Why do they Hate Putin’s Freedoms? Russian Ambassador assassinated in Turkey

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

It is not entirely clear why Mevlut Altintas, a young policeman in, ironically, a counter-terrorism unit in the Turkish capital of Ankara, shot Andrei Karlov– the Russian ambassador to Turkey– in the back on Monday. Was he a lone wolf? Part of a far-right Muslim vigilante movement?

The Washington Post noted in its headline that Altintas invoked the suffering of the people of the East Aleppo pocket and of Syria in general when he carried out the murder. He also used an Arabic phrase (Turks don’t speak Arabic and most don’t know very much of that language) going back to the companions of the Prophet Muhammad when they were besieged by polytheist persecutors from Mecca, pledging steadfastness. This phrase is especially popular among the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda) fighters in Syria.

So it is likely that Altintas, who had served last winter in Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s own security detail, became radicalized at some point, likely by the Syrian-Iranian-Russian siege of East Aleppo, which the right wing Muslim Turkish press has been depicting as a massacre of innocents. (It was a massacre of innocents, but it was also a battle in a civil war between the Syrian Arab Army & allies and Salafi Jihadi fighters determined to overthrow the government).

As Mehdi R. Hasan pointed out (H/T @ggreenwald), the willingness of the Western press to see Altintas’s act of brutal murder as having a motive differs markedly from how such attacks are reported in the United States itself. Understanding motive is not to excuse or forgive, but is an essential act of analysis for the purposes of public policy and even just basic police work. There is never any excuse for striking at non-combatants, which is always cowardly. That said, why did Altintas do it?

The terrorism generated by George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq (Madrid, London, Glasgow e.g.) was not typically talked about that way by American politicians or journalists. We were told that the terrorists attacked the US because they hated our freedoms and way of life. Terrorism was raised from the level of a crime to that of metaphysics, as a wholly different realm of activity and law, which, unlike other purposeful human action, had no specific motive. That the US occupation was at least the proximate cause of some 4 million Iraqis being displaced from their homes, hundreds of thousands killed or wounded, millions of widows and orphans created, etc., etc., was almost never frankly admitted. (Two wrongs don’t make a right, but the US Air Force in Iraq bombarded civilian neighborhoods to get at guerrilla fighters just the way Russia is doing in East Aleppo. I remember one long day in the middle of the Iraq War when the US repeatedly bombarded Ammara and killed dozens of people, and it wasn’t even mentioned on American tv.)

But that Vladimir Putin’s Grozny-like tactics in Syria might have caused blowback is perfectly apparent to the headline-writers. I guess it is only in the case of other countries’ imperialism that blowback can be recognized.

The fake news industry in Turkey is blaming the assassination on the American Central Intelligence Agency and on the Turkish political and religious cult, the Gulen movement. I think it is unlikely either was involved.

At this very early moment after the attack, my guess is that Altintas was taking revenge on Karlov for the defeat of the Nusra Front in East Aleppo (About a fourth of the fighters there were al-Qaeda-affiliated). The Turkish government has been accused of supporting the Nusra Front or at least its close allies.

But as of about July 15, the date of the failed coup attempt, Turkey’s policy radically changed. Turkish President Erdogan appears to have decided that his main challenges were domestic and that little could be gained, under conditions of political instability at home, from further intervention in Syria. Erdogan believes that Kurdish separatism and Gulen cultism are his two biggest enemies. The US has annoyed him by supporting the leftist YPG Kurds of northeast Syria, which Erdogan sees a nothing more than PKK terrorist separatists. There is only circumstantial evidence, but it appears that Russia promised to withhold support from the YPG if Erdogan would let them and the al-Assad regime have East Aleppo.

So Erdogan created the perfect circumstances for blowback, the intelligence term of art for a covert operation that comes back around to bite you in the ass.

Altintas and other Turkish police were told in private that their government supports the guerrillas in Syria on grounds of Muslim fellow-feeling. But then the Turkish government hung the guerrillas out to dry and let Russia have its way with them. Hence, some Turkish security personnel could not accept this about-face, and needed to take revenge on a Russian official.

The assassination will slow but not interrupt that process of Russo-Turkish rapprochement, after a period last winter and spring when the two countries were boycotting each other. If anything this assassination will be blamed on enemies both of Moscow and of Ankara, and may well cause the Erdogan-Putin relationship to strengthen.

If so, it will be a typical use of terrorism by high state elites– ignoring the terrorists but seeing if you could use the tensions for governmental policy-making.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Russia’s ambassador to Turkey assassinated in Ankara”

14 Responses

  1. Once they finish investigating his background, the Turks will know whether Altintas had ties to ISIS or other Islamist groups. But this much is clear: Putin’s support of the Assad regime has embittered a lot of people in the region and it’s hardly surprising when the chickens come home to roost. Lavrov was huffing & puffing for the cameras yesterday but the Russians can’t bomb this problem away.

  2. Mehdi Hassan is absolutely right – no American leader nor the US media EVER link terrorists attacks, and violence against the Western world, especially in the US, to the terrible foreign policies of all American leaders, who have done nothing but bomb, attack unilaterally, and cause chaos, in Muslim nations for decades. We have decimated many of these once intact nations. Surely by now they should make that connection, or are they choosing to ignore the obvious?
    What we are experiencing now are the consequences of our shocking and awing, and toppling regimes, in Muslim nations.
    It is time for them to stop pretending otherwise.

    • As for the claim that: “no American leader nor the US media EVER link terrorists attacks, and violence against the Western world, especially in the US, to the terrible foreign policies of all American leaders” I respond:

      It seems to me that American media sources such as: “The Nation” and “The Atlantic” and “The New Yorker” and “The Christian Science Monitor” and “The PBS News Hour” and “National Public Radio” and “Mother Jones” and so forth do in fact link terrorist attacks against western targets to the foreign policies of western nations, and especially American foreign policy. I do not watch television news, and I seldom glance at the major newspapers such as the New York Times, but I guess they probably have at some point considered how American foreign policy might influence anti-American terrorism.

  3. The assassin may well have been inspired by Western media coverage of the battle for Aleppo which has indeed been comparatively speaking biased, but that cannot be avoided since it is impossible to anticipate every individual’s inner response to revelations with potential to evoke strong emotional reactions. However, there remains the possibility that his reactions were identified and primed for this action by some outside influence and that is what the investigation needs determine or we will be dragged into yet another swamp of conspiracy musings.

    • “outside influence.”

      I would say so. How about the butchery of as many as 400,000 people in Syria. That would qualify as an “outside influence.”

      • If that is the case please have US/ UK ambassadors in Yemen to report to the nearest art gallery.

    • Western Media. Have you ever read Turkish media? Or is “Western media” your default blame object?
      Turks are Sunnis. The “rebels” are Sunnis.
      Russians are backing Alawites who are fighting Sunnis. Russians have been friendly with PYD who are at least ethnically allied with PKK.
      I’m sure you can figure that out.

  4. Great insight professor. Spot on analysis. Thanks for sharing it. What are the chances that the Donald will read this article? Yeah, I thought so…

  5. A fair discussion of the landscape, but the notion that Americans avoid linking terrorist actions to their own foreign policies is silly. The term “blowback” originated with the American intel community. Over the last 30 years, small fortunes have been made by authors, screenwriters and pundits flogging the connections; the beginning of the end of Clinton’s campaign began with a certain US ambassador’s death in Benghazi. The American ease of the connection of Russia’s ambassador’s assassination to that nation’s policy comes from years of experiencing it; the relative lack of US media coverage comes from both another blowback for Germans occurring at the same time and from the heighten concern that the US may have elected their own Tsar Putin in the form of Trump.

    • Intel professionals use the term ‘blowback.’ The general public was told by our politicians that terrorism is senseless and has no motives.

  6. That’s not the Fake News industry in Turkey making those claims. It’s the national news service and the newspapers allied with the the President’s circle and often distributed as gifts. Even Hurriyet has been forced to take on such clowns as Abdulkader Selvi. It is worth making distinctions between “fake news” and government-sponsored /government-generated disinformation.

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