Will Putin Use His Ambassador’s Assassination to Gain a Political Edge?
The murder that shocked the world is over. The attempts to turn that assassination into a geopolitical weapon have only just begun.
ISTANBUL—He may have screamed “Allahu Akbar” before he committed his act of murder. He may have cried out for revenge for Moscow’s bombing of Syria. But some in the Turkish government and the Russian press are portraying the young policeman who assassinated Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday as no mere jihadist. Instead, he is being painted as a devotee of an Islamic cleric living in American exile. And the crime, which a mere 24 hours earlier threatened to tear Russia and Turkey apart, is suddenly being spoken of as some sort of Western-connected plot.
The end result of this tragedy could well be a strengthening of Turkish-Russian ties at the expense of Ankara’s longer and strategically important relationship with Washington, a relationship that has suffered greatly since the start of the Syria crisis and only worsened after a failed coup attempt against the ruling Turkish government last July.
Mevlet Mert Altintas, age 22, was filmed pulling the trigger of his semiautomatic handgun and killing Ambassador Andrey Karlov at the opening of a photo exhibition in Ankara Monday evening. After shooting the diplomat at close range, Altintas launched into a Turkish language denunciation of Russia’s bombing of civilians in Aleppo, combined with an Arabic pledge to pursue jihad. His shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” or God is great, has already led some, including U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, to describe the killer as an Islamic extremist.
But it may not be that simple.
When Turkish police raided Altintas’s apartment, they said, they found books about al-Qaeda but also about Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric who lives in American self-exile. Gülen has never been associated with violence—until, that is, it was accused of using loyalists in the Turkish air force and military to try and seize power in the summer, including a botched attempt to capture Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his erstwhile political ally. (There’s some legitimacy to these charges.)
Gülen’s role in the coup has been a major point of contention between Ankara and Washington, with Erdogan demanding his extradition and sensationalist pro-government outlets in Turkey, such as newspaper Yeni Safak, went so far as to accuse Gülen, who has been domiciled in the Poconos of Pennsylvania since 1999, of being a CIA asset and therefore acting at the behest of the U.S. government, the putative mastermind of the botched coup.
It did nothing to mitigate this conspiracy theory that U.S. President Barack Obama took weeks before he called Erdogan to express his support, whereas Russian President Vladimir Putin phoned his Turkish counterpart offering unwavering solidarity, as one leader to another, just a day after the putschists were put down. That message, coupled with Erdogan’s apology for the Turkish Air Force’s shoot-down of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, went a long way toward repairing badly damaged relations between Russia and Turkey, which had included a suspension of tourism, commercial and trade ties.
Turkey is now reeling from a wave of violence coming from four different directions—two terror attacks attributed to Kurdish separatists in 10 days, military operations in Syria against Islamic Sate extremists who’ve also attacked civilian targets here, the mid-July coup attempt, and the first ever assassination of a foreign ambassador. Erdogan has repeatedly attempted to lump the Islamist and Kurdish violence together with the coup attempt to a skeptical public but Monday’s assassination may provide a first sketchy basis to his claim.
In another episode of violence, a gunman approached a gate of the U.S. embassy in Ankara in the early hours Tuesday and fired several rounds from a semi-automatic weapon. He was detained and it’s not clear if there was any connection with the assassination of Karlov, which took place at an exhibition hall across the street from the embassy.
Altintas has now been reported by several pro-government news organizations as the graduate of a school run by the Gülen movement, to prepare students for high school, college and police academy entrance exams. It sounds innocuous, but the Turkish government claims that it has obtained numerous statements by former graduates about how administrators obtained the answers to exams from contacts within the testing organizations, and distributed them to pupils in advance. It's important to note that none of these allegations has been independently verified and the Turkish media in general is increasingly falling either under state control or state suspicion.
The government here maintains that the prep schools are the vehicles the Gülen movement used to place its followers throughout the Turkish army, security services, courts and prosecutors’ offices. Altintas’s uncle, who police briefly detained Monday, was an administrator in Gülen schools.
Altintas’s travels in mid-July also aroused suspicions.
On the eve of the coup, which took place July 15, he purchased an air ticket from Diyarbakir, where he was stationed, to Ankara, and requested a leave for several days beginning July 16. As the coup unraveled, police cancelled all leave, but Altintas traveled anyway, according to the Turkish Interior Ministry.
His superior officer, identified as Kahraman Sezer, was arrested after the coup for alleged links with the Gülen movement. Altintas also was suspended from service in early October, but reinstated six weeks later.
Gülen, who lives a reclusive life and rarely talks to the media, issued a statement late Monday U.S. time, which condemned the assassination as a “heinous act of terror,” but his aides declined to comment on the timing.
As of now, Erdogan has avoided blaming the Gülen movement as a primary theme in his public statements. Instead, he has expressed his strong wish, in parallel with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, that the assassination not stop the warming of ties between the two countries.
And he’s linked the Kurdish attacks on Turkish police and military to the assassination. He said Altintas’s “connections are being searched and investigated” and “have started to be clear.”
But then, turning to the broader onslaught of violence, he connected the insurgency in southern Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party guerrillas with Monday’s assassination. “If you pay attention, you will notice that in the past the terrorist launching acts in the mountains are now coming to the cities,” he said. “They even started targeting the Russian Federation ambassador.”
Efforts to link Altintas to the Gülenists are already revving up in the Russian press, largely following on initial reports out of Turkey. And they suggest that the shooting will not derail warming relations between the two countries. It could even strengthen their ties at the expense of Ankara’s longer and strategically important relationship with Washington, a relationship that has suffered greatly since the start of the Syria crisis and worsened after a failed coup attempt.
The Interfax news service, for instance, cited an unidentified Turkish official who says that this is the main hypothesis for Altintas’s motivation to commit murder. There are, the unnamed source says, “persuasive signs” of such an explanation.
Pro-Kremlin tabloid Infox asserts as fact what the mayor of Ankara claimed on Twitter Monday night, that Altintas was a member of the Islamist movement, while state-owned Channel One—Russia’s most-watched television channel—relies largely on the Turkish media’s reporting to make the same allegation.
Meanwhile, Kirill Koktysh, an associate professor at the department of political theory at Moscow State Institute for International Relations, one of the most elite universities in Russia, was interviewed by pro-government newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, saying that not only is Gülen is the suspected architect of the July coup effort but that “someone is behind” him. “Here the situation is rather complicated. I think that there are more than enough players interested in having Russia and Turkey quarrel. Both in the Middle East and beyond its bounds.”
Ultra-nationalist Russian MP Vladimir Zhinirovsky wasted no time on Monday night claiming that the assassination of Ambassador Karlov was a false flag operation cooked up by the West to prevent Turkish-Russian reconciliation. Even Putin’s comment about the attack straddled a line of conspiracism: rather than an ideologically or religiously motivated murder over Russia’s scorched-earth war tactics in Syria, Putin said, Altintas’ actions amounted to a “provocation” to scuttle improved bilateral relations. Alexey Pushkov, the former chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament’s lower house, lashed out at the Western media for spreading “hysterical” falsehoods about Russia’s intervention in Aleppo.
Putin, who came to power in 1999 on the back of a series of mysterious apartment bombings in Moscow, which he blamed on al-Qaeda-linked Chechen terrorists, has vowed to stop at nothing to eliminate the “bandits” behind Karlov’s slaying.
Throughout the Syrian civil war, and well before Putin’s direct military involvement in it, Russian state propaganda organs have trafficked in feverish accusations that the U.S. is support al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups such as ISIS—while simultaneously demanding that Russia and the U.S. forge a common alliance in the ongoing war against Islamic extremism.
The Gülenist angle, and its implicit anti-Americanism, has been used to mutual benefit before to paper over Ankara’s rift with Moscow. Following the July coup, for example, Turkey alleged that the pilot who downed the Russian Su-24 in November 2015 was one of the cleric’s followers, a claim recycled by Sputnik, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda portal. “It was the ‘parallel state’ that has deteriorated our relations with Russia,” Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek ++told CNN Turk++ after the putsch attempt. “It was an incident, in which one of the pilots of this structures has participated, I guarantee it.” Gokcek, it bears mentioning, was also the Turkish official to associate Altintas with Gülen on Monday.
For this reason did Amanda Sloat, the former deputy assistant secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs at the U.S. State Department, tell Foreign Policy: “I think the United States is likely to be one of the bigger losers coming out of this.”
Not one to let a good crisis go to waste, Putin could well use this assassination to widen the rift between two NATO allies.