The brutal murder of the Russian Ambassador in Ankara in mid-speech on live video by a Turkish national screaming “Allahu Akhbar” is the stuff of geopolitical nightmares. Parallels to the Sarajevo outrage of June 1914 come easily to mind. And yet not even that supreme act of political terrorism, which blew apart the fragile European equilibrium painfully achieved after the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, can compare to the over-the-top symbolism of the Ankara outrage, which saw an enraged Turkish Muslim shoot a Russian diplomat in order to, in his own words, protest Russia’s policies in Syria—on the very day Turkey’s Foreign Minister was traveling to Moscow to negotiate a Syrian settlement.
In a flash, the assassin seemed to have ruined months of careful work to improve Russian-Turkish relations, which had collapsed in crisis last winter after a Turkish F-16 pilot shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter near the Syrian border in November 2015. After the thwarted Turkish military coup of July 2016, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, denounced the offending pilot as a Gülenist tied to the coup plotters, and made overtures towards Putin’s policy in Syria, walking back (but for a brief slip last month, quickly disowned) his goal of toppling Bashar Assad.
Bad as things look now between Ankara and Moscow, however, there are signs that the ongoing rapprochement may continue. To begin with, the expressions of remorse and condolence from the Turkish side for the assassination have been immediate and genuine. This may seem unremarkable, but this has not always been the case after incidents like this. Just over a year ago, after all, the refusal of Turkey to apologize for the shooting down of a Russian pilot led to a major diplomatic crisis, with talk of the dreaded invocation of NATO’s Article Five. After the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, most Russian Embassies in Europe refused to lower their flags to half-mast in sympathy. These symbolic gestures mean a great deal in diplomacy.
Still, encouraging as this is, Turkish-Russian relations are not the only elements in play here. Early indications are that Erdoğan’s government will shift blame for the assassination to FETO, the terrorist organization tied to Fethullah Gülen and charged with carrying out the thwarted military coup of July 2016. The Russians will naturally strive to carry out their own investigation to the extent the Turkish government will permit, but in a country still under the state of emergency (akin to martial law) proclaimed by President Erdoğan last summer, it is hard to imagine that the Russians will be able to credibly disprove FETO involvement.
This is where the United States enters the diplomatic picture. Americans may pooh-pooh the idea that an old cleric, Fethullah Gülen, can possibly have masterminded a massive military coup in Turkey from his retreat in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, let alone a political assassination in a city, Ankara, which has been under martial law ever since that coup. They should realize, however, that not only Erdoğan but millions of ordinary Turks do believe this happened (if not necessarily agreeing about the guilt of all the thousands of Gülenists detained since July), and that they have very good reason to ask why Gülen is still, apparently, being protected by his friends in Washington.
Thus far, the U.S. government has resisted Turkey’s request for Gülen’s extradition, even when President Erdoğan has played “hardball,” cutting off the power to the U.S airbase at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey and later surrounding it with troops. But what if Russia, too, demands that Gülen be extradited to face charges of conspiracy to assassinate her Ambassador, Andrei Karlov?
Improbable as this might have sounded when the news from Ankara first broke, the murder investigation may well bring Turkey and Russia together, mounting a united front against the U.S. in demanding justice for Karlov’s killers. Such a turnabout would actually be consistent with recent trends in regional diplomacy. Although it has gone largely unnoticed in the Aleppo-focused coverage this fall, Erdoğan’s about-face on regime change in Syria may be the most significant strategic development of the Syrian civil war so far.
To appreciate the magnitude of the shift, it is well to recall where things stood the last time the Ambassador of a great power was assassinated by terrorists—namely, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, on September 11, 2012. In all the fireworks over the Benghazi attacks in the press and in domestic American politics, the diplomatic context has been largely forgotten. Ambassador Stevens was in a relatively unsecured facility in Benghazi, after all, to meet with Turkish officials, with whom the U.S. was then coordinating logistical support for the Sunni “rebels” in Syria. Four years later, Turkey’s President, burned again and again by terrorist blowback from Syria, has finally wised up to the folly of arming jihadists next door—far enough that he is willing to make peace with Putin, the man backing Bashar Assad, whom Erdoğan had pledged must be toppled from power.
The reason Erdoğan has been forced to rethink his Syrian policy is as simple as it is worrisome. Turkey’s President feels betrayed by the U.S., by its lukewarm support during the thwarted coup, when a number of the pilot plotters landed at Incirlik, and afterwards, when his requests for the extradition of Gülen were ignored. By contrast, Russia offered Turkey’s government vigorous support before, during, and after the coup, even sharing intercepted telegrams which may, according to some reports, have allowed Erdoğan to escape a helicopter ambush at his Marmaris hotel.
Isolated and, it seems, abandoned by her longtime patron and NATO ally, in the front lines of the ISIS-inspired terrorist blowback from Syria, smarting from a bloody coup which came perilously close to civil war, Turkey’s beleaguered government will take friends where she can find them. That Erdoğan has found a lonely friend in Russia, Turkey’s hereditary enemy to the north, is a poignant commentary on the depths to which this once-proud country has sunk.
It also raises uncomfortable questions about American policy in the Middle East. By breaking Saddam’s Iraq and Qaddafi’s Libya, the U.S. had already created power vacuums in which Sunni jihadist terrorism could metastasize before repeating the same mistake in Syria—though stopping just short of toppling the Assad regime, too. But these follies may, in the end, pale in comparison to the consequences if Turkey, a hitherto stable country of nearly 80 million people, goes off the rails, creating a refugee crisis dwarfing the Syrian one by an order of magnitude. Right now, Turkey is poised on the edge of catastrophe: one more nudge and she might blow.
It may or may not be true that Fethullah Gülen is behind the thwarted coup, or the downing of the Russian warplane last November, or the murder of the Russian Ambassador in Ankara this week. So long as the U.S. continues protecting him, however, the cancer of anti-Americanism in Turkey will continue to metastasize, enabling Putin to turn NATO’s most strategically placed member country into a Russian satellite, albeit a reluctant and resentful one. Whatever strategic logic may once have explained the bizarre American romance with the controversial Imam of the Poconos has surely past its sell-by date by now. It is time for Gülen to face the music, whether in Washington, Ankara, or Moscow.