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Assassination of Russian Ambassador Signals Expansion of Syrian Conflict

By Blaise Misztal

Monday, December 19, 2016

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A new front is opening up in what persistently refuses to be and is continually misnamed as the Syrian conflict: Turkey. In 2014, the fighting spread to and enveloped Iraq. With two bombings and now the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, it appears in 2017 the factions fighting this multi-faceted and borderless war will expand it to Turkish soil. While Kurdish groups and ISIS have previously carried out attacks in Turkey, what appears to be an attack by a Syrian opposition group on a foreign target is unprecedented. It could also mark the beginning not just of Turkey as a battleground in the Syrian conflict, but the Syrian-ization of Turkey itself.

While the perpetrator has been identified as a Turkish police officer, no group has taken responsibility for the brazen attack on Ambassador Andrey Karlov in an Ankara art exhibition.

It is unlikely to be the work of the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), the affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that is believed to be behind the bombings in Istanbul on December 10 and Kayseri on December 17 that killed, together, some 60 policemen and wounded hundreds more. There is no active conflict between Russia and any Kurdish group. In fact, Kurds have been attempting their own rapprochement with Moscow—a possibility that seems they would not want to preclude with such a ruthless act. Turkey’s government, however, has a penchant for prematurely and reflexively blaming terrorist acts on the PKK and they might very well do so here because it would serve their strategic purposes to drive a wedge between the Kurds and Russia.

While the perpetrator has been identified as a Turkish police officer, no group has taken responsibility for the brazen attack.

Nor, despite early Russian claims that the assassination was a radical Islamic attack, does the attack seem like it would be the handiwork of ISIS; they would have little reason to target Russia. Despite Russian claims that its intervention in Syria is targeting the terrorist group, its warplanes have largely ignored the large swath of territory in northeastern Syria held by ISIS. While it is not inconceivable that ISIS might seek to burnish its terrorist credentials by attacking a Russian target, expanding its long list of enemies at a time when it is already suffering major losses would be a significant strategic miscalculation.

What seems most likely is that the attack on the Russian ambassador was carried out by a group that actually has been targeted by Russian forces in Syria and borne the brunt of Moscow’s brutal, ruthless, and unforgiving slaughter of opposition fighters and civilians in Aleppo. This possibility is supported by early reports that the gunman shouted “we die in Aleppo, you die here.” If true, this attack could have been perpetrated by a “radical Islamic” group from the Syrian opposition, like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra and officially affiliated with Al-Qaeda) or Ahrar al-Sham, perhaps even carried out by a foreign fighter from within their ranks, such as a Chechen or other Russian national that would have already had animus toward Moscow.

The cleavages and factions that are warring in Syria and Iraq are also present in Turkey. 

But whatever the direct and specific grievance that animated this attack, it appears to be part of a larger trend of the parties to the Syrian conflict taking their fight into Turkey. Increasingly, the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK has to be understood as a broader, regional fight. Turkey has attacked Kurdish groups that it believes to be PKK affiliates in Syria and Iraq; the most recent TAK bombings are as much reprisals for this Turkish adventurism as they are escalations of the PKK conflict. And with both Syrian opposition groups and ISIS coming under increasing pressure, it is entirely possible they will lash out in places where they might have greater freedom of movement, like Turkey. Indeed, given that Turkey has been a crucial transit and logistical hub for Syrian jihadist groups, they are likely to already have the networks and means to operate inside Turkey.

As Turkey continues a confusing foreign policy in Syria—stating a willingness to work with the United States to limit Iranian influence there at the same time as it is preparing to attend a summit with Russian and Iranian leaders to discuss cooperation; signaling both a determination to oust Assad and a willingness to allow him to remain in power—it gives all sides plenty of reasons to distrust and target it. And, finally, as a major influx of refugees, over 3 million at this point, adds to Turkeys already diverse ethno-sectarian mix, the cleavages and factions that are warring in Syria and Iraq are also present in Turkey.

Indeed, the greater fear is not that the battles of the Syrian conflict will be waged in Turkey, but that Turkey itself will become Syrian-ized: that the already polarized divisions of its society become inflamed, erupting into the sort of all-against-all melee that has ripped apart Syria and raised significant doubts about how the country could be reconstituted and governed as a whole. While such Syrian-ization of Turkey might still be prevented, it will require a concerted strategy to extinguish the ethno-sectarian flames that have been stoked in Syria—flames that have been exploited, but were not sparked, by ISIS and flames that will not just burn out but continue to spread through and consume the region if ignored.