Russia’s ambassador was shot dead in the Turkish capital on Monday in an assassination apparently linked to Syria’s civil war, heightening tensions over a conflict that’s drawn in almost all the region’s main powers. Andrey Karlov was shot in the back at an art exhibit in Ankara on Monday and died from his injuries, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. “Allahu akbar,” the gunman shouted, and then “don’t forget Aleppo” – a reference to the Syrian city where mostly Islamist rebels have been defeated this month by Russian-backed government troops. The attacker, who was killed by security forces, was a 22-year-old active-duty police officer. His possible connection with organized groups is being probed, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said. Separately, a man fired a gun near the entrance to the American embassy in Ankara and was taken into custody by Turkish authorities, according to a U.S. State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Nobody was injured in the incident, the official said. Russia and Turkey signaled that they don’t want the attack on the ambassador to turn into another flashpoint between countries that are engaged on opposite sides of the Syrian war, a recurring risk in a conflict with multiple armed parties and outside backers. Their relations came under heavy strain after the Turkish military shot down a Russian plane last year, and both governments have since made an effort to repair them.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in televised remarks that Karlov’s killing was an “open provocation” aimed at undermining the search for peace in Syria and the normalization of ties with Turkey, and he said the response will be a stronger assault on terrorism. “The bandits will feel it,” Putin said. His Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed, saying they’ll jointly investigate the attack and won’t allow it to disrupt a collaboration that’s crucial for the region. Karlov’s death comes days after one of Russia’s biggest victories since it joined the Syrian war last year in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s army, with Russian air support, has retaken almost all of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and for years a rebel bastion. Turkey, which supported the insurgents there and elsewhere in Syria, has played a key role along with Russia in negotiating the continuing evacuation of opposition fighters and civilians. Turkey’s lira declined after the attack, losing 0.8 percent against the dollar. The assassination spurred a wider demand for haven assets, pushing the yield on U.S. Treasuries down as much as 6 basis points earlier on Monday. The fall of Aleppo marked a defeat for Turkey, which supported the Sunni Muslim groups fighting against Assad. Russia says the Syrian rebels are overwhelmingly made up of Islamic extremists, while Turkey has argued that they’re resisting a violent dictatorship. While that’s still the Turkish line, in practice the country has switched its focus in Syria since the rapprochement between Erdogan and Putin. Turkish troops have pushed deep into the neighboring country since August, but they’re mostly targeting Kurdish groups and Islamic State fighters and have steered clear of the battle for Aleppo. Putin said he discussed the ambassador’s killing by phone with Erdogan. He said Russia will send a team of investigators to join the probe and will also expect security guarantees from Turkey for its diplomatic offices. Turkey paid an economic price last time its relationship with Moscow turned sour, as Russia imposed sanctions that targeted the country’s exports and tourism market.
Elena Suponina, an analyst at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, which advises the Kremlin, said the ambassador’s shooting probably won’t lead to another standoff. “This will only bring Russia and Turkey closer together,” she said. “These events have showed that we have a common enemy – terrorism – and only by joining forces can we deal with this enemy.” Still, the killing again raises security concerns for Russian tourists in Turkey, Alexei Pushkov, a member of the defense and security committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, said in televised comments. Tourism is a key source of foreign currency, and is already in decline after a series of attacks by Islamist and Kurdish groups, as well as a failed attempt at a military coup in July. In the past 10 days, more than 50 people were killed in two bomb attacks in Istanbul and central Turkey that targeted security forces and were claimed by Kurdish militants. Turkey reported a shrinking economy in the third quarter for the first time in seven years, as the instability sapped business and consumer confidence. The Turkish and Russian foreign ministers are due to meet in Moscow on Tuesday, along with their Iranian counterpart, to discuss the Syrian war. Iran, the region’s leading Shiite power, is another supporter of Assad’s government and a traditional rival of mostly Sunni Turkey.
The timing is significant because “now Russia will appear at this summit as the victim,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, and a former Turkish opposition lawmaker. Under that pressure, “Turkey could take extra steps toward Putin to appease him.” The U.S., Turkey’s NATO ally, shares its allegiance to rebel groups in Syria, even though many of them have ties to al-Qaeda and other Islamist factions. The U.S. has repeatedly denounced Russia for killing civilians during the campaign to recapture Aleppo, while also seeking an understanding between the two most powerful outside actors in the Syrian war that could help to end the conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the killing of the Russian envoy, and said in an e-mailed statement that America is ready to assist the investigation. President-elect Donald Trump said in a statement that Karlov’s assassination by a “radical Islamic terrorist” was a “violation of all rules of civilized order.” Later, he tweeted: “Today there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany – and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking!”