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Diplomat's Assassination Highlights Complexity Of Russian-Turkish Ties


The international political backdrop to yesterday's shooting is like just about everything else in Turkey and Syria - very complicated. Russia is one of the biggest backers of the Syrian regime. Turkey supports some of the groups opposing the regime. Both Turkey and Russia oppose ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. But Turkey also opposes the Kurdish groups that are doing a lot of the fighting against ISIS. To help us sort out those political cross-currents, Soner Cagaptay joins us. He's director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Good to see you again.

SONER CAGAPTAY: It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: An off-duty Turkish policeman kills a Russian diplomat and shouts slogans of Islamism and solidarity with Syrian Sunni Muslim rebels. Do you think that many Turks share the view that Russia is doing something terrible and anti-Islamic in Syria?

CAGAPTAY: I think quite a few. I think the Turks have been watching this civil war next door in Syria, specifically Aleppo, which is only 45 minutes' drive from the Turkish border. It's been basically ruined and destroyed by Russians and air bombing. And many people sympathize with the suffering of people over there. But there's also a political element to this. Turkey's government is involved as a party in the Syrian civil war. So people do not necessarily have a politically neutral view of the war. Of course, they identify strongly with the anti-Assad rebels, and they despise everybody who's bombing them, including the Russians and the Assad regime.

SIEGEL: Some people say that Turkey made the fall of Aleppo possible. Do you agree with that? Is that a fair statement?

CAGAPTAY: I don't think so. I think Turkey has been the voice of reason in making sure that people in Aleppo are not slaughtered. Otherwise, they would have been bombed into submission by the Russians and by the Iranian militia. I think what Turkey has done in the absence of U.S. leadership in northern Syria is stepped in and facilitated the evacuation of civilians from eastern Aleppo. In my view, Turkey has probably prevented genocide from taking place.

SIEGEL: But do you think that Turkish President Erdogan is in line with the Turkish public in his view of what's happening in Syria, what he's doing, or would he face opposition?

CAGAPTAY: I would say, like on all other issues - on this issue as well - Turkey's very polarized and deeply divided. Turkey is one of the most polarized countries in the world to the extent that there are two constituencies in the country; one that's pro-Erdogan, one that's anti-Erdogan. For pro-Erdogan constituency, Turkey is heaven. And for anti-Erdogan constituency, it's hell. And they see everything through the prism of that perception.

So for his supporters, which is about half of the country's population, he can do nothing wrong, including in Syria. For his opponents, everything he does in Syria is wrong.

SIEGEL: Where do this week's events leave Turkish-Russian relations?

CAGAPTAY: I think that actually Turkish-Russian ties will probably be not seriously negatively affected. Russia has got pretty much everything it wants from Turkey, Northern Syria. Recently, we have seen a convergence of Turkish and Russian policies. Russia has got green light from Turkey for the fall of Aleppo. It's been able to capture that city and pass it into the hands of the Assad regime.

So Russia has everything it wants, and I think, therefore, the Russians will not overreact to the assassination of their ambassador. And Turkish government, too, wants to not derail the normalization process with the Russians. They have a lot to lose because they're fighting so many enemies inside Syria, including the Kurds and ISIS and the Assad regime. They don't want to add Russians to that list. So they will do whatever they can to make sure that the relationship does not collapse as a result of the assassination.

SIEGEL: Almost as soon as the gunman was shot yesterday in Ankara, Turkish officials were saying they wanted to see if he was linked to Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Islamic scholar who lives in Pennsylvania. There's no confirmation that he was in any way connected to Gulen. But there's one difference in the entire relationship between Erdogan and Gulen. Michael Flynn, the incoming national security adviser for Donald Trump, has written very sympathetically about Turkey's demand to extradite this man who's been living in exile here all these years. How much would that change U.S.-Turkish relations?

CAGAPTAY: Of course, Gulen denies any involvement...


CAGAPTAY: ...In the coup or in the assassination. But it will be a huge game-changer in the relationship if the United States were to decide to extradite Mr. Gulen. Erdogan sees him as completely responsible for the coup plot last summer. And therefore, his extradition would be a game-changer. And what would the U.S. take in return? I think this will be a consideration for President-elect Trump. He has said that he wants to defeat ISIS. He also has said that he doesn't want to put boots on the ground in the Middle East. How do you defeat ISIS without boots on the ground? Turkish boots on the ground. Turkey already has troops in Syria. This will be part of the negotiations between President Trump and Erdogan.

SIEGEL: Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Thanks for talking with us.

CAGAPTAY: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.