One day after Russia's ambassador to Turkey was killed in Ankara, foreign ministers from the two countries met in Moscow to discuss the crisis in Syria — and to vow they will keep their delicate diplomatic relationship on track in the wake of Andrey Karlov's assassination.
During Monday's attack at a photo exhibition, the 22-year-old shooter shouted, "Don't forget Aleppo! Don't forget Syria!" after killing Karlov. The probe into the assassination is on-going, and Russia has sent more than a dozen people to Turkey to work on a joint investigation. The Turkish-Russian investigation will examine whether the shooter, a member of Ankara's riot police squad, planned the attack alone, the Associated Press reported.
Both Russia and Turkey decided not to cancel a trilateral meeting with Iran on the Syrian crisis that had been previously scheduled for Tuesday. At the meeting in Moscow, the foreign ministers positioned their countries as the key nations to broker a compromise, saying they had agreed to be ready to act as guarantors of a future cease-fire deal, according to the AP. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu also said that Russian experts had drawn up a "Moscow Declaration" aimed at laying out a potential roadmap for the end of the Syrian crisis, according to Reuters.
The United States did not attend the meeting. However, the AP reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about the results of the trilateral talks later on Tuesday.
Ankara, meanwhile, has reached out to Washington to share its belief that U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen is linked to the assassination, Reuters reported on Tuesday. The Turkish government also blamed Gulen for orchestrating the failed military coup in July. Gulen has denied responsibility for both events.
The diplomatic relationship between Russia and Turkey had been strained in the year since the Turkish military shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015. But in June, Erdogan apologized to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the downed jet — and since then, the two leaders have met in person to improve ties and have boosted coordination on Syrian issues, even though the Kremlin strongly backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Cipher Brief's Fritz Lodge spoke with Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, to discuss the assassination, Turkey's relationship with Russia, and what's next for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Cipher Brief: Where do things stand in Turkey after the assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara this Monday?
Soner Cagaptay: I think that the timing of the assassination is interesting, coming at a time of significant Turkish-Russian convergence in northern Syria. The two have been fighting a proxy war in Syria for nearly five years, in which Turkey supported the rebels and Russia supported the Assad regime. Ankara and Moscow fell deeper into conflict when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, but Turkish-Russian relations have really picked up in the aftermath of the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this July. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign head of government, among the first, to call Erdogan to wish him well. And, feeling abandoned by the West, Erdogan took Russia's hand.
Of course, Erdogan had another reason to pursue a rapprochement with Russia, which was his desire to block Kurdish advances in Syria. In a way, the coup just provided the right setting for an accelerated normalization of ties. Now, the two countries have come to a convergence on Aleppo, where it seems to me that they have reached a soft partition deal in which Russia gets east Aleppo and Turkish-backed rebels get Idlib and the northern Aleppo countryside. This forms the basis of the deal that has seen rebel fighters and civilians in Aleppo evacuated to Idlib. In a way, Ankara has also become the voice of reason in Syria by stepping in to prevent what was going to become genocide in Aleppo, preventing the slaughter of tens of thousands. Nevertheless, there was this element of the subpartition of northern Syria.
Karlov's assassination comes just at this moment when Turkey and Russia seem to be converging on so many priorities. At first, the murder looked like it was going to damage Turkish-Russian ties, but now that doesn't seem to be the case. Russia already has so much of what it wants from Turkey in northern Syria that it really doesn't want to tip the apple cart. Likewise, Turkey is getting a good deal from Russia. It has Russian tacit approval to be in northern Syria, where it can block the Kurdish PYD from establishing a "Kurdish corridor" along the Turkish border, and Ankara already has established a cordon sanitaire of Turkish-backed rebel controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo. For these reasons, neither side wants normalization to be derailed, and to me, the sign of that was the almost identical commentary provided by both Erdogan and Putin after the assassination.
It seems to me that this was coordinated, which also suggests to me that they have been in touch from the very beginning. Turkey has signaled a further willingness to make sure that this attack does not derail Turkish-Russian normalization. For example, Turkey has set up a bi-national commission to investigate the assassination with Russia. This is a very unusual step. Most countries that I know of, when they do commissions to investigate murders, they do a national commission — you don't invite foreign intelligence security organizations. And in Turkey especially, this is something I have never seen in recent memory. Erdogan is making an exception to the rule here and signaling that he's willing to do everything to make sure that this incident does not derail ties.
TCB: What do you think this says about Turkey's place in the world, and are we seeing a real deepening of ties between Russia and Turkey here or are they still at odds?
SC: I think there are remaining disagreements. To begin with, both countries are still locked in a proxy war. Turkish-backed rebels have not stood down in fighting Assad. There are still some serious disagreements in Syria, which make it difficult to see this becoming a very cozy relationship.
Where you should look, in my view, to see the Turkish-Russian rapprochement is Turkish willingness to agree to Russia's position on Black Sea and Ukrainian affairs. For Russia, the Black Sea and Ukriane always take priority over Syria, so they'd be very happy if Turkey was 60 percent with them in Syria, but 90 percent with them on Black Sea, Ukraine, and Crimea issues. That's a more important theatre to them, and I think that's where we're going to see most of the Turkish-Russian alignment — Turkey's informal acceptance of Russia's annexation of Crimea, abstention from anti-Russian sanctions, and limitation of access to the Black Sea for non-littoral states. Access to the Black Sea is regulated by an international treaty, which allows only littoral states to keep navies, and there are only two countries that border the Black Sea with significant navies, Turkey and Russia. So the Black Sea is effectively a Turkish-Russian condominium, and that status as a condominium is now going to be confirmed, with Turkey and Russia working very closely on Black Sea issues.
TCB: How about Turkish relations with Iran? How do you see that evolving?
SC: That's interesting, because Iran and Russia don't really have the same view of northern Syria. I think the Russians are okay with Assad getting control of what's called "useful Syria," which includes the country's biggest cities and its coast – Aleppo would be part of useful Syria. I don't think the Russians care so much if Idlib and the northern Aleppo countryside remain in the hands of the rebels, and that's where the Turkish plans to control those areas kind of fits into the Russian vision. The Iranians have a more absolutist view of Assad's control. They want him to control as much as possible.
TCB: One area of Turkish-Iranian competition has historically been Iraq. Do you see any change there, maybe not as a direct result of this assassination?
SC: In fact, I think that's going to be the main area of competition. Iran's hand is stronger, it controls developments in Baghdad, it has a lot of aligned militia in the country, including militia who are fighting in Mosul. It was the Iraqi government who basically kept Turkey out of the operation to liberate Mosul, although Turkey was interested in it.
To me, that shows how Iran is more powerful in Iraq, as opposed to in Syria, where they have to power share control of the regime with the Russians. So in Iraq, I think Iranians will push hard against Turkey, using their proxies, both Shia militia and government, and there I think we're going to see what I call a political proxy war. Turkey has its own proxies in the country, including Iraqi Turkmen, who are ethnically related to Turks, and Massoud Barzani and the KDP [Kurdish Democratic Party], who are very closely aligned to Turkey.
TCB: Turning towards internal Turkish politics, what do you make of the Gulenist claims? What will this mean for Erdogan internally?
SC: This troubles me, here's why. For a very long time, I always thought of Turkey as the exception rather than the norm when it comes to surviving instability and shocks. Turkey also always looked like an island of stability compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors. The reason why I think Turkey was always so stable was because it had strong institutions, especially strong national security institutions from intelligence to police to military.
Now, these institutions are becoming politicized. We see this in the military after a faction tried to throw over the military and the government at the same time. Now we're seeing it in the police. This officer, Mevlut Mert Altintas, was off-duty but he's a Turkish police officer. He committed a politically-charged murder. Whatever his motives are, whoever is behind him, it's politicized.
Just as Turkey is facing a storm of rising regional violence, internal terrorism, and attacks by the PKK, the assassination of the Russian ambassador shows the spillover of Syria's war into Turkey – the assassin said he was killing the ambassador in protest to Russia's position in the Syrian war.
Turkey is facing a grueling storm, the spillover of the Syrian war, regional enemies from Iran to the Assad regime to Russia, which at best is a frenemy, and rising domestic violence from both PKK and ISIS-related attacks. At a time when Turkey needs its institutions most, those institutions are being politicized. That's why I think this is very dangerous. Turkey has withstood previous shocks and crises because it has strong institutions. Now, I don't think it can rely on them, and that is the deepest of my worries about Turkey.
TCB: Beset by all these threats, do you see Erdogan as a man with a plan or a man reacting to events?
SC: I think he has a plan. His plan is to become executive-style president, and Turkey is therefore deeply polarized between his supporters, who adore him, and his opponents, who loathe him. The downside is that Turks now also live in two different realities. Half of the country loves Erdogan and basically thinks that the country is heaven, and he can do no wrong. The other half of the country loathes him and thinks the country is hell and nothing he does is right. As he moves forward, I think he's going to have support of half of the country in this agenda of creating an executive-style presidency, but that agenda is going to be undermined by the other half. And to connect it to my worries about Turkey, this comes at a time when Turkey is facing extraordinary internal threats from ISIS to PKK to Russia to Assad to Iran.
So number one, it's deeply polarized. Number two, it is facing a growing spike of violence, as well as external and internal enemies. Number three, its institutions are politicized, the same institutions which helped Turkey survive previous crises. And I think number four, the polarization is so deep that there are now two realities, which is the deepest of my worries about Turkey. Because previously when the country faced shocks—civil war-like fighting on the streets in the 70s, triple-digit inflation that lasted for three decades, a full blown PKK insurgency in the 90s supported by Iran and Syria—at those times, the Turks did not live in two alternative universes. Now they do. This is truly worrisome, because when you have so much violence — Turkey has had 32 terror attacks in the last 18 months that have killed 700 people — so many foreign enemies — Iran, Iraq, Syria, and even Russia — and the jihadist threat internally and from Syria, a growing Kurdish problem and fight with the PKK, and politicization of institutions, it leaves Turkey extremely vulnerable in my view.
Fritz Lodge is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.