Will the assassination of Andrew Karlov in Ankara bring about World War III?

turkeyassassination

Earlier today, just as our Electors were casting their votes for Donald Trump, paving the way for the controversial reality television personality to become the 45th President of the United States, Andrew Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, was shot dead in Ankara by a young policeman who can be heard on video shouting “We die in Aleppo, you die here.” [Mevlut Altintas, the policeman who murdered Karlov, apparently served in counter-terrorism unit of the Ankara police force.]

Well, when I went to pick my daughter up from school this evening, the first thing she said to me, after getting into the car and asking whether or not I’d brought her a snack, was, “Dad, is this how World War III begins?” [I think a story about the assassination was on the radio at the time.] It would appear that word of the assassination had made its way through the 7th grade, and that someone had made the connection to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which most historians seem to agree was the precipitating event that led us to World War I. [Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo, leading to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia, which in turn led to allied nations joining the fight on both sides.] So, after assuring her that no one wanted a war with the United Sates, as it would be “bad for business,” I told her what I knew about the assassination, the situation in Aleppo, and why I didn’t think that what had happened in Turkey would lead to war. I should caution you that what follows may not be 100% accurate, as I’m not an expert on European history, but my hope is that some of you can step in and correct me where necessary… So, with that said, here’s what I told my daughter.

How the Syrian civil war started… In 2011, as part of the so-called Arab Spring, a number of pro-democracy Syrian protestors took to the streets to call for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Government security forces responded by opening fire on demonstrators, killing several, and driving even more protestors into the streets. By July 2011, with several hundred thousand people in the streets, demanding that he step down, Bashar al-Assad was facing a rebellion. And that rebellion grew and evolved over the following years into a civil war, with people taking up arms against the Syrian state and waging coordinated campaigns for take cities.

The following background comes by way of the BBC.

Violence escalated and the country descended into civil war as rebel brigades were formed to battle government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. Fighting reached the capital Damascus and second city of Aleppo in 2012.

By June 2013, the UN said 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict. By August 2015, that figure had climbed to 250,000, according to activists and the UN.

The conflict is now more than just a battle between those for or against Mr Assad. It has acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in regional and world powers. The rise of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has added a further dimension.

And, it’s probably worth noting that, in the opinion of some, the situation in Syria was made worse by both global climate change and our war in Iraq. Prior to the Arab Spring, not only had 1.5 million refugees fled Iraq, but thousands of farmers had fled the Syrian countryside due to the worst draught in recorded history. As a result, between 2002 and 2010, the population of Syrian cities had grown by approximately 50%, leading to an unstable lives of unemployment, illegal settlements and gross inequality. The government, however, did very little to stop things from getting worse. “Corruption didn’t help,” according to a report in Wired, “nor did the fact that the hardest-hit areas were populated by Kurdish minorities, who have long been discriminated against and ignored.” So the Syrian cities had essentially become tinder boxes by the time the Arab Spring came.

And, now, as a result of all of this, over 4.8 million refugees have fled Syria, and many of those who remain have joined armed groups to right against the al-Assad government. These groups, according to Wikipedia, include: Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who often co-operate with the Sunni rebels, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Russian involvement… So, in September, 20215, with the Syrian government refusing to negotiate with what they describe as armed terrorist groups, and millions fleeing the war-torn nation, the Russians became involved. They did this, according to Foreign Policy magazine, to “prevent the military defeat of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to shore him up in the long term,” as the region, in their opinion, would grow even more unstable otherwise… Here’s more from Foreign Policy.

But (Russia’s) decision to significantly boost its military, political, and moral support to Damascus did nothing less than rescue depleted Syrian forces from collapse on significant front lines under grinding pressure from an array of opposition forces…

Russian officials often say their intervention “stopped the black flags” of so-called Islamic State (IS) from being raised in the Syrian capital. The threat posed by Islamic extremists is very real. But strengthening President Assad was a winning move for Moscow on many fronts. It transformed Russia from a minor actor on the Syrian stage to the lead player which continues to resonate across the region…

Russia’s assets in Syria centre on its port at Tartus, its only seaport along the Mediterranean, as well as its newly established Khmeimim air base in the north-west, its only airfield in the Middle East.

In October, Russia’s parliament ratified an open-ended agreement to approve the base which revealed what had been a secret pact a year earlier to give Russia carte blanche to move personnel and cargo in and out of Syria, without inspection or interruption by Syrian authorities.

Over the past year more troops and considerable firepower, including advanced missile systems, have been moved onto the battlefield. Russian media have also reported the presence of Russian special forces as well as thousands of Russians working for military companies.

Russia and its Syrian ally cast their alliance as the winning team in the fight against IS. The capture of the ancient city of Palmyra last March – where Russia has now established a military post – is proof of that…

For Russia, this new projection of military power is about more than just Syria. It’s one axis in a broader geopolitical battle to take what it sees as its rightful place at the world’s top tables, on equal par with the power and prestige of the United States…

So, where does Trump fit in… Russia’s activities in Syria had been lessening as of late, perhaps in response to pressure from the West, which has wanted to establish a ceasefire and no-fly zone in Syria. [There have also been allegations of Russian war crimes.] But, on November 16, just a week after Trump was elected President, Russia launched a major new assault on Aleppo and other “terrorist” targets inside Syria.

Would this new campaign have begun if Trump hadn’t been elected? It’s impossible to know. What we do know, however, is that Trump, despite his claims to the contrary, has has extensive ties to Russia, and a long, well-documented history of pro-Russian bias. And, of course, we also know that it’s the opinion of both the FBI and CIA that the Russian government interfered in our election in order to give Donald Trump an advantage over Hillary Clinton, both by hacking the email accounts of here associates and sharing the contents, and by disseminating fake news meant to undermine the Clinton campaign. [And, yes, all 17 of our U.S. intelligence agencies agree that it was Russia behind the DNC hacks.]

And, where does that leave us… I don’t know. Clearly Russia is flexing its muscles, happy to, once again, be a significant player on the world stage. They just helped pull off an electoral upset in the United States, installing Donald Trump, who, if not a legitimate agent of their nation, is at least unusually predisposed toward it, as President. And Putin has started to test the NATO alliance, deploying Su-30SM fighters and building what appears to be a new missile base in Kaliningrad, Russia’s closest military installation to the United Kingdom. [As you’ll recall, Trump hinted from the campaign trail that, as President, he might not honor our commitment to NATO member nations.] And, word from the Ukraine is that Russian proxies are attacking.

So, to answer my daughter’s question, yes, this very well might be World War III – it certainly looks as though things are shaping up for one last, big war for resources before global climate change brings humanity to an end – but I don’t get the sense that, when it comes, it’ll have anything to do with the assassination of Andrew Karlov in Turkey. The sad truth is, a lot of people get assassinated, but very few of those lead to war. While Karlov’s killing will definitely result it more forceful attacks against those groups aligned in the fight against the government of al-Assad, and thus the interests of Russia, it won’t result in a declaration of war against any one country, as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand did a little over 100 years ago… Things are just more complex now the they were back then… But you can be certain that big things are on the horizon now that Russia, once again, seems to be a dominant force in the world. And all of this was happening prior to today’s assassination. [Did you read that Swedish towns have been told to “make preparations regarding the threat of war and conflict” with Russia?]

Now that you’ve had your fill of amateur analysis, here’s a little something from University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole about why today’s assassination likely took place.

…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…

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8 Comments

  1. Gary Johnson
    Posted December 20, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    ‘What Is Aleppo?’

  2. Jon Zemke
    Posted December 20, 2016 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I am guessing no because early 20th Century society values the leader of a major military power more than the 21st Century society values an ambassador that no one knew the name of before he died.

  3. Dan
    Posted December 20, 2016 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    “The Ankara Shooting Won’t Start World War III”

    https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/12/andrey-karlov-turkey-1914/511124/

  4. Freddie Brooks
    Posted December 20, 2016 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Hasn’t WWIII been underway for some time already? It’s all about the oil, baby.

  5. Jcp2
    Posted December 21, 2016 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/12/art-of-the-foreign-policy-deal-trump-cold-war/510659/

  6. Anonymous
    Posted December 21, 2016 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    So the Turkish government supports the Nusra Front? Is there evidence of this?

  7. Jean Henry
    Posted December 21, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    http://www.juancole.com/2016/12/freedoms-ambassador-assassinated.html

  8. Kristin Kaul
    Posted December 21, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Here is another take on it:

    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/12/implications-andrey-karlov-assassination-161219225337066.html

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