Assassinations: What do they mean and why did this one happen.

Like most afternoons, on December 19th 2016 I was on my phone. During long breaks from school I typically don’t have that interesting of a life, so Twitter and I tend to become inseparable. As I was scrolling through my news feed, chuckling at a joke, judging an article from its headline, and whatever else a college student does on twitter, I quickly realized that something happened. It started with an Associated Press release saying that there were shots fired at a Turkish art gallery. I skimmed the headline and refreshed my feed again. Apparently, the Russian ambassador to Turkey was shot while giving a speech. Not only that, but a photographer from the Associated Press captured its stunning, intense, and horrifying detail. In the months and weeks leading up to the attacks Turkey and Russia were not getting along well—in November 2015 Turkey even shot down a Russian military plane—so I shuddered at the ramifications that seemed bound to come.

Like everyone, I had to wait a few hours before the details were cemented and there was a fleshed out story. According to the Associated Press—the news outlet who captured the haunting photos—a 22-year-old Turkish police officer named Mevlut Mert Altintas walked into a photo exhibition and killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey G. Karlov. The Washington Post reports that Altintas was allowed to access the gallery with his firearm because he displayed his police badge.[1] Moments before the attack, pictures show that Altintas was standing behind Karlov as if Altantis was supposed to be there. After the assassination, Altintas was heard shouting two phrases; “God is great”, and then later “Don’t forget Syria”.

Altintas was ultimately shot and killed by the security officials on the scene, but his attack has a historical weight that warrants further investigation. Assassinations are nothing new to politics, but their timing is often telling. In democracies assassinations typically occur during times of strong polarization or political unrest, much like the world is experiencing now. England is split over Brexit, the US over Donald Trump, and nations like Turkey and Russia over the civil war in Syria. Historically during these times of polarization, when citizens feel as if they are at war with each, assassinations become all too common.

From 1945 to 2013, the total of assassinations and assassinations attempts reached record numbers. In total, there were 758 attacks on political leaders caused by 920 perpetrators leading to 954 deaths.[2] Even in that time frame, assassinations around the world skyrocketed during the 1970s.[3] This trend seems to come from a variety of factors, including new found terrorist groups, the speed at which global radicalization can occur, and the willingness for governments to assassinate political rivals.[4]

Assassinations are typically caused by outliers who do little planning before the actual attack—making Altintas’s cool, and seemingly planned assaults all the more chilling. Assassins have ideological motives that typically are all built around the desire to change the current government’s regime.[5] And depending on the type of government, the effects of assassinations can range from none at all to nation changing. For example, when an autocratic official or leader is assassinated, a huge change often occurs. But when a democratic official is assassinated, not only is there typically little to no change[6], but the ideals and policies contrary to the assassin’s goals are pushed through with even more vigor.[7]

To understand political assassinations, one must also understand motive. For instance, a state legislator is not assassinated for the same reason a local official is, and a head of state is not targeted for the same reason as a vice head of state. Different political roles symbolize very different things, and assassinations by nature are a very symbolic mode of political protest. So I believe that saying that a target of assassination represents a very specific symbol or type of political issue is not a stretch. This is because “…different processes trigger different types of assassinations and that different types of assassinations generate distinct effects on the political and social arena.”[8]

So what then can be inferred about the assassination of Karlov? What were the motives that lead to this deadly protest against Russia? It seems that the inciting factor that lead to this particular assassination can be linked to the Russo-Turkish tensions over the Syrian civil war.  Not only can this be inferred because Altintas can be heard screaming “Don’t forget Syria”, but also because of the recent tensions between Russia and Turkey.

In short, Russia and Turkey have been on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war for several years now. In the war Russia supports Assad—and up until recently the Kurds—going so far as to bomb the rebel-held city of Aleppo in support of Assad. All seemingly without regards to civilian casualties. Turkey, on the other hand, supported the rebels fighting against Assad, and until recently had been very vocal about their opposition to the Syrian head of state.

However, after a fear of war in 2015, Syria and Russia have since become less militant and more willing to find compromises with each other. For instance, Russia and Turkey have made an unofficial deal of sorts that Turkey would stop supporting rebels who were harassing Russia, and Russia would stop funding the Kurds who were committing acts of Terror in Turkey.[9] This deal became a sort of “Aleppo for Al Bab” that many Turks did not like. By coming to this agreement and by ceasing support to the rebels in Aleppo, Turkey essentially gave up the city of Aleppo to the Russians, and in its place gained the much more strategically important city of Al Bab.

It seems as of Altintas was against this decision, and viewed Russia’s bombing as inexcusable. By assassinating Karlov—a diplomat—Altintas may have thought he was destroying both a symbol of Russia and a deal he disagreed with. Considering diplomats makeup only 10 percent of all assassinations, it is not far-fetched to believe that in Altintas’s mind, killing a symbol of Russia in Turkey is showing the distaste and horror the people of Turkey feel about what is currently happening in Aleppo.

But Altintas’s flawed logic does not make his violence excusable. The assassination of Karlov is a shock, an unnecessary death, and a possible danger to improving Russo-Turkish relations. The ball is currently in Russia’s court, and much to the relief of NATO, it seems as if Russia will toss it aside. As it pertains to this assassination, Karlov was the symbol of diplomacy between Russia and Turkey.

Altintas, was not your normal Assassin. He was not sporadic, he was not really an outlier, and he chose a very peculiar target. It seems as if while he coolly stood behind Karlov for several minutes, Altintas did not see a person. Instead, all he saw was a symbol; a very deliberate thing that represented everything wrong with Russia and Syria. Let us hope this violent end to polarization does not spread.

Want more information? Check out this video as it tells you a lot of the motivations and factions behind Syria’s war: Who is fighting and why

[1] WP: “An Assassination and a Gunman’s Last Words Put Turkey on Edge”

[2] CTC: “The Causes and Impacts of Political Assassinations”

[3]  CTC: “The Causes and Impacts of Political Assassinations”

[4] CTC: “The Causes and Impacts of Political Assassinations”

[5] NYT: “Facts about political assassinations”

[6] National Bureau of Economic Research: “Do Assassinations Change History”

[7] NYT: “Facts about political assassinations”

[8]  CTC: “The Causes and Impacts of Political Assassinations”

[9] WP: “Turkey, Russia, and an Assassination the Swirling Crisis Explained”

Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)


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