The Syrian conflict has sparked an international firestorm of controversy, with the Middle East waiting with bated breath for the crisis to end. Security expert and Brookings Doha visiting fellow, Beverley Milton-Edwards, spoke with Brookings Doha’s communications assistant, Sumaya Attia, to discuss the aftermath of the killing of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, as well as the ongoing crisis in Syria, and what this means for future Turkish-Russian relations. This interview has been lightly edited for length or clarity.
Sumaya Attia (SA): The deadly attack on the Russian ambassador, Andrey Karlov, was an extreme manifestation of the underlying tension in the Middle East in response to the crisis in Syria. What is your take on the ongoing backlash and ramifications of Russian involvement in Syria?
Beverley Milton-Edwards (BME): The assassination throws into the spotlight the nature of the Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis and its consequences on and for Syria, especially at this time in Aleppo. It reflects a growing fear among many within the region that Syria’s future is increasingly being determined by Moscow and Tehran.
SA: In a statement after the killing, Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said that the assassination was an attempt to weaken the improvement or normalization of a relationship between Russia and Turkey, seemingly indicating that he doesn’t believe this was a government-supported attack. Are there groups in Turkey who are raising red flags over Syria or do you believe this was the result of the frustration felt by one man as the situation in the country continues to worsen?
BME: It is understandable that the Russian government does not believe that Turkish state forces inspired the attack. Nevertheless, it is well known that there are strands of opinion in Turkey that are concerned about the growing rapprochement with Russia. The assassination raised the alarm at Erdogan’s apparent embrace of Iran and Russia, and the assassin being a member of Turkey’s security forces gives rise to the concern that Turkish policy in Syria is now out of step with much of Sunni Muslim sentiment. So while there may not necessarily be identifiable groups in Turkey that are mobilizing, the assassination reflects a concern among Sunni Muslims that Ankara’s road to Moscow may mean detours to Tehran and Damascus. We must also take into consideration that the phenomenon of lone wolf attacks is growing across the globe, reflecting deep individual disaffection and discontent, which leads to extremism and violence.
SA: As previously planned, the foreign and defense ministers of Iran, Russia, and Turkey met the day after the attack to address the Syrian crisis. How do you think the assassination affected this meeting?
BME: The attack provided yet another opportunity for Iran, Russia and Turkey to emphasize their posturing around terrorism and the Syrian crisis, while deepening their involvement directly in Syria in support of the government of Assad and his armed forces. It is clear that Turkey is becoming involved in this alliance as a form of protectionism and re-alignment following the fall of Aleppo and rout of rebel forces. Those rebel forces had been backed by Arab states who are engaged in a proxy war with Iran and Syria. Clearly, Erdogan is signaling to such Arab states where he believes Turkey’s national and security interests lie, and what must be done to shore them up. Tehran, rather than Riyadh, is the venue to which Erdogan is increasingly allying himself.
SA: The shooter reportedly stated a slogan that was linked to the Nusra Front. If the group was behind the attack, what would it stand to gain?
BME: Presently, there is little evidence of a direct link to the Nusra Front. That the assassin highlighted the plight of Aleppo does give rise to growing concerns that apparent Western inaction over the siege of the city, the loss of civilian life, and the limited humanitarian assistance permitted will further exacerbate the conflict and hostility. There are rising security fears of terror attacks in Europe, which highlights or focuses on Aleppo and Syria. This means that Western intelligence and security services have to be extremely vigilant in anticipating the political pressure points that result in the targeting of the West. Social media has been flooded with distressing images and pleas for Western action, which, at a level of state and government, appears to have been met with studied indifference or hand-wringing but no action.
SA: Do you think this incident will shift the relationship Erdogan and Putin are carefully building?
BME: It is already evident that neither Erdogan nor Putin will want this attack to deter them from their recent efforts at rapprochement or the extent to which Turkey recalibrates its Syria strategy as it marches into the Russian-Iranian fold. Turkey has also become extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks, including those against Western targets. Erdogan’s post-coup purges have resulted in domestic repression on an unprecedented scale and has affected national security priorities and capabilities. Rebuilding the relationship with Moscow is part of Erdogan’s strategy to protect his country and degrade his enemies in Syria.