'Russia Through Turks' Eyes'

One killing and its backdrop of tension and violence

Flag-wrapped coffin of late Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov is carried to a plane during a ceremony at Esenboga airport in Ankara, Turkey on December 20, 2016.
Flag-wrapped coffin of late Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov is carried to a plane during a ceremony at Esenboga airport in Ankara, Turkey on December 20, 2016.  (Umit Bektas / Reuters)

Monday evening Andrey Karlov, the Russian Federation’s envoy to Turkey, was shot and killed at the opening of a photography exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in the capital, Ankara. The exhibit was entitled “Russia through Turks’ Eyes.” In a photograph taken of Karlov only moments before his assassination, he stands behind a lectern and, just out of frame and slightly out of focus to his right, is the man the government has accused of being his assassin, the 22-year-old Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas. Neatly dressed in a dark suit, Altintas looks like he’s perhaps a security guard or even a caterer. Nothing about him betrays what he’s about to do, except perhaps for the way one hand seems to nervously tug at the other.

In a video of the assassination, Karlov can be seen collapsing to the floor. The camera then pans out and Altintas is transformed. His eyes are wild and he brandishes his pistol at the crowd, shouting first in Arabic, “God is great! Those who pledged allegiance to Muhammad for jihad. God is great!” and then in Turkish, “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria! Step back! Step back! Only death can take me from here.”

In the following days, much more will certainly be discovered about Altintas’s background and possible motives. Already, the Turkish government has raised the prospect that he has ties with the exiled cleric and perennial boogeyman Fethullah Gülen, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also blamed for the unsuccessful coup d’état against his government this past July. Judging by the killer’s own words, though, the assassination was an act of retaliation against Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the fall of rebel-held positions in eastern Aleppo. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already said, “There can be only one answer to this: stepping up the fight against terrorism, and the bandits will feel this.” Around the same time that Mr. Putin made this statement, a truck driver plowed into a crowded city square in central Berlin during the Christmas Markets, killing 12 and injuring up to 50.

We’re approaching the end of 2016, so it’s difficult to view Monday’s events outside of the context of this year, which has seen so many terrorist attacks, from Orlando to Nice and Brussels; to Istanbul and Ankara; to Baghdad and Damascus. Just the weekend prior, there were attacks in Yemen, Jordan, and Libya. And despite the appearance of a global terrorism wave, each attack feeds on local dynamics and has local effects. Some are now speculating that the attack in Ankara could have implications on Turkish-Russian relations, which have only recently begun to improve after the nadir of November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet that allegedly veered into its airspace. It’s doubtful, however, that relations will worsen, despite the two countries being on opposite sides of the Syria conflict. Russia is on the ascent in the region; Russia and Turkey continue to work together on evacuating East Aleppo, and are launching a joint investigation into the attack. Perhaps the assassination will further destabilize Turkey’s internal politics, but this is doubtful, too, given the pre-existing instability; just a week ago, 46 police officers were killed and a further 166 wounded when a Kurdish militant group known as the Kurdistan Freedom Fighters detonated a series of bombs outside the Beşiktaş Football Club’s stadium in the heart of Istanbul.

Adding to this environment of instability in Turkey is the next-door conflict that Altintas invoked during the murder of Karlov. In 2017, the Syrian Civil War will enter its sixth year. It seems quaint to remember when many thought the fall of Damascus was inevitable, and the rebels were led by well-educated democratic activists rather than Salafists with a penchant for beheadings. The original ideas of the revolution are long gone, but the war goes on. Now there is the Islamic State, the Russian intervention, the U.S. intervention, the Kurds, the Turks, and a long list of other competing interests. Amidst all of the violence, it’s difficult to understand what political change Altintas could have hoped to achieve outside a small act of revenge.

It is also difficult not to draw historical parallels to other assassinations that have sparked broader conflagrations; despite the limits of the analogy many drew to the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, which led to the First World War, global tensions today are such that seemingly small events could easily escalate, with dire geopolitical consequences. Though Turkish-Russia relations have thawed since the downing of the jet last year—after which, at one point, a poll found Turks viewing Russia as the country’s top threat—thousands of Turks have in recent days protested Russia’s involvement in Syria as the rebel-held enclaves in eastern Aleppo have collapsed. It shouldn’t be lost on us that Altintas planned his assassination at an exhibit entitled “Russia through Turks’ Eyes.”