An envoy, an assassin and a mystery in the heart of Ankara

Instead of ratcheting up tensions, the murder of Karlov seems to have brought Ankara and Moscow closer than ever.

Coming at the tail end of an annus horriblis in global affairs, the assassination of the Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov by a Turkish police officer initially had analysts wondering whether this was a modern-day version of the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. After all, it was only a year ago that the two countries came to the brink of outright conflict after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in Syria.  If Moscow had felt that the murder was in any way state sanctioned, or that the government had even slight sympathies with the perpetrator, it would no doubt have provoked an extremely strong reaction.

But instead of ratcheting up tensions, the murder of Karlov seems to have brought Ankara and Moscow closer than ever. Erdogan was quick to condemn the murder, contact Putin and invite Russian investigators to the scene. As planned, he also sent Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to a Syria summit in Russia, where Ankara moved further towards Moscow’s position by disavowing its earlier insistence on the removal of Bashar Assad from power.

The murder has also heightened anti-Western sentiments across the Turkish political spectrum with suggestions that “the dark plot” was orchestrated by “those that do not want Turkey and Russia to get close” – i.e. the Western powers. The Turkish government was quick to label the assassin as a follower of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, even though the Gulenists typically do not espouse jihadist methodology and have showed little interest in the Syrian war.

But in a country as polarized as Turkey, facts do not matter as much as convictions. Within hours of the murder, pro-AKP opinion-makers were assigning culpability to the Gulen movement and dissident journalists were characterizing the 22-year-old police officer as an al-Nusra sympathizer, based on his pledge of allegiance to jihad in Arabic immediately after shooting the ambassador. A journalist with close ties to the government, Abdulkadir Selvi, initially revealed that the assassin, Mevlut Mert Altintas, was found to have sympathies for al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, but later revised his comments by saying that he was “a Gulenist posing as al-Nusra.”

Very little information is publicly available on the identity of the assassin, Mevlut Mert Altintas, except that he had entered the police force two and a half years ago and was serving in the anti-riot squat. He comes from a small town in western Turkey and provided security on eight of Tayyip Erdogan’s rallies. The family’s origins and his connections have yet to be revealed.  Turkish media has underlined that he had suspiciously asked for leave on July 16-18 – in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt on July 15 – and that as a student he may have attended Gulenist discussion groups.

Whether the assassin was a lone wolf, a peon in a dark conspiracy, or a radicalized member of the security forces will ultimately be determined at the end of the investigation – but the narrative in Turkey is already focused on Gulen, and therefore the United States where Gulen lives.  Several pro-AKP papers blamed the CIA for the plot the day after the assassination and the event could further distance Turkey from its traditional western allies.

Meanwhile the actual police investigation is carried out by the senior prosecutor in charge of the July 15 coup investigation, with a Russian law enforcement team participating in the inquiry. 

Until the murder in Ankara, there was public outrage about the situation in Aleppo and large daily demonstrations by Islamic groups and NGOs outside Russian and Iranian missions. For now, that seems to have stopped. Instead, this protest killing seems to have silenced criticism of Russia, with Turkish citizens now encouraged to lay flowers outside the Russian embassy.  Such shrines are usually a mark of respect for the victim; in this case, they are also a mark of Ankara’s growing allegiance to Moscow. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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