The first thought many of us had when we found out this week about the dramatic assassination of Andrei Karlov, Russian Ambassador to Turkey, was “World War I.” Not much difference between an ambassador and an archduke, really. And the war in Syria is as confusing (if not more so) as the byzantine European alliances that drew the continent into WWI. But no: This assassination is not the powderkeg flash that Franz Ferdinand’s was. It will not start WWIII. Probably.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
I was reminded recently of that line, which people say Mark Twain wrote, but no one knows if Mark Twain really wrote it — or has any good idea who did write it — and even if Mark Twain did write it Mark Twain’s name is Samuel Clemens so Mark Twain didn’t write it.
That’s kind of what it’s like to try to understand what’s going on in Syria and Turkey. Dodgy quotes misattributed to pseudonyms.
There are reasons we all thought of Ferdinand: the part of the world; the surprise; the theatrics; the confusion and tensions between state powers; the eerie tactical parallels. Even the assassins themselves: Karlov’s murderer — off-duty police officer Melvlut Altintas (22) — seemed to have styled himself after Gavrilo Princip (19), or was at least aware of their shared features and knew that a convincing re-enactment of the 1914 killing dramatically staged for the press would give the murder more weight than it deserved.
This brings me back to Twain. The assassination won’t start WWIII. Russia and Turkey will not go to war over this. But it doesn’t mean everything will be okay, either. It doesn’t mean there won’t be an escalation of violence. Down the line, yeah, maybe war. But not right now. There are purely stylistic and irrelevant similarities between this assassination and the Black Hand that pulled the trigger for WWI — reminding me a little of the Lincoln-Kennedy stuff — but there are some we should take very seriously:
The assassination has revealed just how frayed the stitching has become between partners in Turkey and Syria: That part of the world sometimes seems like it’s held together by nothing more than delusional will.
Here’s the situation in brief:
—The dictators in Russia and Turkey are facing serious internal problems
—How do you stop a civil war? You find a common enemy. Dictators need to do that.
—The U.S. can do things in the short term that will help both countries.
—Long term, though, Turkey and Russia aren’t fools: They’re anti-NATO and want to get away from the West.
—They’re both flattering Trump, and he’s falling for it. He’ll do what they want.
—Worse, we’re seeing a WWI-level web of backdoor alliances. All strongmen: Trump; Putin; Erdogan; Assad; and the Ayatollah in Iran.
—The middle east is going to collapse. War is probably coming, but not soon.
Here’s the longer breakdown:
Russia and Turkey are at odds about a lot of things, but they both responded the right way, immediately expressing solidarity even though there was no narrative for the assassination at the time. The two countries have different goals in the region: Russia wants to prop up Assad in Syria (who is an alawite Shi’ite) and knock out the Sunni rebels.
Turkey, though, is 72 percent Sunni and has been helping the U.S. prop up Sunni rebel groups. Many Turks, then, obviously don’t like what Russia is up to in Syria. Russia has already been brutally bombing Sunni (mainly civilian) populations in Syria on behalf of Assad — most barbarically and criminally in Aleppo, which Altintas referenced in his short speech after killing the ambassador.
But that’s just Turkish Sunni civilians, really. The government has other values.
First, the Kurdish insurgency. Turkey has been rocked by several recent attacks from Kurdish insurgents who are now able to reach Istanbul, including a bombing last week after a soccer match, which killed 38 people, mostly police. The Kurds, who live near the Syria border and in Iraq, have been fighting for their independence for a long time.
More importantly, though, Turkey immediately blamed the assassination on Gulenists in the country. What are Gulenists? There was an attempted military coup attempt in Turkey this July. Turkish President Recep Erdogan claims the coup was carried out by followers of opposition leader and his former BFF Fethullah Gulen (“Gulenists”). Gulen lives in the U.S. now. Turkey wants him back. After the coup Erdogan cracked down hard on what he said were Gulenists in the country responsible for the coup and arrested many thousands of people, including educators and businesspeople. So many people were arrested that the government had to release some criminals to make room.
Erdogan has become a strongman, consolidating power in Turkey. He blamed the assassination on Gulenists to get ahead of the narrative and justify more crackdowns. Reportedly security forces already arrested many members of the assassin’s family, who the government claims are Gulenists. There have been accusations that the CIA was behind it, too, which Erdogan also believes was behind the coup.
This seems weird. We don’t know why Altintas, a Turk, acted. He very well could have done it on is own. He had all the resources and motivation. But he seemed quite clear and genuine in the short statement he gave after the assassination First speaking Arabic, he said, “We are the ones who pledged loyalty to [the Prophet] Muhammad to fight jihad as long as we live.” Then he switched to accented Turkish: “Don’t forget about Syria! don’t forget about Aleppo! All those who participate in this tyranny will be held accountable.”
That first line sounds almost inescapably similar to a pledge fighters take to al Qaeda’s Nusra faction, a Sunni group fighting in Syria. The second seems directed straight at Russian President and kleptocrat Vladimir Putin, who has been relentlessly and shamelessly bombing Sunni civilian targets in Aleppo, Syria. Including hospitals.
So now to Russia. Putin doesn’t care who claims responsibility for the assassination. Russia will blame Sunni opposition in Syria no matter what. He’ll use it as a reason to ramp up attacks on Sunni strongholds in Syria.
This, however, is exactly what the assassin wants Putin to do. Why?
Altintas was particularly upset about Aleppo because Turkey is also Sunni — about 75% — and Turkey doesn’t like what Russia’s doing in Syria at all. Seems Altintas was trying to drive a wedge between the two countries, inciting violence and disrupting ongoing diplomatic talks. But he also wanted militants to target “dictators” — meaning not the Sunni Erdogan, of course, but Putin. In the video Altintas sounded like he was speaking Arabic and Turkish — but really, he was speaking Russian. He said, “Think global, act local.”
Not literally, clearly. But there are many, many angry Sunnis in Russia, mostly in the Caucasus region (the Tsarnaev brothers visited there, if you’ll remember). The assassination took place at an exhibit of Turkish art that depicted places in Russia, an exhibit titled “Seeing Russia through Turkish eyes.” But it wasn’t designed to start a war between Turkey and Russia: It was a call from a Sunni, al Qaeda Turk to the Sunni Muslim militants living in Russia. Many of them have already gone to fight with militants in Syria — including al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
“You don’t need to brave the trip to Syria anymore,” Altintas said. “Aleppo has fallen and the war in Syria will soon be over, but you can still fight. You can’t attack in Syria, and you sure as shit can’t hit Iran. But you live in Russia. Think global, act local.”
That insurgency has already bubbled up in Russia. Security forces have disrupted several terrorist plots quite recently, most notably including in Moscow. They’ve been Russian citizens from the Caucasus region, and connected to ISIS.
Russia has gotten in way over its head. Putin aligned himself with Syria and Iran — both majority Shi’ite — to prop up Assad and stamp out the Sunni opposition in the country. That went well for them. They’ll be successful.
But Putin is having trouble keeping his own country together. He’s not well liked. The oligarchy is crumbling — it’s getting hit hard by sanctions, falling oil prices, a feeble ruble, and too much military spending in Syria and Ukraine. The country is way too big, geographically — by far the world’s largest — to expect it to hold together for all that much longer. It probably won’t break up officially, like the USSR did, but it will fragment and fight itself. One of those fragments is the Sunni-majority Caucasus.
Putin is really worried about this. That’s why he is also trying to make nice with Turkey. He needs to have access to the Bosporus Strait, which Turkey controls. And following the coup, Turkey has become really suspicious of American and of NATO. Guess who else is? Ol’ Pooty pants.
Putin liked it when Erdogan recalled all his ambassadors stationed at NATO bases around the world, including in the United States. Erdogan now sees value in Putin, and Putin knows that Erdogan wants out of Syria but can’t make that pitch to his Sunni population. The war in Syria will soon be over, though, and there’s nothing Turkey can do even if Putin is slaughtering Sunnis.
It’s a tragedy, the worst in modern time, but Erdogan is more worried about what he has to deal with at home. He wants to solidify himself as what amounts to a dictator, closing the borders, kicking the U.S. off its airbase, and cracking down on Kurds and the opposition “Gulenists.”
Putin loves every bit of it. They’ll be buddies: Two strongmen presiding over weak countries.
Guess who else is a strongman? Guess who else Putin is buttering up?
ISIS is also Sunni in name (terrorism has no religion) and has been fighting the Shi’ite Assad government and the Shi’ite Iraqi government. We hate ISIS more than we hate Assad, which is why Obama actually did want Russia to help us there. But we also wanted Turkey to help us, because it’s still a NATO member for now and lets us use an important airbase.
That airbase is there to counter Russia as much as it is to launch attacks in Syria. We used to have a bunch of nukes there for that reason. Until the coup, of course. Our military presence in Turkey made things between Turkey and Russia fraught, but Turkey said in August it was open to Russia using the base. He was angry we wouldn’t give him Gulen.
At first Erdogan didn’t like Trump. He called for the “Trump” name to be taken off of the towers that Trump has in Istanbul. But all of a sudden, the day after Trump is elected, Erdogan says he loves Trump. All is forgiven! Let’s start again! Have our base! Leave the Trump signs up! (Seriously.)
Why? The two talked, and we know Trump mentioned his hotels in Istanbul. But the only thing that would make Erdogan do such a quick about-face is if Trump promised to turn Gulen over to Erdogan.
What do you think Erdogan is going to do with the United States and NATO once he has Gulen? He has no incentive to stick with the U.S., let alone NATO. That’s why Putin is playing it cool: He knows the score there and can wait it out. After all, he’ll have help in the short term from Donald J. Trump, businessman president.
Anyway, that’s why the assassination won’t cause a war between Russia and Turkey.
Ready? Because sadly we’re not quite done here. This really is WWI-level insanity. Okay: Iran.
Iran and Russia tag-teamed in Syria. But not the Iranian government — the Revolutionary Guard, which doesn’t answer to the government. It answers to the hardline Ayatollah, a Shi’ite and virulent enemy of the U.S. and Israel.
Iran actually has a relatively moderate president, Rouhani. He’s been trying to become more friendly to the West — look at the nuclear deal. But the Revolutionary Guard went hard the other way. The nuclear deal that Trump rails against? It’s been really bad for Rouhani. The political tide is heavy against him and his pro-western stance — and elections are next year. The anti-American, anti-Israeli (Shi’ite) fundamentalists will likely take back the Iranian presidency.
Trump is seems almost militant about renegotiating the nuke deal. But Iran has said many times that if he tries that, it will just pull out and start building nukes again. And now Iran will probably elect another insane, anti-West president who wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. But we’re committed to protecting Israel. Iran fights Israel through Hezbollah. Trump wants to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. That will really piss off the Hezzies and Iran.
Iran and Russia are buddies. They both have problems with Sunnis. Turkey, Sunni, needs the United States, but that friendliness won’t last. Turkey most of all wants to leave the West and NATO. Erdogan will likely align with Russia who is aligned with Iran. The Sunni/Shi’ite fight in Syria is all but over, giving Erdogan a reason to finally stop fighting there and crack down on the Kurds instead. To do that, he’ll need the U.S. out — our airbase is in Kurdish country.
But you didn’t think we’d forget about Iraq, did you? The Shi’ite government needs to do its part and appeal to the disenfranchised Sunni population after ISIS is gone. If not, we’ll see another security vacuum, to be filled by another ISIS.
Shi’ite Iraq, however, is — of course — making nice with Shi’ite Iran.
We’re not looking at a war in the next year, but things fall apart. The center won’t hold.
Two options: The World Civil War. Russia collapses; Turkey fights itself; Syria fights itself; Iraq fights itself; Iran helps Iraq fight itself.
How do you stop a civil war? You find an outside enemy. Dictators need to do that, and we’re seeing a loose and complex affiliation of such strongmen: Putin; Erdogan; the Ayatollah in Iran; Assad; and, though Trump is by no means an Assad, he fits the bill. He openly admires Putin and Erdogan and Kim Jong Un and Duterte.
So: Which one of these men doesn’t belong? Which one of these people hasn’t been seasoned in this witch’s brew?
Putin is flattering Trump. Erdogan is flattering Trump. He’s eating it up. They both need help keeping their countries in order for now: Russia wants sanctions lifted so it can have money to placate its population and crush homegrown Sunni militants; Turkey wants to crush all domestic Gulenist opposition. Trump has already promised them those things.
But Turkey and Russia share goals in the long-term, and they don’t involve the best interests of the United States.
Trump is playing it close to the vest. Either because he — his advisers, really, whoever they are — is quite cagey, or because he has no idea what to do. I know I wouldn’t know where to begin. I see no good decisions. Do you?
Trump loves the element of surprise. His unpredictability is perhaps considered an asset. So maybe that’s it. But you know who else depends on the element of surprise and unpredictability? That’s right: pretty-boys on their first day in prison. Surprise is an asset only to the weak: D-day was last-ditch; Hiroshima not so heroic; Franz Ferdinand frantic. Surprise as the last resort of the strong. Take the Cold War — surprise would have meant global destruction.
And we’re a democratic republic. We can’t surprise the American people with a new fight. Can we?
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes: The assassination of Karlov isn’t a tipping point, but we heard the scale creak.