Arab streets not Turkish playground

Arab streets not Turkish playground

The release of two Turkish Airlines pilots following the 71 days of captivity in Lebanon was like Checkpoint Charlie stories from the Cold War where hostages or spies from the West and East were swapped.

Neither Turkish pilots Murat Akpınar nor Murat Ağca, kidnapped in Beirut on Aug. 9 this year, nor Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped in Azzaz, Syria on their way back from Iran on May 22 resemble the profile of spies, but were clearly hostages in the civil war in Syria, which is turning into a battle ground for an inter-Islam sectarian fight with an escalating tendency to spill over.

When the Turkish pilots were kidnapped, the kidnappers made it clear the two were going to be released in return for the release of the Lebanese pilgrims. That is what exactly happened. The Turkish pilots and Lebanese pilgrims were released simultaneously through secret diplomacy where Iran and Qatar apparently had major contribution (and with the help of Palestinians, too). The Turkish and Lebanese intelligence were surely major actors, since their citizens were the subjects of kidnappings, but the presences of Qatar and Iran alone reflect the al-Qaeda and Hezbollah fight growing in the Syrian theatre as representatives of Sunni and Shiite extremism in the civil war there.

The swap was made in Istanbul. The Lebanese pilgrims were brought to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen airport on the Anatolian side the night before when they left Istanbul for Beirut on an Oct. 19 afternoon. The Turkish pilots were handed over to Lebanese authorities at the same time to be flown to Turkey. They landed at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport on the European side and were welcomed there by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. There is definitely a thriller movie scenario here, but the real story is actually a matter of concern for Turkish foreign policy.

Prime Minister Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu and the Chief of Intelligence (MİT) Hakan Fidan were under domestic criticism for some time, being accused of dragging Turkey and Turkish citizens into the Syrian quagmire because of ignoring the extremist threat among the anti-Assad opposition and getting involved too much. Davutoğlu, in particular, praised the role of the MİT and Fidan in the release, who is the target of what Ankara believes is a media campaign manipulated by Israeli groups.

The release of the pilots is definitely a relief for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu (and for Fidan, of course). But the whole incident showed the Arab street is no longer a safe ground for civilian Turkish citizens and it is no longer a playground for Turkish diplomacy; things become more difficult and complicated as the Syrian war lingers and al-Assad keeps his power.

From the recent performance of Erdoğan’s government in Syria, which has started to put a clearer distance between itself and extremist Sunni groups among Syrian rebels, it is possible to extrapolate a gradual fine-tuning of Turkish Foreign Policy regarding the Middle East as the second round of Geneva talks regarding Syria late November get closer.