By Emma Emeozor
The assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey by a serving officer in the Turkish riot police squad has put a dent on the image of that country. But more importantly, the despicable act is a challenge to the international community to sincerely unite against terrorism, just as it is an impetus to speed up the process of ending the Syrian crisis.
Andrew Karlov, 62, was gunned down in broad daylight on December 19, 2016 by 22-year-old Mevlut Mert Altintas, with his official handgun. Wearing black suit and tie, Altintas had used his police ID card to gain entry to the Museum of Modern Art in Ankara, the capital city, where Karlov was delivering a speech during photography exhibition entitled “Russia as Seen by Turks”.
An ambassador is a representative of his country, who has the task of promoting good diplomatic relations between his host country and his home country. Karlov has been described as an experienced ambassador with excellent record. “Ambassador karlov has made a lot of personnel contributions to the development of ties with Turkey. He has done a lot to overcome a crisis in bilateral relations. He was a man, who put his heart and his soul into his job. It’s a terrible loss for us and also the world,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. And for a police officer to have carried out the heinous crime exposes the level of insecurity and instability in Turkey. What it means is that nobody is safe in that country.
Who is behind the assassination?
Altintas knew he would die after killing the ambassador. According to reports, eyewitnesses quoted him, as saying he wouldn’t “leave the building alive.” That was exactly what happened when Turkish anti-terrorism police killed him on the spot.
Did he act alone or was he sponsored? Reports said Altintas yelled “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) in Arabic over the fallen ambassador. He also yelled in Turkish “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria. Don’t forget. Don’t forget Syria. Until these places are safe, you will not taste any safety either.”
But his yelling does not give clue to any possible affiliation with any of the groups being suspected. And his killing by the anti-terrorism police has compounded the situation. Perhaps, investigators would have been able to extract useful information from him if he had been captured alive and taken into custody.
Reports say there are several Arab groups, which “feel powerful animosity toward Russia and Turkey.” Such groups include the Islamic State, Sunni Muslims, the Kurds, the Gullen Movement led by a United States-based Turkish Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gullen. Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had accused Gullen as the mastermind of the failed July coup and demanded his extradition, a request Washington declined for what it described as lack of evidence linking him to the coup.
Other groups being suspected of possible involvement are the Free Syrian Army (FSA), intelligence agency links and the Nusra Group. International Affairs analysts believe any proven link of Altintas to any of these groups could provoke Russia to behaving differently. The view of Ahmel-Kasim Han, a professor of International Relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, aptly represents this school of thought. Middle East Eye quoted him as saying: “If it emerges that there are links with the FSA or some other Syrian rebel groups, Russia is going to respond.”
Already, members of the Gullen Movement are on alert, watching the investigation process. Han has said, “If Turkey can show a clear link between the assailant and Gullen, it will mean it will have full Russian support in its ongoing fight against the Gullen organisation.” When in June, Erdogan apologised to Russia over the downing of its jet, Ankara blamed members of the Gullen Movement in the Turkish Airforce.
Altintas, agent of Turkey’s hate campaign?
Though it is not yet clear if Altintas acted alone or not, there is no doubt that the government poisoned the minds of Turks against Russia through its hate campaign long before the assassination of Karlov. Turkey supports Syrian rebels while Russia is an unrepentant supporter of President Bashar al-Assad. President Erdogan had expressed seething anger, following Russia’s bombing of targets in Aleppo, which it claimed to be a terrorists enclaves, even as Turkey insisted they were rebel strongholds. The frosty relations between the two countries reached its plateau when in late November 2015, two Turkish F – 16s shot down a Russian Su-24, claiming it violated its airspace near the Syrian border.
Consequently, the two countries were embroiled in war of words, which would later result in Russia, imposing sanctions on Turkey, a development Ankara strongly criticised. At the time, reports quoted Russian President, Vladimir Putin, as saying: “This incident stands out against the usual fight against terrorism. Our troops are fighting heroically against terrorists, risking their lives,” adding, “But the loss we suffered today came from a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists.”
An infuriated Russia imposed economic sanctions on Turkey, explaining that the action “aimed at ensuring national security and that of Russian citizens.” The sanctions included a ban on charter flights between the two countries, a ban on Russian businesses, hiring any new Turkish nationals and restrictions on imports from Turkey. Russia did not stop there. It further accused Turkey of buying oil smuggled by Islamic State, a serious international offence. “At the moment, we have received additional information, confirming that oil from deposit controlled by Islamic State’s militants enters Turkish territory on an industrial scale,” Putin said.
Erdogan described the economic sanctions, as “emotional” and “unfitting.” He said: “We very sincerely recommend to Russia not to play with fire,” stressing: “We really attach a lot of importance to our relations with Russia; we don’t want these relations to suffer harm in any way.”
Turkey’s anti-Shiite Muslims strongly condemn the bombing of Aleppo because of their religious affiliation to the rebels. Majority of Turks are Sunni Muslims.
How Putin, Erdogan doused tension
Putin and Erdogan doused tension resulting from the death of Karlov when on Thursday they kept to their words on the planned evacuation of civilians and rebels in Aleppo was carried out without a hitch. The success of the exercise was clear evidence that Ankara and Moscow were ever determined not to allow the December 19 incident to derail the process of creating an enabling environment for a new round of Syrian peace talks.
Several efforts made in the past to broker peace among the factions failed due to the uncompromising stance of the major stakeholders, particularly their respective backers. Now, the action of Altintas has called to question the interest and role of ‘ordinary’ citizens of countries of the region in fuelling the Syrian crisis. Put differently, it has become pertinent to look beyond Syria and put searchlight on the masked saboteurs in and outside the corridors of power. This requires massive public enlightenment campaign on why peace must be allowed in Syria. Altintas may be one of the victims of classical indoctrination.
This raises the issue of security lapses in Turkey. For a police officer to have carried his angst over crisis in another country to a murderous level is a clear indication that there is a disconnect between the government and the people. National governments must learn from this sad event on how to manage sensitive information. Government policies and actions should be handled professionally while they trickle down to the masses. Certainly, Turkey’s security forces have been infiltrated by fifth columnists whose aim is to frustrate the government while exposing the country to international isolation.
Europe heaves a sigh of relief
Europe was gripped with fear, following the killing of Karlov. The thinking among the people was that Russia would retaliate, a development which could have resulted not only in diplomatic row but also regional war.
They were quick to recall the events that led to World War I in 1914, when the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia a month later would result in the split of Europe into two. The war lasted for over four years. No fewer than 17 million people, including soldiers and civilians were killed. This sad memory made Europe to heave a sigh of relief when Putin declared that there was no going back on renewed Russia-Turkish relations. “This murderer is clearly a provocation aimed at undermining the improvement and nominalisation of Russia-Turkish relations as well as undermining the peace in Syria promoted by Russia, Turkey, Iran and other countries interested in settling the conflict in Syria.”
Earlier, Erdogan had condemned the attack in very strong terms. “I condemn with hate the assassination of Russian Ambassador Federation, Ambassador Andre Karlov,” Erdogan said. While saying it was “a provocation given our cooperation, regarding Aleppo,” Erdogan said: “I see this as an attack on Turkey and its people; we are determined to maintain our ties with Russia. I extend my condolences to Mr. Putin and Russia.” He quickly announced that a joint task force would be set up with Moscow to investigate the attack. And, of course, Altintas was killed instantly. It was, indeed, a smart diplomatic card Erdogan played.
Ambassador who died in line of duty
The untimely death of Karlov has again, brought to fore the risk holders of the exalted post of ambassador are exposed to, even amid the tight security given to them.
Available records show that eight United States ambassadors, two French ambassadors and a Bolivian ambassador have died in line of duty:
*United States Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three embassy staff were killed in a mob attack in Benghazi city on September 11, 2012.
*US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was killed during a rescue operation after he was kidnapped in Kabul by radical Islamists in February 1979.
*US Ambassador to Lebanon, Francis E. Meloy Jr., the Economic Counsellor, Robert O. Warring, and his driver were abducted in Beirut by a pro-Palestinian Lebanese group in June 1976. The ambassador was on his way to present his credentials to the president. Their bodies were found on a beach.
*Another US Ambassador to Cyrus, Rodger P. Davies, was killed by a sniper fire in his office in Nicosia during a demonstration on August 19, 1974. Greek Cypriots were protesting America’s policy at the embassy. Davies’ secretary, Antoinnette Varnava, was also killed.
*Cleo A. Noel Jr., US ambassador to Sudan, along with two other diplomats were taken hostage and executed by the ‘Black September,’ a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in March, 1973.
*The US Ambassador to Guatemala, John Gordon Mein, was the first American ambassador to be assassinated while serving in office. He was abducted by Guatemalan rebels and executed in August 1968 after leaving a State Department launch.
*US Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold L. Raphel, died in plane crash in 1988.
*Laurence A. Steinhardt, US ambassador to Canada, also died in plane crash in 1950.
*French Ambassador to Lebanon, Louis Delamare, was shot dead in his car in Beirut on September 4, 1991.
*Another French Ambassador to Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo), Philippe Bernard, was killed by a stray bullet, as trouble broke out in Kinshasha on January 28, 1993.
*Bolivian Ambassador to France, Joaquin Zentano Anaya, was killed in Paris on May 11, 1976, near the Seine River, by a group calling itself the ‘International Che Guevara Brigades.’
How failed coup united Turkey, Russia
President Erdogan saw reason to make peace with Putin after he survived a coup attempt in July 2016. That is because Russia saved his life. Reports quoted the president and founder of Eurasia group, a global risk consulting firm, Ian Bremmer, as saying: “On the night of the coup, Russia tipped off Erdogan about unusual movements among Turkish military units, potentially saving the Turkish President’s life.” Indeed, Erdogan was excited by the unconditional support Putin gave him after the coup. Earlier, in June, Erdogan had apologised for the downing of the Russian jet.
Bremmer, also commented on the action of Altintas. He said: “There’s no question that this is yet another display of Erdogan not having adequate control of the security within his borders.” According to him, Turkish President “made a bad situation worse by imprisoning many of his own leading generals” after the failed coup, noting that “Erdogan may have removed threats to his own power by arresting military leaders and thousands of other people, but he also made his army less effective.” He believes Erdogan will use the killing of Karlov “as an excuse to crack down on political enemies as much as possible.”