008 on claims that they were carrying out intelligence work for the U.S. That was the same year that the U.S. gave a green card to Gülen with a reference letter signed by influential names from Washington’s intelligence and foreign service communities.

As the three-party meeting was completed on Dec. 20 with a joint message that Russia, Turkey and Iran would renew efforts for peace in Syria, Erdoğan was completing his journey from Europe to Asia through a new motorway tunnel under the Bosphorus after an opening ceremony. He said he did not want to postpone the opening, vowing that terrorism should not “force a change in Turkey’s path.”

At around the same time, the Russian plane that had taken the security team to Ankara was leaving for Moscow with Karlov’s body on board.

Meanwhile, to complete the picture of Dec. 20, 2016 in Turkey, parliament was busy debating a constitutional change draft for a shift to an executive presidential system, as demanded by Erdoğan.