In order to identify the likely motives of the 22 years old Turkish police officer who assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, we must keep in mind the backdrop that the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers are en route to Russia to find a solution to the five years old Syrian conflict for the first time without the participation of the US.
Although the mainstream media is trumpeting that Mert Altintas, the assassin of the Russian ambassador, had shouted Islamist slogans in broken Arabic with a Turkish accent at the scene of the murder, therefore he must either be a member of the Islamic State or the Al Nusra Front; but from his clean-shaven face and black suit, he appeared more like an intelligence asset than an Islamic jihadist.
Bear in mind that the Erdogan Administration has repeatedly accused the US-based liberal Islamic preacher, Fethullah Gulen, for hatching a coup plot against the Turkish government in July who is known to have inside connections in the US Administration. Moreover, it is also a known fact that thousands of Gulenists have infiltrated the Turkish armed forces, judiciary and more importantly the police and intelligence agencies, which are in the process of being purged by the Erdogan Adminstration.
All of these facts and the motive that an important NATO member, Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, has been drifting away from the American-led alliance since the July coup plot and has developed close working relations with Russia, particularly in their respective Syria policy, points the finger only in one direction: that is, the likelihood of a double agent whose mission was to sabotage the relations between Russia and Turkey and to bring the latter back into the folds of NATO.
The sudden thaw in Turkey’s relations with Russia and latent hostility towards America is partly due to the fact that Erdogan holds the US-based preacher, Fethullah Gulen, responsible for the July coup plot and suspects that the latter had received tacit support from certain quarters in the US; but more importantly Turkey also feels betrayed by the duplicitous American policy in Syria and Iraq, and that’s why it is now seeking closer cooperation with Russia in the region.
In order to elaborate America’s duplicity in Syria, let us settle on one issue first: there were two parties to the Syrian civil war initially, the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition; which party did the US support since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in August 2011 to June 2014, when the Islamic State overran Mosul in Iraq?
Obviously, the US supported the Syrian opposition. And what was the composition of that so-called “Syrian opposition?” A small fraction of it was comprised of defected Syrian soldiers who go by the name of Free Syria Army, but the vast majority has been comprised of Islamic jihadists who were generously funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimized by the Western powers, the Gulf States, Turkey and Jordan.
The Islamic State is nothing more than one of the numerous Syrian jihadist outfits, others being: al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, al-Tawhid brigade, Jaysh al Islam etc. The reason why the US has turned against the Islamic State is that all other jihadist outfits have local ambitions that are limited to fighting the Syrian regime only, while the Islamic State overstepped its mandate in Syria when it captured Mosul and Anbar in Iraq.
All the Sunni jihadist groups that are operating in Syria are just as brutal as the Islamic State. The only thing that differentiates the Islamic State from the rest is that it is more ideological and independent-minded, and it also includes hundreds of Western citizens in its ranks who can later become a national security risk to the Western countries; a fact which has now become obvious after the Paris and Brussels bombings.
This fact explains the ambivalent policy of the US towards a monster that it had nurtured in Syria from August 2011 to June 2014, until the Islamic State captured Mosul in June 2014 and also threatened America’s most steadfast ally in the region – Masoud Barzani and his capital Erbil in the Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also the hub of Big Oil’s Northern Iraq operations. After that development, the US made a volte-face on its previous regime-change policy in Syria and now the declared objective became the war against the Islamic State.
Notwithstanding, the dilemma that Turkey is facing in Syria is quite unique: in the wake of the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks in Damascus in August 2013 the stage was all set for yet another no-fly zone and “humanitarian intervention” a la Qaddafi’s Libya; the war hounds were waiting for a finishing blow and the then-Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and the former Saudi intelligence chief, Bandar bin Sultan, were shuttling between the Western capitals to lobby for the military intervention. Francois Hollande had already announced his intentions and David Cameron was also onboard.
Here it should be remembered that even during the Libyan intervention, Obama’s policy was a bit ambivalent and France under the leadership of Sarkozy had taken the lead role. In the Syrian case, however, the British parliament forced Cameron to seek a vote for military intervention in the House of Commons before committing the British troops and air force to Syria.
Taking cue from the British parliament, the US Congress also compelled Obama to seek approval before another ill-conceived military intervention; and since both the administrations lacked the requisite majority in their respective parliaments and the public opinion was also fiercely against another Middle Eastern war, therefore, Obama and Cameron dropped their plans of enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria.
In the end, France was left alone as the only Western power still in the favor of intervention; at this point, however, the seasoned Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, staged a diplomatic coup by announcing that the Syrian regime is willing to ship its chemical weapons’ stockpiles out of Syria and subsequently the issue was amicably resolved.
Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf Arab states: the main beneficiaries of the Sunni Jihad in Syria, however, had lost a golden opportunity to deal a fatal blow to the Shi’a alliance comprising Iran, Syria and their Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah.
To add insult to the injury, the Islamic State, one of the numerous Sunni jihadist outfits fighting in Syria, overstepped its mandate in Syria and overran Mosul in northern Iraq in June 2014 and threatened the capital of America’s most steadfast ally in the region, Masoud Barzani’s Erbil, as I have already mentioned.
The US had no choice but to adopt some countermeasures to show that it is still sincere in pursuing its schizophrenic “war on terror” policy; at the same time, however, it assured its Turkish, Jordanian and Gulf Arab allies that despite fighting a war against the maverick jihadist outfit, the Islamic State, the Western policy of training and arming the so-called “moderate Syrian militants” will continue apace and that Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered, one way or the other.
Moreover, declaring the war against the Islamic State in August 2014 served another purpose too: in order to commit the US Air Force to Syria and Iraq, the Obama Administration needed the approval of the US Congress which was not available, as I have already mentioned, but by declaring a war against the Islamic State, which is a designated terrorist organization, the Obama Administration availed itself of the “war on terror” provisions in the US’ laws and thus circumvented the US Congress.
But then Russia threw a spanner in the schemes of NATO and its Gulf Arab allies in September 2015 by its surreptitious military buildup in Latakia that was executed with an element of surprise unheard of since Rommel, the Desert Fox. And now Turkey, Jordan, the Gulf Arab states and their Sunni jihadist proxies in Syria find themselves at the receiving end in the Syrian civil war.
Therefore, although the Sunni states of the Middle East still toe the American line in the region publicly, but behind the scenes there is bitter resentment that the US has let them down by making an about-face on the previous regime change policy in Syria and the subsequent declaration of war against one group of Sunni militants in Syria, i.e. the Islamic State.
This change of policy by the US directly benefits the Iranian-led axis in the region. In the war against the Islamic State in Mosul, Turkey has also contributed troops but more than waging a war against the Islamic State the purpose of those troops is to ensure the safety of the Sunni population of Mosul against the onslaught of the Iraqi armed forces and especially the irregular Shi’a militias, which are known for committing excesses against the Sunnis in Iraq.
About the author:
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, neocolonialism and petroimperialism.