Thanks to peace-loving dictatorships, the U.S. is the only country threatened by the Ankara assassination
Yesterday, Andrey G. Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, was shot and killed while making a public appearance in Ankara. His killer, a Turkish police officer, apparently said in Turkish after “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria.” Protests had already erupted all over Turkey regarding Russia’s support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the civil war there, and there was fear online that the assassination could lead to a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
However, as the New York Times reports today, a World War I-like diplomatic crisis is unlikely. In fact, the only geopolitical loser from the assassination might end up being the United States.
The idea is that both Turkey and Russia have too much to gain from their continued cooperation to put a stop to it now. This is a big change from a year ago, when Turkey was supporting anti-Assad rebels while Russia was doing everything it could to keep Assad in power.
Since then, in part because of Russian support for Assad, Turkey has abandoned its more ambitious goals and limited itself to preventing Kurdish groups from gain power near the Turkish border. (Turkey is currently fighting Kurdish rebel and terrorist groups within its own country and wants to limit Kurdish political power as much as possible.) Since Russia doesn’t have any particular desire to support Kurdish forces, they’ve agreed to stop helping those aligned with Assad so long as Turkey agreed to stop helping forces opposed to Russian interests.
Here’s how Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert, put it to the Times: “Turkey needs Russia to advance its war interests. Russia needs Turkey to win, as it defines winning, in Syria. Everyone has an incentive to handle this like adults.”
There’s another element that helps stop tension from escalating: the paucity of democratic oppositions in both Turkey and Russia. In countries like the United States or Germany, a strong opposition party can be counted on to seize a national crisis for the purpose of criticizing the ruling power.
If, for instance, President Obama was trying to minimize conflict with, I don’t know, Syria, you can be sure Republicans would criticize him for it. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdoğan don’t have to worry about appearing tough to win an upcoming election. (Turkey does still have elections, but they aren’t fair, and the country ranks behind Iran and Myanmar on the World Justice Project’s rule of law index.)
But even a dictatorship has to keep its people happy. Since Turkey’s cooperation with Russia has been drawing protests throughout the country, Erdoğan has tried to shift attention away from it–and from the killer’s own comments–by blaming it on cleric Fethullah Gulen, the same man that Erdoğan blamed the summer’s failed coup on.
Since Gulen currently lives in exile in the U.S., that’s bad news for American-Turkish relations, something Erdoğan is likely banking on. 83 percent of Turkish people disagree with the U.S. being Turkey’s friend and ally, so the country serves as an easy scapegoat. For instance, earlier this month, we detailed how pro-Erdoğan papers were covering the false “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory as actual news to shield Erdoğan from a legitimate abuse scandal in Turkey.
Thankfully, Russian Deputy Ambassador to Israel Alexi Drobinin said that the event won’t impact Turkish-Israeli relations, which are just starting to recover after the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid. Still, in a country where anti-Semitism is rampant, it’s hard to imagine increased violence and anxiety being good for Jews there.