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Turkey turns closer to Russia after ambassador assassination

Flag-wrapped coffin of late Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov is carried to a plane during a ceremony at Esenboga airport in Ankara. Umit Bektas/Reuters

The assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrey G Karlov, by an off-duty Turkish police officer in the Turkish capital Ankara appeared, at first glance, to be a game changer in the ongoing Syrian war.

When Karlov was gunned down at a public event by Mevlut Mert Altintas, the war had already entered a new phase with the fall of Aleppo through the support of Russia and Iran. But far from bringing about the beginning of World War III, the assassination has shed light on a new power axis dominating the Middle East.

This new phase centres around three main regional actors on the ground, Turkey, Iran and Russia, each with diverging calculi and interests.

No immediate crisis

Contrary to early commentary and as seen in the statements from the leaders of Turkey and Russia, the Russian ambassador’s assassination did not lead to an immediate crisis.

Relations between the two countries had recently normalised following the downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter jet by Turkish air forces in November 2015 after it violated Turkish air space.

Comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the assassination is being cautiously viewed in his country as an attempt to sabotage the countries’ improved relations and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s expression of a strong wish to continue close Turkish-Russian ties, have highlighted the decisiveness of the two nations to keep cooperating – despite significant cleavages – on the slippery path towards the end of the Syrian civil war.

Karlov and Putin disembark from the presidential aircraft at Ataturk airport in Istanbul in October. Osman Orsal/Reuters

Critical timing

The recent incident came at a time when Turkey and Russia have been collaborating on the evacuation of civilians in Aleppo. Its timing is critical for three main reasons.

First, the past ten days have seen a new wave of terror in Turkey attributed to TAK, the urban affiliate of the Kurdish separatist organisation known as the PKK. The attacks have increased calls for national unity against terror.

Second, Turkey has felt abandoned by its Western allies in its efforts to protect itself from spillover effects of the Syrian civil war since 2015. Turkey has recently diverged from the US in its the handling of the Syrian crisis, as well as over how best to fight Islamic State. The recently triggered crisis with the EU over the “refugee deal”, has also led the Turkish government to search for alternatives and ad-hoc coalitions for solving the Syruan crisis, in the form of Russia and Iran.

Third, the incident came the day before the planned trilateral meeting of the three regional actors involved militarily in the crisis. That meeting was the first face-to-face gathering organised independently of UN diplomatic initiatives and without the participation of the US and other regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The meeting affirmed a strong commitment to cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Reshaping the regional calculus?

Regionally, Turkey appears to be the country most affected by the Syrian civil war. It has been a direct target for violent groups based in Syria, such as Islamic State and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its military wing, YPG. The PKK has also resumed violence against the Turkish state after a three-year peace process.

On top of all this, Turkey carries the heaviest financial and social burden as host to nearly three million Syrian refugees.

A view of Nizip refugee camp, near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province of Turkey. Umit Bektas/Reuters

Since Turkey’s Assad-centric approach to the conflict has not been supported by its Western allies, its gradual isolation in the Middle East has prevented it from pursuing a flexible and independent Syrian agenda.

The entrance of Russia into the Syrian quagmire in September 2015 together with an increasing Iranian presence on the ground have served to make Turkey more vulnerable to the diffusion of the civil war.

Together, these factors appear to have pushed Turkey to revise its Syria policy, taking into consideration the changing regional balance and the strategies of newcomers, such as Russia.

Despite this revision of its regional calculus, Turkey as a long-time ally of the West and as a NATO member, has not yet changed sides in Syria. And its main reservations about the future of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain.

The new Turkish-Russian-Iranian coalition

Worsening spillover effects from the Syrian war, combined with the Western strategy of non-engagement, does appear to have forced Ankara to return to its traditional strategy of diversifying foreign policy options and partners.

The statements of the three countries’ foreign ministers in the aftermath of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian meeting reflect their shared interests in finding a peaceful political solution to the ongoing gridlock. And the ongoing evacuation of civilians from Aleppo has offered hope for the efficiency and the functionality of the trilateral regional conflict resolution mechanism.

The reactions to the assassination can also be seen as a good indicator of the increasing interdependence between Turkey and Russia regarding Syria and other regional security problems.

In fact, America’s unwillingness to act as a peace broker in Syria allowed Russia to take on a leading role in the crisis and reinforced its capacity to manoeuver on the ground.

Given the ambiguities of US president-elect Donald Trump’s possible Syria policy, it seems likely that regional actors will have room to more easily assume extra roles in dealing with the crisis in the coming months.

The assassination shows that prolonging the crisis would not serve anyone’s interests. The conflict has now become unsustainable for all parties concerned.

Russia needs Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan as an ally in the Middle East. Murad Sezer/Reuters

There’s now a greater need for all involved in Syria to take more responsible action with the aim of restoring security order. The assassination has proven that Russia needs Turkey – together with Iran – to shape the post-Syrian war environment in the Middle East.

Turkey’s presence in this ad-hoc coalition signifies the total failure of Western actors in Syria, and provides clues as to how the new Middle Eastern order will be designed in the future.

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