Assassination could alter Turkish relations with Russia, US
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Shouting “Don’t forget Aleppo, Don't forget Syria,” and screaming his allegiance to jihad, Ambassador Andrey Karlov’s assassin, Mevlut Mert Altintas, appeared to be stating his motives for the pointblank murder of Russia’s envoy — Russia’s support for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

However, following the brutal attack, the narratives expressed by the parties involved have differed. The attack may lead to a dramatic shift in U.S. policy when President-elect Trump takes office.

The Obama administration has, in the past, dismissed allegations that Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, is meddling in Turkish affairs and that he helped organize the July coup attempt on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government. 

Gülen is a complicated figure to the Turkish government and efforts to extradite him to Turkey have failed. Gülen is an imam, a leader of the Muslim faith, and a “state-licensed preacher” from 1959–81 in Turkey.

According to his organization, the Alliance for Shared Values, his is a voice of civil society with the Hizmet (or Gülen) social initiative, which runs charter schools in the U.S. to, “promote democracy, equal opportunity and emphatic acceptance of religious and cultural diversity.”

Gülen has written opinion pieces in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and has been featured in a profile on CBS’ 60 Minutes. He has also written essays on ‘just war’ and Muslims’ responsibility in countering violence and denouncing conflict and jihad, unless in self-defense.

Gülen adamantly denies the Erdoğan government allegations that he was behind the July 15 attempted coup in Turkey. Since the Monday assassination, he has said that he had no ties, direct or indirect, to Altintas.

Russian relations with Turkey had been at a low point for a long time, exacerbated by the war in Syria, where the two countries differed on whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would stay or go. Russia has long seen Turkey’s membership in NATO as a good reason to suspect their motives, but relations improved dramatically this past year.

Russian and Turkish officials have called the assassination a “terrorist” act, and some members of the Russian parliament have accused NATO of being involved.

Nonetheless, both Turkey and Russia are treating the assassin as a Gülenist, according to Turkish state-owned media.

The Obama administration has defended Gülen and been critical of the Erdoğan government’s well-documented crackdown on journalists and free speech.

But, there are signs that a shift will take place after January 20. Writing in The Hill on Election Day, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, now President-elect Trump’s designate for National Security Advisor, wrote, “We must begin with understanding that Turkey is vital to U.S interests. Turkey is really our strongest ally against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…”

On Gülen, Flynn wrote, “The primary bone of contention between the U.S. and Turkey is Fethullah Gülen, a shady Islamic mullah resident in Pennsylvania…who portrays himself as a moderate, but he is in fact a radical Islamist…” Lt. Gen. Flynn concluded, “It is unconscionable to militate against Turkey, our NATO ally, as Washington is hoodwinked by this masked source of terror nestled comfortably in our own backyard in Pennsylvania.”

Turkey’s Foreign Minister agrees with that conclusion, and told Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 | Park Police did not record radio transmissions during June 1 sweep of White House protesters | Court upholds protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears Biden-Sanders 'unity task force' rolls out platform recommendations Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 MORE this week that Gülen’s organization, FETO, is behind the murder.

In a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, "'Turkey and Russia know that behind the attack...there is FETO.'" Kerry’s readout of the conversation on Tuesday made no mention of Gülen.

“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu today to convey his condolences regarding the recent terror attacks in Turkey," Spokesperson John Kirby said. "The Secretary also offered U.S. assistance to the investigation into the horrific murder of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov. 

"Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu also discussed the situation in Syria and the ongoing efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire, secure the prompt delivery of humanitarian assistance, and resume political talks to end the civil war," Kirby said. 

Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) correspondent Kahraman Haliscelik added information to the profile of the assassin that supports Altintas’ ties to the Gülen network. 

“Altintas was suspended from the Turkish police force for a month for his suspected link to the Gülenist Terrorist Organization, known as FETO, and then was reinstated after a review,” he told The Hill. “One of the police officers who is in detention because of his link to FETO, made a statement saying that he had seen the assassin at secret FETO meetings, and after an initial investigation, both Turkey and Russia publicly stated that they suspected [the involvement of] FETO.”

Gülen has been the focus of Turkey’s ire since the failed July coup attempt and many knowledgeable analysts say that the argument is Erdoğan's excuse to blame domestic shortcomings on the imam.

Daniel Pipes, author of over a dozen books on radical Islam and the Middle East, who has worked at the Defense and State Departments, dismisses the Gülen connection.

“The Turkish government likes to blame everything bad on the Gülen movement, sometimes to the point of implausibility,” Pipes told The Hill.

“Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that this perpetrator was a hot-headed Sunni jihadi, angry at Russian support for the Shia jihadis in Syria, not some calculating political operative trying to manipulate ties between Ankara ​and Moscow,” Pipes said. “If he were the latter, he would have monumentally failed, as both governments bent over backwards not to trade accusations.”

Gülen issued his own statement, saying, “I am shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the tragic assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, who was speaking at an art gallery in Ankara. I condemn in the strongest terms this heinous act of terror. No terrorist act can be justified, regardless of its perpetrators and their stated purposes.”

 Gülen also added a critique.

“Turkish and international experts repeatedly have pointed out the deterioration of security and counterterrorism efforts due to the Turkish government’s assigning hundreds of counterterrorism police officers to unrelated posts, as well as the firing and imprisoning of many others since 2014,” he said.

The joint Russia–Turkey investigation is sure to find more evidence on the planning of the attack. There are seven suspects being detained and investigators are looking into reports that al Qaeda material was found in Altintas’ home. 

Some details that point to the planning of the assassination are emerging.

“The assassin was an active police officer. But he took off that day. He had advance knowledge of the event and went to the venue beforehand to get a sense of the location. He booked himself a hotel room not far from the venue and stayed there the night before," Haliscelik said.

Government officials from Russia and Turkey portrayed a unified front following the attack. 

Turkey’s Foreign Minister tweeted, “This terrorist attack aims at damaging the recent momentum in our relations. Perpetrators will be brought to justice.”

“Terrorists Will Feel the Heat,” Russia’s President Vladimir Putin added.

Regardless of the details of the plot, and who is behind it, it appears to be pulling Ankara and Moscow closer together. The change in the U.S. administration, along with the prevailing view of Gülen, may bring a rapprochement in relations between the U.S. and Turkey. 


Pamela Falk, CBS News TV & Radio, Foreign Affairs Analyst & U.N. Resident Correspondent, is former staff director of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives and holds a J.D. from Columbia School of Law. She can be reached at @PamelaFalk

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.