A year after the murder in Ankara: Turkish foreign policy open to further U-turns

Political assassinations always come as a shock. But what is even more shocking is that they can turn out to be a non-event.

That’s what happened with the murder of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, exactly a year ago. Under other circumstances, the loss of a high-ranking diplomat would put relations between any two countries under severe strain. But both Russian and Turkish authorities brushed aside the ambassador’s death at the hands of an off-duty police officer as little more than an unpleasant incident. 

Putin called it “a provocation” and Erdoğan was quick to agree. The culprit turned out to be Fethullah Gülen. Several days ago a man was arrested in Gaziantep on charges he had recruited the assassin on behalf of what the government calls the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ). Case closed. Turkey and Russia have moved on to deal with pressing state-to-state business.

What is forgotten is that the attack coincided with mass rallies in solidarity with the besieged anti-Assad forces in Aleppo. “Russia, get out of Syria”, chanted thousands at the Cilvegözü border crossing on the highway connecting İskenderun and Aleppo, just two days before Karlov was shot. A solidarity march had taken place in Istanbul, too. These were surely not the Gülenists. The protest at the Syrian border had been organized by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH), a conservative foundation known to be close to the AKP. 

At a time when the government was wheeling and dealing with the Russians – and ultimately brokered the handover of Eastern Aleppo to Assad – its grassroots were up at arms in support of fellow Sunni Muslims fighting the regime. People’s indignation provided a smokescreen for Turkey’s diplomatic manoeuvres. But then things got out of hand.  Someone pulled the the trigger, screaming “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria”.

This grim episode illustrates, amongst other things, the inherent tension between values and interests underlying Turkey’s foreign policy. Or most countries’ foreign policies, for that matter.

On the one hand, AKP and Erdoğan became involved in the Syrian war driven by the sense of mission. Turkey, touted as a “model” or “source of inspiration” for (Sunni) Arab societies, sought to guide political change and assist the establishment of regimes emulating its example.

On the other, the harsh realities of power politics have constrained Ankara’s choices.  Russia’s intervention and the growing reach of Syrian Kurds, led by an offshoot of the outlawed PKK and aligned with the U.S., changed the strategic calculus. Once committed to removing Assad from power, Turkey is now tacitly accepting that the regime is to stay. 

The Turkish government cooperates with both Russia and Iran, Bashar’s chief foreign patrons, in the Astana Peace talks on Syria. Goals are now more modest: containing the PYD/YPG and having a say in a future power-sharing settlement, in case there is one.  In other words, the pursuit of security trumps all other considerations. 

That’s why Turkey, or rather Erdogan, made a u-turn in the second half of 2016 and embraced Russia. All of a sudden, yesterday’s rival became an indispensable partner.  As Assad now calls the Kurds “traitors” over their ties with а foreign power he might convert into Ankara’s friend once more. Just like in the good old days before the Arab Spring.

But Turkey is unlikely to give up on its ambition to lead Sunni Muslims. It is an essential part of the narrative Erdogan deploy abroad but, perhaps more importantly, at home too.

A commitment to fellow believers worldwide, in line with the teachings of Islam, sustains AKP’s power as much as does economic growth and ambitious welfare policy. Hard-nosed realpolitik in Syria will be balanced by the rhetoric of Muslim solidarity. The challenge is to find issues where values and interests do not conflict and ethical foreign policy does not entail high costs. 

Fortunately for Turkey there is no shortage of such issues: from Somalia to the plight of Myanmar’s embattled Rohingya minority, to Islamophobia in Western societies (a pet subject for Erdoğan and his supporters.) 

And now Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has come at a golden opportunity. Issuing a stark response and vowing to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem, Erdogan is brushing up his reputation as a Muslim leader.

Time to remind everyone who is the hero of the proverbial Arab street.