The 19th of December, 2016, got all the way to the early afternoon as a quiet news day. By the time it was over, areas of Brussels had been on lockdown as anti-terrorism police swept parts of the city, a man wielding a machete at a SkyTrain station in Vancouver had been shot by police, three people had been injured in a shooting at a mosque in Zurich and a body found nearby, at least 12 people had been murdered and 48 injured in a truck-ramming attack at a Christmas market in Berlin, and the Russian ambassador to Turkey had been assassinated. Later in the evening, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Latin American department was found dead at his flat in Moscow.

The coincidence of potentially terrorist-related incidents, actual or thwarted, in Belgium, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland on the same day will naturally raise questions about possible coordination, but it is far too early to come to any meaningful conclusions. The most dramatic incident was undoubtedly the assassination, on video, of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, as he attended the opening of an art exhibition at a gallery in Ankara, by an off-duty policeman.

While the assassin's organisational ties are not yet clear, the savage conquest of Aleppo by a coalition of forces, many of them foreign, loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, was his stated motive. The anger at Russia in the Muslim world for its criminal conduct in Syria is very widespread, which means the possibility of an enraged lone individual cannot be ruled out. The Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaeda are the most obvious candidates, not least because they would reap considerable political rewards by doing this.

In the immediate aftermath of this appalling crime there were many references to the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 that set in motion the series of events that led to the First World War. By 1914, Austria-Hungary's most senior military adviser, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had repeatedly recommended preventive war against Serbia, which posed various security challenges to the Empire, and the elite in Vienna largely agreed with him. The Sarajevo incident was therefore a useful pretext.

That is not the outcome yesterday's incident will have because neither Turkey nor Russia — which have been patching up relations since earlier this year — has any incentive to use the killing in that way. To underline the point, one only has to look at the wild conspiracy theories promoted, sometimes by those connected to official circles, in both countries in the aftermath of the attack.

In Russia, an outlet called Katehon opined that the assassination "could be defined as a typical CIA operation". Katehon bills itself as a think-tank, but is "really just a website," John Schindler, a former U.S. counter-intelligence officer at the National Security Agency (NSA). Katehon "is run by [Aleksandr] Dugin, [Konstantin] Malofeev and others who are Russian Orthodox nationalists with close ties to the SVR [Russian foreign intelligence]," Schindler adds. "They are one of the Kremlin's mouthpieces. This is blatant anti-American agitprop intended to stoke the fires of far-Right resentments in Russia and abroad."

The leader of Russia's quasi-fascistic Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a wholly-invented creature of Russian intelligence, a useful foil for a government that says all the alternatives to its rule are worse, added his voice to this chorus, saying, "The West is afraid of Russian-Turkish friendship."

Within moments of the ambassador being shot in Ankara, many Turks on social media and many connected to government-friendly media outlets turned attention to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist cleric currently residing in Pennsylvania. A Turkish security official told Reuters that there were "very strong signs" the assassin was a follower of Gulen's.

Andrey Karlov
The moment Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was shot in Ankarra.Getty

Gulen is a former ally of the current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and helped him neutralise the old secular order in Turkey. Now, the Gulenist movement has been declared a terrorist organisation, is being rooted out of the Turkish state, and stands accused of the attempted coup in July. Ankara has officially requested that America extradite Gulen, and the America has so far refused.

It is also noteworthy that the shooting down of the Russian jet that strayed into Turkish airspace on 24 November 2015 has been ascribed to the machinations of the Gulenist "parallel state" that was plotting its coup and trying to cause conflict between Turkey and Russia — completely contrary to the statements of the Turkish government and its loyalist media at the time, but there it is.

This is not to say, despite the highly conciliatory official posture — last Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusgolu spoke by telephone and the official readouts stressed that both had agreed to a firm joint effort against terrorism — that there haven't been and won't be dark insinuations about one-another.

Moscow has previously—and demonstrably falsely—accused Turkey, including Erdogan personally, of supporting Isis as a useful asset in its foreign policy. There's quite a lot of projection in this view. Even yesterday there were articles in Russian state propaganda about the Turkish government's support for "terrorism," and thus possible role in the killing of the ambassador.

Still, public opinion in both Turkey and Russia was largely directed toward blaming third parties for trying to disrupt relations between Ankara and Moscow with this assassination, and in so far as there was an identifiable villain it was the United States: either staging a direct provocation in the Russian version or harbouring those who did in the Turkish version.

The deterioration of Russia's relations with America is a long-term trend that began no later than 2007, when Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, lamented the fall of the Soviet Union, the apparent ill-treatment of his country by Nato, and then invaded Georgia the next year. Moscow's behaviour has only got worse since then. Emboldened by a "reset" policy that began with pre-emptive concessions in Eastern Europe and the "red line" debacle in Syria, Moscow stole Crimea, continues in occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine, has assisted in the commission of war crimes by the pro-government coalition in Syria to put down a popular uprising, and, in a statement of contempt for a sitting US president not seen even in the Soviet days, interfered in the US elections.

Turkey's interests remain the same in Syria, as does Russia's strong leverage against Turkey. The status quo works for both, and very likely they will maintain it.

The tension between US President Barack Obama and Turkey was not foreordained. Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 might now be the better remembered, but he began this outreach to the world of Islam in the Turkish parliament two months before. Erdogan was once the world leader Obama spoke to most often. Erdogan's drive for mastery over Turkey, which included damaging relations with former allies like Israel, soured relations, but the push was not one-sided.

In Syria, the US refused to seriously commit to its stated policy of Assad's ouster, despite Assad's destabilising effect on the region, Turkey specifically, which now houses two-and-a-half million Syrian refugees and has seen sectarian tensions inside the country aggravated. The US did not alter course even when Turkey, a Nato member, was attacked, with Assad bringing down a Turkish jet and sponsoring terrorism on inside Turkey.

And the US then made the Syrian wing of the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent-terrorist group against the Turkish state for decades, into its primary ally against Isis. The Turks tried to compromise on this —limiting the Syrian PKK's areas of operations — but when those agreements were broken, and the PKK attacked Turkish (and American) assets with Russian help, no penalties were imposed by the US, leading to ongoing resentment and triggering a direct Turkish intervention in Syria in August, which is the primary reason that the Turkish-Russian rapprochement will remain on-course.

Turkey has provided a de facto safe zone to mostly moderate rebels, and even less moderate rebels like Ahrar al-Sham, in northern Syria, and this fait accompli ensures that Ankara has an ability to shape the conflict and its aftermath in a way that the U.S. does not—witness the meeting to take place on December 27 about a ceasefire that includes Turkey, Russia, and Iran, but no American presence. It also simultaneously opened Turkey up to vulnerabilities.

Ankara now needed to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia, and also needed to avoid Moscow using deniable instruments like the PKK—which served as, and was partly founded as, a Soviet proxy against Nato — to raise costs in northern Syria. Turkey's intervention was partly co-ordinated with Russia, and Turkey had a de facto agreement with Moscow that the pro-Assad coalition would be allowed to take over Aleppo City in exchange for Turkey retaining her pocket without harassment from the regime coalition in the northern countryside of Aleppo.

Turkey's interests remain the same in Syria, as does Russia's strong leverage against Turkey. The status quo works for both, and very likely they will maintain it.


Kyle W Orton is associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a Middle East analyst and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @KyleWOrton