The day that Turkey hit ISIL
It came at about the same time as Ankara had pushed the button for the last move to free 49 hostages from the hands of the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The hostages were first seized in a raid on the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, Iraq on June 11. There had been at least five attempts to free them that had failed at the last minute, mainly because of clashes between ISIL and Kurdish forces, as well as U.S. raids on ISIL targets.
The last move planned by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in coordination with the military and the Foreign Ministry involved the release of 50 ISIL-related Syrians in the hands of a rebel Syrian Arab group called the al-Tawhid Brigades, which is part of the Islamic Front supported by the “Friends of the Syrian People” group of countries that includes Turkey. Simultaneously, as ISIL militants took back their captives from al-Tawhid near Raqqah, they were to hand over the Turkish captives to MİT officials at the Akçakale border gate on the Turkish-Syrian border. On the other side of the gate is Tel Abyad, which is currently under ISIL’s control.
The swap took place on Sept. 19.
Two days before that, on the morning of Sept. 17, the sentries of the Turkish Army’s 3rd Border Regiment Command, which is in charge of security around the Akçakale border gate area, reported heavy clashes between ISIL and Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces. The PYD is the Syrian wing of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
At 11:10 a.m. on the same day, a 23 mm anti-aircraft shell was dropped near the Yağmuralan village of Akçakale, some 650 meters inside the Turkish border. The Turkish military immediately analyzed the case and found that it was a shot from an ISIL position. “Supposedly it was fired at PYD forces. But it was too much of a deviation to be a mistake. Perhaps it was a move to test our response,” one official told the Hürriyet Daily News.
In line with a year-old authorization given to the military by Parliament about an immediate response, Turkish artillery started to shell the ISIL position in response. There was actually a statement on the Turkish Chief of Staff’s website about this, but it did not say that the target was an ISIL position, which has now been confirmed by Turkish official sources who have asked to remain anonymous. Those Turkish officials have begun to talk more freely now that the hostages have been freed.
This Turkish military response was not the only example. At 13:35 p.m. on Sept. 17, according to the log book of the Border Command, an 81 mm mortar shell landed in Turkey, again near the same village, 1.5 km inside the border. “This was also too much for a deviation,” my source said.
Turkish artillery, with both mortars and howitzers, then opened fire on the other ISIL target, after which no shots were reportedly fired at the Turkish border by ISIL.
Meanwhile, two days after the incident, the hostages were freed at exactly the same Akçakale gate.
Now that the hostages are free, Turkey has stepped up its rhetoric against ISIL. The organization has already been on Ankara’s “terrorist” blacklist since October 2013. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan openly denounced it as a “terrorist organization” during his U.N. contacts in New York and vowed Turkey's military contribution to the anti-ISIL coalition, on top of its current intelligence sharing, border security and logistical and humanitarian support.
The hostages was the primary excuse for Turkey not to contribute more, but they were not the only one. Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan has already suggested that Turkey wants to see Barack Obama’s broader perspective on Syria before deciding, even after U.S. forces started to hit ISIL targets in Syria. Turkey sees the Bashar al-Assad regime as the source of instability in the region, which has given birth to terrorist organizations like al-Nursa and ISIL.
The Turkish government seems ready to make the necessary contribution, but as a part of a kind of political bargaining. The U.S. perspective on Syria and security zones along the Turkish border are likely to be in the focus of that bargaining.