by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 8, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1435)
There is something bizarre in the manner in which 49 Turkish diplomats and employees of the Turkish Consulate in Mosul were released from the clutches of the takfiris.
Hostage crises play a major role in Muslim East politics and in many instances they have caused significant impact on the domestic and foreign policies of the countries involved. These recurring crises have even led in some cases to a change of government. Take the example of the US den of spies, commonly known (in the US narrative) as “the Iran hostage crisis,” captured by Iranian students soon after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution. According to many commentators, that crisis resulted in Jimmy Carter’s defeat in his re-election bid for the presidency in 1980. Another example may be the “Lebanon hostage crisis” that again greatly contributed to the defeat of then French President François Mitterrand.
However, in the case of the “Turkish hostage crisis,” things worked out quite differently. On June 11, the takfiri group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and has since rebranded itself simply as the “Islamic State,” captured 49 hostages (46 Turkish diplomats and their families plus three Iraqi employees) from the Turkish Consulate in Mosul. The captives included the consul-general, Ozturk Yilmaz, other diplomats and members of the police protection unit. The takfiris held the captives for 101 days and reportedly moved them around at least eight times in order to avoid being detected.
While the Turkish hostage crisis continued, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, switching hats, was elected with a landside victory as the country’s president. His Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who bore sole responsibility for not evacuating the consulate staff earlier, was catapulted into the position of prime minister, the post vacated by Erdogan.
One may blame Turkey’s political culture for such lapses but despite a major foreign policy failure both President Erdogan and Foreign Minister (now Prime Minister) Davutoglu scored major victories domestically. This, however, would be a simplistic approach that would prevent understanding the mindset of Erdogan and his aides. From the beginning of the crisis, the Turkish government adopted a very calm posture about the crisis. Top officials deliberately downplayed the gravity of the situation and always appeared confident they would resolve the crisis (the exact idiom Erdogan used was, “We will release the hostages like removing a hair from butter”) without allowing the captives to be harmed.
The government also sought a court injunction for a gag order that effectively banned discussing any aspects of the crisis in public. As a result, the hostage drama was kept out of presidential election discourse and its potential damage was contained. However, the major work Turkey undertook was carried out through the country’s intelligence organization (MIT). From the first day of the hostage crisis, intelligence agents kept in touch with the takfiri operatives and tried to negotiate with them for the hostages’ release.
There have been persistent rumours that Turkey has been working closely with the terrorist mercenaries and that Ankara used the hostage crisis to justify its inaction against the takfiris’ expansionist operations as well as fend off pressure from the US and Europe. Without direct and tangible evidence, such suggestion remains speculative.
There is no denying that Turkey and the takfiris have “communicated” and occasionally even “cooperated” but there is nothing to suggest that they are or have been allies. They may have common enemies such as the now ousted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and the various Kurdish factions (PKK or PYD) but it would be unfair to accuse Turkey of being an ally of ISIS. It is well known that from the beginning of the war on Syria, Turkey has supported some of the rebel groups against the Syrian government and has worked primarily with groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and to a certain extent al-Nusra Front. Turkey has allowed the stationing of members of these groups in border towns, trained them and allowed them free access to Syria to launch attacks against the Syrian Army.
In Iraq, Ankara’s policy has been to find allies among the Sunni Turkomens and secular Sunnis and Shi‘is to remove al-Maliki from power and place a more “Turkish friendly” government in office. The Turks have remained largely neutral towards “extremist” Sunnis and religious Shi‘is who were dissatisfied with al-Maliki. Turkey’s main criterion for forming alliances with these groups has been that they capitulate to Ankara’s will so that they would work together in realizing Turkey’s imperial ambitions. Those who did not share this vision were not considered enemies unless they actively worked against Turkey’s plans.
In this regard, the takfiris cannot be considered allies of Turkey as they have their own plans and ambitions for the Muslim East. Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, the notorious leader of ISIS has already declared himself the khalifah (caliph) of Muslims and demands every Muslim, including President Erdogan to pledge allegiance to him. Further, for failing to pledge allegiance to the “new caliph” they consider the Turkish State like all the other regional states to be illegitimate and, therefore, a potential enemy. Since Ankara has not actively pursued hostile policies toward the takfiris, the latter in turn have not prioritized fighting against Turkey for now.
Turks are well aware of the perverted mindset of the takfiri leaders, and naturally it is impossible for them to form an alliance with such a group that is not ready to accept Turkey’s leadership in the region. This is also the reason why the takfiris, in addition to their hatred borne of sectarianism, are at odds with the Islamic State of Iran.
There is also other evidence that indicates Turkey and the takfiris do not have good relations. According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet newspaper, in the last two years, Turkey has arrested and deported at least 830 European citizens using the country as a conduit to join ISIS. Turkish security forces have also issued arrest warrants for 2,000 suspected ISIS militants. Further, the Turkish intelligence agency has been cooperating closely with Western intelligence sources for monitoring potential recruits for ISIS. Turkey’s crackdown on ISIS continued even after the hostage crisis erupted. It is, therefore, difficult to argue that Turkey and ISIS are allies.
But the question remains: how did Turkey manage to secure the release 49 hostages at a time when the takfiris have been beheading other captives in their control? Since there is no clear explanation from the Turkish government that has couched its remarks in vague language, we can only speculate about possible scenarios, based on the remarks of Turkish leaders.
On September 21, just before boarding his plane en route to the US, Erdogan held a press conference and addressed the question posed to him whether “the Turkish captives were released as a result of an exchange [of prisoners]?” He responded, “Even if this [exchange] happened, I would say this, ‘The value of my 46 citizens [and three Iraqis] is immeasurable; praise be to God they have finally reunited with their families.’” The response was an indirect approval of the exchange arrangement but he refused to elaborate. Other government officials have been equally tight-lipped.
The following day, however, confirmation came from Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist for pro-AKP Yenisafak who is known to be very close to President Erdogan. Selvi wrote, “a few very prominent operatives of ISIS were released by Turkey as a result of the exchange.”
There are three ISIS members who have been tried by Turkish courts and are supposed to be in Turkish prison. In April 2014, a Turkish gendarme team stopped a car at a checkpoint for routine checks. The “passengers” jumped out of the vehicle and started shooting at the soldiers killing two of them. The assailants were captured later when they were wounded in an exchange of gunfire with the security forces.
Interestingly, in April 2014, Turkey amended the law regarding the intelligence agency MIT’s mandate empowering it to undertake exchange of prisoners even in the case of convicted criminals if what Turkey would get in return are valuable assets. The fact that there is no word from the government regarding the whereabouts of the three ISIS militants strengthens the possibility that the Turkish hostages were released as a result of prisoner exchange.
There may be another dimension to this exchange because it seems unlikely that the ISIS terrorists would release 49 Turkish captives including the consul-general without getting something more than merely three takfiri prisoners, albeit killers of soldiers. Along with three ISIS militants, it is possible that Turkey offered more, such as providing intelligence to ISIS about Syrian Kurds, especially the Kurdish group, PYD.
The fact that the captives were released just after the lightning ISIS advance into Kurdish territories strengthens this possibility. In their earlier assault, the PYD forces had routed ISIS militants but this time despite US airstrikes on takfiri strongholds in Iraq, the terrorists managed to make rapid advances to control Kurdish areas in Syria. Leader of the PYD, Salih Muslim’s remarks also confirms this a possibility. On September 21, he accused Turkey of co-operating with the takfiri terrorists, “On the one hand you will support the peace talks with [the PKK] and on the other hand you will direct these gangs [ISIS] to attack the Kurds. No one would accept this.”
Regardless of these details, Turkey has scored a major success by securing the release of its diplomats and ended the ordeal that had left Erdogan and his aides in a very uncomfortable position. However, if the allegations regarding the nature of the release of the captives are true, it is possible that Erdogan, Davutoglu and the AKP may have to face the consequences of such dealings soon or later.