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Russia-Turkey ties will persist

Deger Akal
December 22, 2016

Former US diplomat John E. Herbst told DW in an exclusive interview that the murder of Russia's ambassador to Turkey will not hinder cooperation between Moscow and Anakara.

Türkische Militärkapelle am Nationalfeiertag
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Okten

DW: What implications will the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara have for relations between Russia and Turkey?

John E. Herbst: I believe that the implications of the assassination are small. They are small because if Russia was looking for a reason to quarrel with Turkey, the assassination would have given them one. But Russia is happy that its relations with Turkey have been restored to a quasi-friendly basis after the shoot down of the Russian warplane. They are not going to let the assassination get in the way of that.

John Edward Herbst US-Botschafter in der Ukraine
Herbst is the former US ambassador to Ukraine and UzbekistanImage: Public Domain

Politicians from Turkey's ruling AKP party accuse Fethullah Gulen, who is living in the US and is blamed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for instigating the failed coup in July, for being behind the assassination of the Russian ambassador. What do you think about these claims?

Gulen remains a point of friction between Turkey and the US. The fact that some people will blame Gulen for the assassination would only lead to a worsening of the US-Turkish relations if the Turkish government begins to think that and act on it. But again the whole question of Gulen is a very difficult one between Ankara and Washington. And that will continue.

US President-elect Donald Trump said that the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by a "radical Islamic terrorist." How do you evaluate Trump's response?

Trump has been very clear over the past year that he considers Islamic extremism a danger. Given the fact that the man who assassinated the ambassador shouted "Remember Aleppo," that gives Trump reason to believe he is a İslamic extremist. Trump's statement fits with his world view and so it’s not surprising. It’s certainly true that he is a Muslim and murdered someone in cold blood. He is an assassin.

A Turkish policeman killed an ambassador… What does this mean for Turkey's already fractured institutions?

It may be that we are seeing in Turkey at a much earlier stage something that has already taken place in Pakistan, where the army - the principal institution of the country - had been traditionally secular. But, over time, the junior officers then became midlevel officers, then became senior officers who were partly Islamized and radicalized. I am not saying this has happened in Turkey, but maybe we are seeing a little bit of that. And that of course can have great implications for the country's future.

Turkey is a NATO member. How could such a development influence security ties?

That would change Turkey's national security orientation in a fundamental, way which could lead to serious changes in its relationship with its allies. But again this is highly speculative. But if what we have seen with this assassination is indicative of a broader trend then, over time, this is something that could occur.

Do you agree with some experts saying that the assassination of the Russian ambassador could serve President Vladimir Putin's game plan in Syria? What is your view?

Russland Treffen zwischen Russland, Iran und Türkei in Moskau
Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed this week on a declaration that could lead to peace in SyriaImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Golovkin

Russia is using the assassination to make the point to their own public - they know that the people who oppose them in Syria are Islamic extremists. This is the sort of behavior you expect from them, so they can take some value out of that incident to shore up support at home for what they are doing in Syria.

Russia, Turkey and Iran have sat at the same table this week to seek a political solution to the conflict in Syria. Some Western politicians, including German lawmakers, have voiced concerns for leaving a solution to the conflict to Russia and Turkey. Do you think Europe and the US are excluded from the process?

This depends almost 100 percent on Erdogan. The fact they are meeting doesn't necessarily indicate that. Up until now, Turkey has pursued a policy trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and I am not saying that this has changed. Now I haven't seen yet any indication that the Turkish position on this has changed and that Erdogan for some reason, which we don't see yet, decided he is willing to give up his project in Syria and that in fact he could cooperate with Russia and Iran… Putin and the Iranians have pursued a policy of making sure Assad remained in power. There is certainly no intention of the Russians and the Iranians to change their position.

After the trilateral meeting in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said all three countries agreed the priority was to fight terrorism rather than to remove the Syrian leader. Does this mean a change in Turkey's position?

Erdogan's policy may be changing. We don't know yet if in fact it is.

What would a change in Erdogan's Syria policy mean for the US?

It depends on his approach to the internally displaced people in Syria. If he hardens the border and those people are left to the mercy of the Assad regime with Iran and Russia supporting, I think the West would be unhappy. We will have to see how that plays out.

John E. Herbst is director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and the former US ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan.