ANKARA: Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was assassinated Monday night during the opening ceremony of a photo exhibition in Ankara when he took to the podium to make a speech.
Turkey’s interior minister said the gunman, 22-year-old Mevlut Mert Altintas, who was killed, was part of Ankara’s anti-riot police.
The assailant was on duty as a security officer during rallies by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s mainstream HaberTurk news reported.
After shooting the ambassador, the gunman shouted: “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria. Until our towns are safe, you won’t be able to enjoy safety. Whoever has a role in this cruelty will pay for it one by one.”
This marks the first assassination of an ambassador in Turkey. It comes a day before the planned visit of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Moscow for talks on Syria with his Russian and Iranian counterparts.
Erdogan phoned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to share information. “We have to know who gave the orders to the assassin,” Putin said. In a public statement, Erdogan condemned the attack and said it aimed to harm improved ties with Moscow.
Experts say the assassination puts Turkey in a difficult diplomatic position. “It doesn’t look like a Daesh attack because the gunman evacuated the art gallery to shoot the ambassador,” Ahmet Han, an international relations professor from Istanbul Kadir Has University, told Arab News.
“This might be an attack carried out by an individual who is ideologically or emotionally vested in developments in Aleppo,” he said.
“He might be a member or sympathizer of an organization on the ground in Syria, or an isolated individual. Otherwise we have to think of a connection with a national intelligence agency.”
Han added: “Turkey wouldn’t be involved in such a crisis if it hadn’t been so exposed to regional dynamics as a party. It’s inevitable that comments on Turkey’s intelligence deficit will follow from the international community.”
However, he said if Ankara cooperated with Moscow, the assassination would not lead to a crisis similar to which occurred when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015. “At this point, common sense and restraint should rule,” Han said.
Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish MP and now senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, said Moscow gained concessions from Ankara following the downing of the warplane before going forward with normalization.
“Putin could again leverage the attack to gain further concessions from Turkey,” Erdemir told Arab News.
“Turkish government officials argue that the attack targeted Turkish-Russian cooperation, and point the finger at the West.
The assassination could bolster conspiracy theories at home and speed Turkey’s pivot toward Russia.”
Selim Sazak, a researcher at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank, said: “The assailant could be a Turkish nationalist gone rogue, a Gulenist (supporter of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey), a Daesh subvert, or even a Eurasianist, for this plays right into the hands of those trying to bring Turkey and Russia closer.”
Mainstream Turkish media are reporting that the attacker being a Gulenist is the most likely option.
Sazak says this will impact US-Turkish relations more than it will Turkish-Russian ties. “Pro-government media are already spinning this as a US conspiracy, and trying to paint the cop as a Gulenist,” he told Arab News.
Sazak says diplomatically the game plan is fairly simple, at least publicly: “You express condolences, high-level authorities attend the funeral in Moscow, and Putin says a few things about how this is regrettable but thanks Turkish police and reiterates the solidarity of the Turkish and Russian peoples.”
However, Sazak says the only exit strategy for Ankara is to try to spin the assassination into anti-Western propaganda.
“As of today, Turkey’s Syria game is over,” Sazak said, adding that this puts Turkey in the worst bargaining position imaginable.
In a similar vein, the Russian Federation Council considers the assassination a grave failure of Turkish law-enforcement, Interfax reported.
However, other messages coming from Moscow suggest that Russia does not intend to turn the assassination into a major diplomatic crisis.
Frants Klintsevic, deputy chairman of the Russian Federation Council Defense and Security Committee, said the perpetrator wanted “to turn Turkey and Russia against each other.”
In a statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said: “Ambassador Karlov was a unique diplomat who earned the appreciation of all state cadres for his professional and personal competencies, as he carried out successful work at a very difficult time in Turkey.
“His memory will always be with us. We will not allow this attack to overshadow Turkish-Russian friendship.”