By David Filipov
The Washington Post
MOSCOW — Turkish and Russian diplomats on Tuesday declared their intention to halt the civil war in Syria, showing no signs of a rift in their warming relationship the day after the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara in a brazen shooting.
A tripartite conference here, held together with Iran, was hailed by Russian’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, as a way to “overcome the stagnation in efforts on the Syrian settlement.” The comment was a dig at the United States, which was absent from the Moscow meetings despite its own involvement in the Syrian conflict.
But the show of solidarity could not mask underlying frictions between Russia and Turkey over the war in Syria, which the assassination of the ambassador, Andrei Karlov, had brought to the fore.
The shouted words of the 22-year-old assassin, who invoked the carnage in Aleppo, echoed the anger expressed by many Turks over the course of the five-year-old civil war. Russia, a stalwart ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has thrown its military weight behind Syria’s government, and launched its own punishing air raids on rebel-held areas.
As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladmir Putin, work to effect a cease-fire there, the two leaders face very different stakes.
For Putin, Syria holds mostly geopolitical meaning and helps Russia project power while keeping a foothold in the Middle East. He has cast Russia as a protector of legitimate leaders against the turmoil of rebellions and criticized the United States for supporting Assad’s opponents.
But Russia has faced Islamist-led rebellion in the North Caucasus and is aware that its military actions in the Middle East could bring reprisals. Putin on Tuesday called on his security and intelligence services “to take extra measures to ensure security inside Russia and outside it and tighten security of Russian missions abroad and their employees.”
Erdogan, on the other hand, presides over a country tangibly shaken by the war across its border, which has brought millions of refugees into Turkey, as well as the rising threat of militant attacks. For most of the conflict, which began in 2011, Erdogan was the Syrian rebels’ most vociferous advocate. But the rapprochement with Russia has signaled a shift toward a settlement that might keep Assad in power.
While much about the assassin and his motives remained a mystery on Tuesday, authorities hunted for clues in the life of the young man, Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas.
The gunman died in a shootout with police after gunning down Karlov as the diplomat spoke at a photo exhibit in the Turkish capital, Ankara. He was captured on video as he fired on the ambassador, denouncing Russia’s role in the Syrian war.
“Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” he screamed.
The assassination reflected an alarming breach of security. Altintas was allowed to carry a weapon into the event using his police identification, officials said.
There was not yet any evidence to suggest that Altintas belonged to any radical Islamic group, such as the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked group, investigators said.
But senior Turkish officials, including the foreign minister, raised the possibility that the gunman was linked to a shadowy movement led by Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish preacher who lives in Pennsylvania.
Erdogan has accused the movement of mounting a coup attempt in July. Since then, Turkish officials have frequently implicated the group in various plots to destabilize Turkey. Gulen has denied involvement in the coup attempt, and he released a statement Monday condemning the killing of Karlov.
A senior Turkish official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said Altintas took two days off work at the time of the attempted coup and then traveled to Ankara.
But while both Russian and Turkish leaders moved to assuage fears of a regional conflagration, Turkey has emerged as the weaker of the two, analysts say.
Relations between Turkey and Russia collapsed in 2015 when Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian fighter jet that had been running sorties in Syria and that Turkish officials say crossed into Turkey’s airspace. The incident brought the two sides to the brink of war, and Russia levied harsh sanctions on Turkish goods and stopped Russian charter flights to resort cities on the Aegean.
But Erdogan pivoted toward Russia following the attempted coup, snubbing Western countries he accused of a lack of support.
In August, Erdogan visited Putin in Moscow, and the two leaders vowed to revive economic ties and trade.
But Erdogan’s move to restore the relationship, after years of rallying his Sunni Muslim base for the cause of the Syrian rebellion, has made many Turks uneasy. Concessions could provoke a backlash from Erodgan’s constituents – or some of the millions of Syrian refugees living in the country who have watched support for their uprising wane.
“Russia has been killing innocent people” in Syria, said Muhammad, 27, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo living in Istanbul. “That should not go without punishment.”
Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said Turkey’s government stirred up public rage at the bloodshed in Syria for “domestic populist reasons.”
Of Altintas and Syria, Stein said: “This man wasn’t living in a vacuum … the amount of anger and fire on the local level, in the press and on TV — it was unbelievable.”
In Moscow on Tuesday, Russia, Turkey and Iran issued a statement — which Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called the “Moscow Declaration” — that called for an expanded cease-fire for which the three countries would act as the guarantors.
“Iran, Russia and Turkey are ready to facilitate the drafting of an agreement, which is already being negotiated, between the Syrian government and the opposition, and to become its guarantors,” the declaration said. The three countries “have invited all other countries with influence over the situation on the ground to do the same.”
Shoigu said that the participating countries would be able to make a difference in Syria.
“All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure,” Shoigu said. “None of them wielded real influence over the situation on the ground.”
In a further effort to cement his influence on the Syrian peace process, Putin has said he and Erdogan are trying to organize a new series of negotiations — without the involvement of the United States or the United Nations — in Astana, Kazakhstan.