Middle East

Envoy’s killing exposes tensions in Turkey

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, offers his prayers during the opening ceremony of the Eurasia Tunnel in Istanbul, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. (AP Photo)

ISTANBUL: The killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara has exposed deep divisions in policy and hostility to Moscow among some in Turkish society despite a reconciliation deal after a seven-month crisis. Ambassador Andrei Karlov was assassinated Monday by an off-duty policeman who according to witnesses shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and said all those responsible for what happened in Syria and Aleppo would be held accountable.

Turkey’s Islamic government has championed itself as one of main backers of the Syrian opposition since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in 2011 and taken the side of the rebels fighting for his ouster. Russia however, a major Assad ally, has changed the fate of the nearly 6-year-old war in Syria in favor of the regime after it started a bombing campaign last year, helping the Syrian army make major gains on the ground.

Horrendous pictures of death and devastation from Syria’s second city of Aleppo have horrified the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) conservative grassroots who refuse to remain indifferent to the suffering of their fellow Sunnis.

U.S.-based think tank the Soufan Group said the crisis in Aleppo had been enough to renew tension between Ankara and Moscow – “at least on a public level,” slowing the Turkish-Russian normalization.

“Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have felt it was in Turkey’s best interest to move closer to Russia, yet many Turkish people – for whom the Syrian war is much more than a geopolitical show of influence and leverage – were outraged over Aleppo,” it said.

With Assad and his supporters closing in on a major victory in Syria’s largest city, Istanbul and Ankara have seen almost daily protests outside Russian Embassy and consulate in the week before the assassination.

At the Syrian border, pro-government charity Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) has backed major anti-Russian demonstrations, with crowds crying: “Murderer Russia, get of out Syria!”

“God willing, we will not leave our brothers to the hands of the tyrants,” Kubra, a young female protester, told AFP near the Turkish border crossing of Cilvegozu.

The AK Party, which usually proudly boasts of its levels of public support, also faced hostility from conservatives after a Turkish court dropped all charges against Israeli officials over the 2010 deadly storming of an IHH aid ship.

That was also a key part of a reconciliation deal with Israel that the government also sees as crucial to its foreign policy.

Dominique Moisi, special adviser at the Paris-based think tank Institute Montaigne, said the Russian diplomat’s killing was an isolated incident but could have resonance.

“I do not believe there will be any significative consequence, but on a symbolic level, it shows that what is going on in Aleppo is not acceptable for a part of the Muslim population,” he said.

“Aleppo’s dead will haunt the international scene for a long time.”

Russia and Turkey forged a deal in June to normalize ties which were badly damaged in November last year over the downing of a Russian war jet by Turkish planes on the Syrian border.

Erdogan has in the last months remained largely muted on the Russian raids in Syria – which are pushing Ankara-backed opposition fighters close to the Turkish frontier, together with evacuated civilians.

And Moscow has stayed quiet about Ankara’s unprecedented incursion inside Syria aimed at cleansing the Turkish border from groups including Daesh (ISIS) militants and Kurdish militia forces

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Tuesday joined a meeting of his Russian and Iranian counterparts, agreeing that a truce in Aleppo should be widened.

But a Turkish official denied any secret “bargain” with Russia and said the two sides had “agreed to disagree” on the key issue of the future of Russia’s ally Assad.

Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Erdogan’s government was walking on a “tightrope” in its effort to cooperate with Russia over the future of Syria.

“When we look at the rallies in Istanbul against Russia and Iran and in support of Aleppo, we see that the AK Party’s zealous supporters are there, protesting,” he told AFP.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 21, 2016, on page 8.

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