Maxim Shemetov / Reuters The coffin of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov is carried outside of the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, December 2016.

Assassination in Ankara

Russia, NATO, and Turkey's Violent Politics

On December 19, Mevlut Mert Altintas, a Turkish police officer, assassinated Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. His action was apparently meant as retribution for Russian bombings in eastern Aleppo, and he is the latest in a string of right-wing terrorists in Turkey whose acts have served to draw Ankara back toward the West. Less than two weeks after the assassination, in the early hours of January 1, a gunman believed to have been affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) killed at least 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub. If such attacks continue, as they very likely will, they could undermine Erdogan's grip on power, which is what the wave of terror is all about, even if the perpetrators differ. 

At this stage, it is impossible to know Altintas’ precise intention, whether he was a “lone wolf” or was directed by others, and what consequences the murder will have. But historical patterns offer some clues. First, Turkey has seen a long line of high-level assassinations carried out by the country’s right wing, made up of Sunni Islamists and Turkish nationalists, who have always been aligned in Turkish politics. The killers have typically had connections—a direct one in the case of Altintas, who was a riot police officer—with the country’s security agencies. Second, assassinations have tended to take place in particular geopolitical circumstances, namely whenever Turkey’s long-standing commitment to the Western security alliance has seemed to be in jeopardy.

The first wave came in the 1960s and 1970s, when the left was ascendant in Turkey. Back then it looked as if the country, a member of NATO since 1952, could end up being pulled into the Soviet Union’s orbit. The violence—assassinations and massacres—reached its peak during the late 1970s and claimed more than five thousand lives. The targets were leftist intellectuals, students, trade unionists, and Alevis, the left-leaning, heterodox Muslim minority. Later, in the early 2000s, factions within the Turkish military—otherwise a staunch proponent of NATO—came out in favor of reorienting away from the West and developing security ties with Russia and China. A string of spectacular killings of Christians followed.  

With the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey seemed to put itself back on a Westward path. Although the AKP was moderately Islamist, it nurtured close ties with the United States and with the European Union, Turkey’s major trading partner. The military officers who advocated for a Eurasian orientation were purged and imprisoned, accused of having plotted a coup.

But the authoritarian drift of the AKP regime since 2012 has strained Turkish-Western relations. In some ways, Turkey’s eastward drift should have brought it closer to Russia, which was itself increasingly at odds with the West. Yet the two countries were locked in battle over Syria, with Ankara supporting the Islamist rebels and Russia bent on keeping its ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, in power. The authoritarian drift of the AKP regime since 2012 has strained Turkish-Western relations.

Yet Turkey has gradually had to abandon the apparently unachievable goal of overthrowing Assad. In turn, it reached a détente with Russia in hopes of having at least some influence over future developments in Syria, above all to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing self-rule along a contiguous strip of the Turkish border. Also easing tensions between the two countries (which had reached new heights after Turkey downed a Russian war plane over Syria late last year) is Ankara’s growing alienation from the United States after the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the summer.

Erdogan has not hidden his disappointment with the U.S. response to the attempt to overthrow him. He has expressed gratitude toward Russian President Vladimir Putin who, unlike U.S. President Barack Obama, was quick to express support for Erdogan as the coup unfolded. Pro-government media in Turkey have even claimed that Russia helped to derail the coup.

The Turkish regime is inclined to view the United States’ refusal to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara holds responsible for the coup attempt, as proof of American complicity. Further, U.S. aid to the Kurdish rebels in Syria, who are close allies of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged an insurgency against Ankara since 1984, is seen as yet another expression of American hostility. According to reports in Turkish media, elements within the state establishment are encouraging Erdogan to break off relations with the United States and Europe and to align Turkey more fully with Russia. The failed coup may have strengthened the hand of the military faction that advocates such a realignment; what is clear is that the purges in the wake of the coup attempt have depleted the ranks of the most pro-NATO officers.

Still, Turkey is not a monolith, and there are those, including some in the security agencies, who remain committed to the Islamist rebels in this battle and aligned with Turkey’s traditional, anti-Russian strategic orientation in general. This has been a constant of Turkish foreign and security policy since the 1940s. The belief that Moscow is the historical enemy against which Turkey must stand strong led Turkey to commit to Western ties in the first place. Some in this camp, such as Altintas, may see violence as their only hope of putting Turkey back on the right path. There is a historical precedent for this: Turkish security agencies, or at any rate elements within them, the so-called “deep state,” have a history of tapping into the reservoir of rightist ideology in order to ensure that Turkey does not deviate from its traditional strategic course: to maintain vigilance against its historical enemy, Russia.

For example, in 1979, the right-wing militant Mehmet Ali Agca assassinated Abdi Ipekci, the editor of Turkey’s leading centrist newspaper. Ipekci had been a supporter of Bülent Ecevit, the social democratic leader who served as prime minister three times between 1973 and 1979 and whom  business circles and the military viewed with great suspicion. Turkey had never had a leftist government before, and many in the Turkish state establishment and in business circles believed that Ecevit was going to lead the country away from the Western alliance. “Left of center is the way to Moscow” was a popular slogan among many in the right in those days. 

After the murder, Agca subsequently escaped prison and left Turkey with the apparent aid of the police. He later attempted to kill Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1981 in a plot that has never been untangled. It has been claimed that, after he left Turkey, Agca was recruited by East bloc secret services, which plotted to murder the Polish pope in retaliation for his encouragement of the freedom movement in his native Poland. In the end, Ipekci’s assassination represented a major milestone on the way to the 1980 military coup. It was the most shocking assassination of those years. Rightist death squads with links to the “deep state” killed leftist and centrist intellectuals. Ecevit narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. The left was finally crushed when the military took power in 1980. U.S. officials welcomed the coup of “our boys,” and for a time, Turkey seemed to be leaning back toward the West. The failed coup this year and the rapprochement with Russia have put the Eurasian option back on the table.

However, by the end of the Cold War, an anti-West faction had again gained ground within the Turkish military. This faction viewed American policies in the Middle East with suspicion and believed that Washington harbored territorial designs on Turkey, specifically that the United States intended to carve out an independent Kurdistan from Turkish territory. Many in this faction objected to allowing the United States to use Turkish territory in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, something that Erdogan had supported. These so-called Eurasianist military officers argued that Turkey needed to reorient toward Russia and China to ensure its national security and integrity.

But Eurasianism clashed with the priorities of the AKP government and with those of the top brass, who mostly remained pro-NATO. Enter another rightist terrorist, Ogün Samast, who in 2007 assassinated the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. The assassination of Dink came after the 2006 murder of Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest, and was followed by the killings of three Christian missionaries and book printers. In all three cases, the perpetrators were rightist adolescents. The authorities claimed that the violence was the work of anti-Western nationalists in the “deep state.” A top general known for his Eurasian views, Hursit Tolon, was charged with the crimes and arrested. He was acquitted years later.

However, there is now overwhelming evidence that Samast’s plot was indeed masterminded by elements within the Turkish security forces, but that it was—like the other killings of Christians—a false flag operation. In hindsight, it appears that the real purpose was to create the conditions that legitimized the roundup of the Eurasian, nationalist opposition to the AKP regime. The episode reinforced the pro-NATO faction’s feelings that Ankara needed to clean out the “deep state” and helped to legitimize several show trials of accused coup plotters, which in turn eliminated perceived threats to Turkey’s continued commitment to the Western security structure.

The failed coup this year and the rapprochement with Russia have put the Eurasian option back on the table. The day after Karlov’s murder, the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia, and Turkey signed a joint declaration in Moscow in which they noted their commitment to keeping the Assad regime in power. History teaches that such a Eurasian orientation will likely trigger more responses. It also suggests that the Eurasianists will not get the upper hand. Historically, the right wing ideological bloc has proved to be overwhelmingly powerful and effective. The rightist networks in the Turkish state have demonstrated their capability to mobilize to protect the pro-Western strategic status quo. Erdogan knows that he must be careful. But the struggle over Turkey’s geopolitical orientation risks wreaking havoc in an already destabilized nation. 

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