It was his assassination by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 that set off a chain reaction leading to World War I.
The world is, rightly, alarmed today with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, who had served in one of his country’s most delicate diplomatic roles since 2013 and whose experience included long stints in North Korea, including as ambassador from 2001 to 2006.
The gunman reportedly shouted ‘Allahu akbar,’ and ‘Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!’ as he shot Karlov from behind at a gallery exhibit of Turkish photography.
The assassination comes at a crucial time for relations between Russia and Turkey. Karlov’s killing could immediately chill the fragile diplomatic gains of the last half-year, however, especially at a time when no one really knows what kind of global leadership that president-elect Donald Trump will provide after his inauguration in just over a month in the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly praised Putin as a strong leader and promised to escalate US efforts to push back against ISIS in eastern Syria.
But no one should start preparing for World War III just yet.
Much now depends on how Putin responds — and how nationalist hard-liners within Russia also respond — considering that the gunman seems to have acted with the precise aim of destabilizing the Russia-Turkey relationship. Though Russian nationalists are wary of Turkey, they’re far more hostile to the threat of Islamic extremism. Moreover, the two countries have found common ground when it comes to the threat of Islamic extremism. Karlov’s assassination might ultimately Turkey and Russia together more closely Turkey in efforts to eradicate ISIS and other jihadist elements in the Middle East. The incoming Trump administration would almost certainly welcome and join that common front.
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If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s worth noting that the two countries have been moving closer together after last summer’s coup attempt against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Relations hit their worst point in December 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border. Today, a year later, relations are much improved, if still strained. That means that the diplomatic channels between the two countries are far more open to deal with a trauma like Karlov’s assassination.
Ankara disapproved of Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and there are many people in Sunni-majority Turkey who despise Russia’s role in the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the joint Syrian-Russian attack on Aleppo. (And indeed, it’s possible to condemn both Russia’s longstanding and atrocious behavior with respect to Aleppo and today’s assassination).
Turkish leaders have officially called on Assad to step down and are largely sympathetic to rebel forces — with two exceptions, the Kurdish peshmerga and Islamic extremists that they consider equally threatening to Turkey. But they have increasingly worked closely with Russia over Syria’s ongoing civil war and, in particular, we helping Russian military forces over the last week evacuate civilians out of Aleppo as rebel forces fell to joint Syrian-Russian force.
So what comes next?
Foreign ministers from both Russia and Turkey, along with Iran, were set to gather in Moscow on Tuesday for talks over Syria’s future. No one knows what Karlov’s assassination means to those talks or whether the talks will still take place.
Turkey’s initial response has been conciliatory, and Fatih Öke, an official in the Turkish embassy to the United States, had already sent a Tweet ‘praying for [Karlov’s] good health and peace.’ If Moscow takes the olive branch from Turkish officials, the assassination might ultimately bring the two rival countries closer together. Nevertheless, Russian officials in the past have accused the Turkish government of aiding anti-Russian and pro-rebel elements in Turkish society.
So there’s a chance, of course, that Putin and his circle could claim the Turkish government was somehow behind this attack. But that doesn’t seem to be the initial line that Moscow is taking and, moreover, it would fly in the face of the direction of the bilateral relationship over the last six months. Russia and Turkey certainly have their issues, but if this assassination leads to more conflict, it seems right now like it would be joint Russian-Turkish action against ISIS, not a war between Russia and Turkey.
To the extent it affects Turkey’s stand on Turkey, today’s assassination almost certainly weakens the power that Turkey holds in dictating Syria’s future. Erdoğan position that Assad must go is weaker now than it was yesterday, and it had already far weakened since 2011, when Assad’s future looked much more in doubt.