Washington sidelined over Syria, Russian ambassador’s assassination

*President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey participate in a working dinner in the Red Room of the White House, May 16, 2013. Source: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

On December 19, the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Ankara, the Honorable Andrei Karlov, sent shockwaves through the international community. Amid condolences from world leaders and diplomats, one question hung heavily over the international community: How would Russia respond?

Moscow didn’t wait long to give an answer. President Vladimir Putin called the attack terrorism, but he laid no blame at the feet of the Turkish state. Instead of retaliating against Ankara, Putin said that the attack was aimed at destroying Turkey-Russia relations and meant to hinder joint Turkish and Russian efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. Turkish President Erdogan has framed the attack in much the same light.

On December 20, a trilateral summit between the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia, and Iran took place as had been planned before the assassination. The three countries have agreed to further efforts to broker a Syria-wide ceasefire between the Assad government and opposition groups.

Yet the U.S. has been conspicuously absent from the negotiation table on Syria. Already, Turkey, Russia and Iran have negotiated an imperfect yet broadly effective ceasefire and evacuation for the Aleppo crisis.

Washington may be the leader of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, but in all other Syria matters, it is finding itself increasingly sidelined by the blossoming partnership between Moscow and Ankara. The assassination of the Russian ambassador has so far shown no signs of pushing Turkey away from Russia and back toward the U.S.

Moscow trumps Washington

U.S.-Turkey relations are at their lowest point in years, while Turkey-Russia relations have rebounded and then some after the Turkish military shot down a Russian fighter jet it claimed had violated Turkish airspace on November 24, 2015.

The rekindled friendship between Turkey and Russia is most striking with relation to the Syrian crisis. Throughout the civil war, Russia and Turkey have been of opposite convictions as to who to support. Russia is the Assad regime’s most powerful and prominent backer. Turkey has made it one of its top priorities to see Assad removed from power.

Russia has also shown support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that dominates the Kurdish statelet of Rojava in northern Syria – and has ties to the PKK. For Ankara, the YPG is a terrorist group as threatening to its security as ISIS.

Yet despite these glaring differences and a rocky past regarding Syria, Turkey and Russia have been dedicated to negotiating a ceasefire in Aleppo that would allow for humanitarian corridors to be opened into the city.

The negotiations have shown choppy progress. However, last week, Turkey and Russia along with Iran and rebel groups in Aleppo were able to strike a fragile cessation of hostilities and negotiate the evacuation of Aleppo residents and rebels into neighboring Idlib Province. Despite periodic pauses in the evacuation, at least 37,500 people have been evacuated from eastern Aleppo so far according to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

In response to news of the agreement, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby told journalists that the U.S. “would welcome any arrangement that would allow people to live safely in Aleppo who want to stay and to leave safely Aleppo for those who want to leave.” Washington has so far avoided publicly showing any bitterness over being sidelined by Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria.

But the mild response cannot hide the fact that the U.S. and Turkey have had a tough year. Each country has its grievances against the other. For the U.S., Turkey’s coziness with Russia and its harsh crackdown on anyone perceived as an enemy of the state has some in Washington wondering if its isn’t time to reevaluate the usefulness of this “historic” and “strategic” partnership.

For Turkey, continued U.S. support of the YPG becomes more and more offensive with each terror attack attributed to Kurdish militants, while slow progress on the evaluation of Turkey’s extradition request for Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen – who Ankara blames for the July 15 coup attempt – is fueling one of the most virulent strains of anti-Americanism Turkey has experienced in recent years.

Since the coup attempt, Turkish media and even government officials have woven a narrative that implicates the U.S. in Gülen-driven activities to undermine the Turkish state. Beyond claims following July 15 of the U.S. government’s knowledge of, and even involvement in the coup attempt, a recent Sabah column alleged that the U.S. has been using Incirlik Air Base in Adana for all manner of nefarious activities against Turkey’s domestic security, from propping up the PKK to planning the downing of the Russian jet.

In a strongly-worded letter to Sabah’s Editor-in-Chief, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass underlined the severity of these allegations and his belief in strong U.S.-Turkey relations. “That the columnist would so willingly parrot Russian misinformation calls his motivations into serious question,” he wrote, explicitly highlighting the very real wedge that Russia is now trying to drive between Ankara and Washington.

Enter the Trump presidency

The near future of U.S.-Turkey relations is as yet unclear due to the general confusion over how the Trump administration’s foreign policy will play out. There are some in Turkey who fervently believe that Trump will breathe fresh air into the relationship by making progress on Gülen’s extradition and halting support for the YPG.

The latter is unlikely to happen. While there are few certainties with regard to Trump’s foreign policy, his determination to see the end of ISIS is one of them. If the YPG continues to be an effective fighting force against ISIS, especially with the upcoming Raqqa operation, then the Trump administration will likely throw its weight behind them. As he told The New York Times this past summer: “I’m a fan of the Kurds.” He went on to say that it would be “ideal” if the U.S. could get Turkey and the Kurds “all together” – something the current administration is trying to do as preparations for the Raqqa offensive progress.

On the extradition of Gülen, however, Turkey may just see some movement. If Trump wants to have “a potentially very successful relationship with Turkey,” as he told the NYT, he’ll have to give Ankara something – if not the YPG, then Gülen.

The assassination of Ambassador Karlov could play into this process. So far, the Turkish media and government have pointed to the Gülen network as the perpetrators of the attack. The Turkish media has already produced various pieces of information to support this theory, including reported records of the attacker having taken annual leave directly following the coup attempt in July. An advisor for Gülen has rejected claims of the network’s involvement.

The claims of the Gülen network’s involvement have also led to increasing anti-American rhetoric, and a narrative is being spun that the U.S. and the Gülen network worked together on the assassination in order to spoil Turkey-Russia ties. During a State Department briefing to the press, John Kirby called this a “ludicrous claim, absolutely false” and noted that Secretary of State John Kerry had communicated Washington’s concerns about this rhetoric during a phone call with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The Foreign Minister reportedly told Kerry that both Turkey and Russia believe Gülen is behind the assassination.

However, the Kremlin has announced that it is still too early to place definitive blame for the attack on any one organization. Meanwhile, Russian media outlets like Sputnik and government-owned TASS News Agency have been circulating claims that Jaish al-Fatah, which includes Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly known as Al-Nusra Front) has taken responsibility for the attack. These claims have not been verified.

Russia is sending its own experts to aid Turkish authorities in the investigation of the assassination, and it would seem that currently Moscow is not fully playing along with Ankara’s allegations of Gülen network involvement.

But if Turkey continues to blame the Gülen network after a more thorough investigation – and if Russia concurs – the Trump administration will find itself facing not one but two influential countries with a stake in seeing Gülen extradited.

Given the CIA’s revelations that the Russian government directed hacking efforts in the U.S. in order to sway the presidential election in favor of Trump, as well as other incidences of coziness between the Trump team and Russia, Turkey might soon be able to check Gülen off of its list of grievances against the U.S.

If so, Turkey, Russia, and the U.S. might find themselves in the rare and surreal situation of being in agreement with each other – or at least, not in discord – at the same time.

But even as relations between all three actors have been shifting in curious ways over the last year, the history of these relations cannot be discounted. For all the fears of a Turkey that leaves NATO in favor of a Russia-oriented worldview, it is important to remember not only the considerable differences over Syria between the two but also their shared history of aggression and disagreement. For years, Turkey was an American-allied bulwark against the Soviet Union, while the Russian and Ottoman Empires clashed time and again up until their respective demises.

On the other hand, though U.S.-Turkey relations are at their lowest point in years, they have gone through similar periods of turmoil – including after the Turkish annexation of Northern Cyprus – and recovered swiftly due to economic, security, and geostrategic demands on both sides.

For Turkey, to move away from the U.S. is to move away from one of its most strategic security partners and find itself facing the continued fallout of the Syria crisis with an unreliable and historically antagonistic partner in Russia. For all that Turkey has developed its own independent foreign policy, its ties to, and need for one of its oldest allies endures. Historically, U.S.-Turkey relations have a lot more by way of longevity than Turkey-Russia ties. For the U.S. and Turkey, current difficulties in their relationship are temporary obstacles that can be overcome. For Russia and Turkey, each new clash over Syria threatens to bring these newly thawed relations one day closer to their expiration date.

Audrey Williams

Audrey Williams, “Washington sidelined over Syria, Russian ambassador’s assassination”, Independent Turkey, 21 December 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey).

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