Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan each believes himself a providential figure, destined to return his people to the centre of world history. Each has a longing for empire, has emasculated constitutional democracy in his country, and engaged in the demagoguery of a personality cult. The complication arises when these two modern-day autocrats attempt to work together despite joining opposite sides of a civilisational war that is engulfing not only the Greater Middle East but also, increasingly, the world.
All of this was clarified yet again with the slaying of Andrey Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, by Mevlut Mert Altintas, a twenty-two-year-old policeman. To begin with all we knew – and almost all we needed to know – was that (a) Altintas served in security details protecting none other President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in recent months and (b) the assailant, after dispatching Karlov, repeatedly shouted “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria! Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!”
Much of what Putin and Erdoğan say about the public murder of a prime symbol of Russian intervention on the side of Damascus-Iran-Hezbollah in Syria is likely to be propaganda. Turkey’s Ministry of Truth, for instance, was quick off the mark to insist American-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen had a role in Karlov’s death. Altintas, according to this conspiracy theory, was a member of FETÖ, the term invented by Ankara to demonise the Gulen movement as a shadowy, underground terrorist entity determined to subvert the Turkish Republic. Under the headline “Great Sabotage”, the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper explained it this way: “The pro-FETÖ assassins of the CIA have been mobilised.”
So far, at least, Russia’s version of the Ministry of Truth has been more circumspect about blaming Western intelligence agencies, and yet a smattering of Putin’s allies in the Duma made some like-minded rumblings. Frantz Klintsevich, a significant figure in the Russian parliament, speculated on the “highly likely” possibility that “foreign NATO secret services” were behind the assassination. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another ally of Putin’s in the Duma, spoke of a “false flag operation by the West.”
The grain of truth in such dissembling is that Mevlut Mert Altintas took the action he did to protest the nascent rapprochement between Putin’s Russia and Erdoğan’s Turkey. That said, Altintas seems an unlikely agent of FETÖ or the CIA. The dramatic footage of him murdering Karlov and then denouncing the fall of eastern Aleppo makes that abundantly clear: “Only death will remove me from here. Everyone who has taken part in the oppression will one by one pay for it one by one.” A spokesman for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) later confirmed Altintas’ Salafi-jihadist sympathies. The slaying of Andrey Karlov, in other words, was retribution for Russia’s part in the Shia alliance’s recent victory in Aleppo.
The assassination of Ambassador Karlov suggests that major fault lines divide the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey; even if Tsar Vladimir and Sultan Erdoğan themselves would prefer an alliance between their two countries rather than enmity. Back in December 2014, for instance, Ishaan Tharoor, in an article titled “How Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdoğan are made for each other”, captured the friendliness “between two of the most outspoken and demagogic statesmen on the planet” at the time of President Putin’s last visit to Ankara. President Erdoğan provided a welcome “with fitting pageantry: an escort of liveried cavalrymen on horseback, a full military salute and a series of discussions in the cavernous halls of Erdoğan’s vast, new presidential palace.”
Both leaders, Ishaan Tharoor contended, were “kindred spirits”. They were the opposite of “bleeding heart liberals” and pursued reactionary social agendas in their separate domains: Putin, the ardent nationalist and devotee of the Russian Orthodox Church, wary of gender equality and an enactor of legislation hostile to gays; and Erdoğan, the Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist determined to roll back Turkey’s Kemalist legacy. Erdoğan and Putin were both despots who “squelched” any internal obstruction to their “creeping authoritarianism” and were united by a distrust of the West.
Ishaan Tharoor’s 2014 commentary did, however, recognise that although Putin and Erdoğan were like-minded in many ways, a “divergence” existed between the two in “the realm of foreign policy”. They held opposing views on the legitimacy of Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt and, of course, Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. Nevertheless, earlier in 2014 President Erdoğan had been restrained on the subject of Putin’s intervention in eastern Ukraine, though less so in the case of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula: “Erdoğan was compelled to protest on behalf of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people whose history turned traumatic when they fell under rule from Moscow [in the 18th century].”
If Syria’s civil war signified a dark cloud hanging over Russo-Turkish entente, the triumph of Turkey’s allies in Syria, starting with the capture of Idlib city in March 2015, struck like a thunderstorm. An alliance of Salafi-jihadist outfits – Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and Ahrar ash-Sham – known as Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) swept all before them. By the end of May, 2015, these militant jihadists, funded by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, had over-run almost the entirety of Idlib province, and began applying unprecedented pressure in the city of Aleppo plus Latakia and Hama, two Alawite-populated and government-controlled governorates in northwestern Syria.
The Conquest Army’s blitz in the first half of 2015 reduced President Assad’s territory by 18 percent. The announcement on September 30, 2015, that Russia would directly intervene in the war was an indication of the dire threat facing the Syrian government. The purpose of the Russian Air Force was to support the hard-pressed Syrian Army and its Hezbollah and Republican Guard allies in Aleppo, Damascus and elsewhere. Even a cursory examination of the battlelines reveals Moscow’s agenda: to revitalise Assad’s waning grip on western Syria ahead of international negotiations. On a number of occasions Putin himself said as much, including an October 11, 2015, interview on Russian television: “Our objective is to stabilise the legitimate authority and create conditions for a political compromise.”
The shooting down of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24M on November 24, 2015, after it allegedly contravened Turkish airspace for 17 seconds in the locality of Azaz, was unlikely to have been an accident. We can see, with the benefit of hindsight, that an attack on a Russian aircraft operating in the vicinity of the Azaz-Jarabulus corridor was always on the cards. The corridor was the remaining Turkish-Syria conduit that, in the case of Moscow, needed to be closed or, from the perspective of Ankara, had to remain open. President Putin called the shoot-down a “stab in the back by terrorist accomplices”. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described it as “planned provocation”.
At the time, Erdoğan pointedly reminded Moscow that the southern border of the Republic of Turkey was also the southern boundary of NATO command. “An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO,” he warned on October 9, 2015. Since then, as we now know, Erdoğan has performed another volte-face and turned the clock back to those halcyon days of December 2014. Now Erdoğan is enraged by the EU, especially since it criticises him for rescinding whatever remains of freedom and parliamentary democracy in the aftermath of failed coup of June 15-16. After Putin’s intervention in Syria in September 2015, Erdoğan stridently abandoned all intentions of joining the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), a military, economic and political association dominated by Moscow and Beijing. Today membership of SCO is back on the agenda. Doubtless the liveried cavalrymen are already practising for Vladimir Putin’s triumph return to Ankara.
The reason Putin and Erdoğan are able to have another go at forming a special relationship is because they did a deal on Syria. For his part, Erdoğan was given a green light by Putin (and, to be fair, Obama) to launch Operation Euphrates Shield. The Syrian Democratic Forces/PYG, which is an anathema to Erdoğan and successfully battles the Islamic State all over northern Syria, aims to seize the Azaz-Jarabulus corridor and thus create a contiguous territory for the secular mini-state of Rojava. That is now unlikely, at least in the short term. Some disciplined speculation: the price exacted by Putin (but not Obama) for invasion rights in northern Syria was Turkey’s abandonment of its Sunni allies in eastern Aleppo. Here, then, is the real context for Mevlut Mert Altintas murdering Andrey Karlov in full view of the world: “Don’t forget Aleppo!”
From late 2015 until victory in December 2016, Putin’s primary ambition was to facilitate his alliance’s total subjugation of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. And now he has succeeded. The Russian Air Force, in conjunction with the brutal Syrian government and sundry Shia Islamo-fascist outfits, including Hezbollah and various Iranian militias, has done the deed, albeit at great cost to the civilian population. The Syrian civil war is a horror story whichever way you look at it. This eyewitness account from an Amnesty International report on a Syrian Air Force attack earlier in the civil war provides an inkling of the terror involved in Aleppo: “After the bombing, I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere. It is how I imagine hell to be.”
Tsar Vladimir and Sultan Erdoğan have both been playing with fire. While Putin has aided and abetted Iranian expansion into Syria, Erdoğan supported “moderate terrorists” such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and, yes, even the Islamic State. A longing for empire has resulted in these two demagogues inserting their respective countries into a monstrous civilisational war between millennialist Shia fundamentalists and apocalyptic Sunni fundamentalists. There were always going to be consequences for such folly – the assassination of Ambassador Karlov is but one.
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au
He tweets at @ dosakamccann