by Mehmet Arsalan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 5, Ramadan, 1435)
Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan’s policies are unraveling one by one with the latest blow delivered by the ISIS terrorists that have kidnapped Turkish diplomats and civilians in Mosul. Will he learn from the debacle?
Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayip Erdogan finds himself in a pickle over his failed foreign policy. Almost all of his foreign policy initiatives crafted by his bookish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have collapsed. The thugs of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have delivered the latest blow that has touched a raw nerve in Turkey.
Erdogan had provided logistical support, training as well as transfer of materiel from the Arabian regimes to the mass murderers. It was assumed that by providing such help, the ISIS would not undermine Turkish interests. In any case, Erdogan had joined the conspiracy against the government of Bashar al-Asad on the assumption that his government would collapse in a matter of months if not sooner. This has not materialized; instead Asad has held his ground and even won a resounding victory in the presidential election on June 3.
In the meantime, ISIS has struck against Turkish interests as well when the group stormed into Iraq last month. The ISIS targeted Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Local intrigue facilitated its advance into the area but the ISIS thugs also took 80 Turks including the Turkish Consul General and other consulate staff in Mosul hostage. This was a blow for which Erdogan was not prepared.
Turkish opposition parties have pounced on the issue holding Erdogan responsible for the failure of his policy and have demanded what he plans to do to rescue Turkish diplomats as well as citizens. The new pasha as he is now derisively called, is for the first time unable to address a problem in a satisfactory manner. He has adopted an overly cautious approach and has ruled out any unilateral or even multilateral action that may jeopardize the lives of Turkish citizens kidnapped by the most vicious group to emerge in the Middle East.
Caution is a sensible approach to adopt under the circumstances but what he has been unable to explain is how a group that Turkey had facilitated and supported has struck its interests. Instead, Erdogan has taken refuge behind the excuse that he is working closely with the US and Nato allies.
Stung by criticism and unable to control the narrative that Turks including diplomats have been taken hostage by Erdogan’s erstwhile allies, he has imposed a news blackout on the crisis. This is clear admission of the colossal failure of his policy. He has ordered Foreign Minister Davutoglu as well as Turkey’s Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan to work through back channels in Iraq—including Sunni tribal leaders—to secure release of the hostages.
Opposition parties are not satisfied. They see in the hostage crisis an opportunity to undermine Erdogan’s position by exposing not only the failure of his policies but also being stung by groups that his government had nurtured. Taking Turkish citizens including diplomats hostage is the ultimate insult the ISIS could heap on Turkey.
Erdogan is fighting back but has not been able to convince most Turks of his stance. While addressing regional officials of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara on June 25, he said, “No one should expect me to provoke ISIS.” He rejected opposition accusations amplified in the media that his government was passive in the face of the hostage crisis.
“Eighty of our citizens are being held by a group. They expect us to make provocative statements regarding this group. They expect us to approach the fire with a stoker in hand,” Erdogan said. What he has failed to address is, how he plans to get the hostages released and go forward now that a group his government had nurtured and supported has turned against Turkey.
The ISIS hostage-taking is an extension of Ankara’s broader policy over Syria. Davutoglu admitted as much. There is no hint that Erdogan is prepared to make changes to take into account recent developments: Asad’s election, his army’s successes against the terrorists and now the ISIS thrust into Iraq as well as hostage taking of Turkish citizens. Turkish opposition parties have spoken out against Turkey’s policy in Syria. Events over the last three years have vindicated their stance. The vast majority of Turkish citizens also oppose Erdogan’s Syria policy although they have not abandoned him at the polls.
Erdogan fears, perhaps not unreasonably, that any military action to save the hostages would almost certainly endanger their lives. If the ISIS has felt no compunction in killing soldiers that had already surrendered or even unarmed civilians, what mercy would they show towards citizens of a country whose military launches strikes against them? There is an even broader concern: Western military involvement in Iraq’s troubles. Instead of solving the problem in Iraq, foreign military intervention would intensify it.
For Turkey, this carries great risks. Western military operations would be launched from bases in Turkey that is a member of Nato. This would automatically draw terrorists from all over the world to the country. Hitherto, Turkey had served merely as a transit point; now it would act as a magnet. The dilemma for regimes that plot to undermine others is illustrated by what Turkey is currently facing. It had joined the American-Saudi-zionist conspiracy against Asad’s government by providing help to terrorists.
There are, however, no good terrorists even if they are fighting against one’s enemy. The ISIS has just proved this point once more. The Saudis are also learning this lesson the hard way.
When one plays with fire, there is always the risk of getting burned. Is Erdogan prepared to rectify his faulty policies vis-à-vis his neighbors or his stubbornness would get the better of him? As the saying goes, if you are in a hole, the first thing to do to get out is to stop digging. Erdogan has yet to stop digging.