The Tsar and the Sultan

erdogan putinVladimir 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







9 thoughts on “The Tsar and the Sultan

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    It it is of great significance that the USA is almost totally missing from all condiderations and analyses in this article. That would have been unimaginable at any time over the past 100 years prior to 2008. Such is the legacy of the “hope and change” president.

  • en passant says:

    It is a case of bad or worse. I choose ‘bad Assad’ over the Libyan Solution, ISIS, Al Quaeda or other sundry muslime maniacs. I visited secular Damascus in the 1990’s and found it to be a very open and civilised place.
    Tell me it is better now, or support Assad.
    Your choice …

    • neilo.roberts says:

      en passant
      Syria doesn’t have a civil war, it has a bunch of terrorists, bought and paid for by the US and associated idiots, fighting with the legitimate, internationally recognised govt of Syria.
      Assad is certainly no choir boy, but has(had) managed to keep the country stable and secular .. a bit like Iraq and Libya actually.

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    A well informed article on the complexities, intrigues, dreams and schemes of that region, but I would disagree with ‘the spin’, the Shia/Sunni clash is over-weighted. The culprit is state sponsored terrorism, NATO weaponry.
    A quiz.
    Who said the following? . . .

    ‘… Without the values at the core of Christianity and other world religions, without moral norms that have been shaped over millennia, people will inevitably lose their human dignity…We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual’
    (Vladimir Putin, September 2013at the Valdai Club)

    I’m backing Putin as the last statesman standing, despite insults that can be easily manufactured against anyone

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Putin didn’t comment on the effect of Trumps election. He will lead the restoration of western values and re build economies.

    The Sunni /Shia war has been going on for nearly 1500 years. The west apart from the Crusades has only had interest in this region for a couple of hundred years.

    The Sunni shoe war intensified with the Wahabibs and salafist of the Saudi Peninsular i the 10 th century. The west empowered the House of Saud in the mid 20th century and this largely controlled the war for 50 or 60 years.

    As did the British/France domination of the region after the demise of the Ottomans.

    All the western influence started to fall apart after the rise of socialism and socialist dictatorships across the Mid East following the meddling of the Russian communists.

    Your reading of history seems to ignore these influences.

    I’d say the Sunni/Shia war is fundamental as is the lingering effect of the original Russian meddling. Putins a communist hoping to restablish the ’empire’, the Assard regime is Socialist, the Americans Fromthe Clintons to the Bushes to the Obamas were stupid to have forgotten the Russian meddling and the stupidity of the US interventions simply resulted in exacerbating the pre-existing chaos.

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    Yeah, but Assad lives in the area, Russia also lives in the neighbourhood. Why is the USA there?
    Historically, why did USA attack Mossadeq, the Shah, both secular, rational, modernisers?

    Can you clarify, ‘He will lead the restoration of Western values econmies” – Putin or Trump?

    The old imperial powers (France, England, AND Turkey) also STILL have crazy, geopolitical dreams of Empire, but in the end its about a resources grab (oil, gas) and preventing other economic powers rising (especially Iran. Its a matter of ‘black pots’ and ‘black kettles’?

    ‘Russian communists’ ??? As a footnote,check the names of old Bolshevik, Trotskyites and their spore and ideas still influencing US State Department policy. Start by googling Allen Weinstein, John Richardson, Carl Gershamn at the National Endowment for Democracy. These old Bolsheviks want permanent war against Russia.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    You didn’t really think Putin, did you Don?

    Russia is further away than the old imperialists. Not really in the neighbourhood.
    Russia supports the Sicialist Assad regime. Only natural given the history( modern)

    You also overlook the fact the US is now self sufficient in oil and is dominating its pricing. They don’t need to grab the regions oil anymore.

    Trump is already restoring western values (read a list of his appointees especially in those areas dominated by leftie thinking and ideas eg climate change) and that is leading to restoration of the economy.

    Why did you omit Russia and the US as imperialist?

    Iran is limited by its intellectual poverty, like all ME muslim countries.
    Even with sanctions lifted. What the Iranians didn’t learn was the lesson Reagan taught the Russians. Having nuclear weapons means JS if your enemies have the economic power to outspend you on developing systems of defence and developing greater attack potency.

    Trump intends to withdraw the US from meddling in the world. That would be a good thing? Don’t you think?

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    Yes, I think Putin is more a deep thinker Christian, than is Trump (Read Putin’s Valdai speech in full), no such thoughts occur to Trump. If I am wrong point out a comparable Trump speech defending civilisation. Trump is a refreshing change, that’s all, he is not a Renaissance man.

    • Trump has NO economic agenda to rebuild America, bring the jobs home. Abolishing the EPA, being a climate sceptic is small change in the battle for US economic recovery (in my mind).

    • Trump has no intention of building common wealth. He is ignorant of Hamilton, Clay, Carey, List, Peshine Smith and the economics (tariffs excepted), that built America. He will NOT reform the Federal Reserve. America needs an FDR New Deal just to survive and to be made ‘great again’ (whatever that nonsense means). A New Deal for real workers would be anathema to Trump and the mass of reactionaries in the GOP, especially the (mad hatter) Tea Party types.

    • Trump is not withdrawing,stopping meddling. He (and the oil king, Tillersen) is linking deeper into Russia through ECONOMICS through gas/oil deals (and that is excellent!).

    • Trump, thankfully, rejects the POLITICAL colour revolution meddling of Obama/Clinton and the crusading Trotsyites in the State Department aka ‘the swamp'(and that is excellent).

    • Trump will continue the Obama ‘return to the Pacific to confront China.

    • Putin’s Russia is not imperialist, Russia (to my mind) is working for a sensible cordon sanitaire on its boarders, against present NATO incursions, made contrary to the promises back in 1990 when the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the Soviet (Stalinist) Empire dissolved.

    • Assad is fighting for his life and country not socialism. No one believes in socialism!

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    I never said what Ass was fighting for only that his rewind is socialist.

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