Freeing the hostages: A good job

Freeing the hostages: A good job

Today’s Turkey, unfortunately, is deeply polarized by two opposite camps: The venerators of the government and the denouncers of the government. Very few people try to offer fair and objective analyses, as very few people are interested in hearing such dispassionate views.

The same happens with regard to Turkey’s encounter with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as well. For the government’s supporters, Ankara has made no mistake whatsoever beyond its southern borders, and the ISIL threat is the work of only other actors: From the Bashar al-Assad regime to the Nouri al-Maliki government, from the United States to Iran. For the government’s opponents, however, nobody is more responsible for ISIL than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his team.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in between: Ankara had supported various factions of the Syrian opposition, but not ISIL, which was a latecomer to the scene in the spring of 2013. But Ankara was also wrong in not seeing this problem coming. It also was wrong in not foreseeing the raiding of Turkey’s Mosul consulate in June 2014, which put 46 Turkish citizens hostage under ISIL. 

However, after last weekend, we should give what is the Caesar’s to the Caesar: The freeing of the 46 hostages (and 3 more Iraqi citizens who worked at Turkey’s Mosul consulate) was a big success. The hostages could have remained at the hands of ISIL for many more months, and maybe have been killed at the end. The fact the government — and the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) — brought them home safely is an accomplishment that deserves acclaim.

How was this possible? First, one should remind that Turkey is a pre-dominantly Sunni Muslim country and thus Turkish citizens are not considered by ISIL as “infidels” or “heretics” that deserve execution by definition. (This is not to justify ISIL’s despicable bloodlust; it is just to define its logic.) Secondly, Turkey has been carefully out of the anti-ISIL military coalition that is being built by the United States, and precisely for the sake of the hostages. It seems that this strategy paid off, as ISIL’s self-styled “caliph” reportedly said that Turkey was rewarded for not “joining the Crusader alliance.”

Also important was Turkey’s ties with the Sunni tribes in Iraq, particularly in Mosul, which seem to have kept channels for dialogue and bargaining with ISIL. The bargain did not include a monetary transaction, as President Erdoğan said, but apparently a “swap,” which he did not rule out. Indeed, as the Hürriyet Daily News reported yesterday, it seems that ISIL gained some 50 of its imprisoned fighters in return for the 49 hostages. The group that held these fighters as captives was Liwa al-Tawhid, one of the more moderate Islamist factions within the Syrian opposition. (So, a reminder: Not every Islamist fighter in Syria is an ally, let alone a member, of ISIL.)

The freeing of hostages with a diplomatic operation that involves all such contingencies was a success, and it certainly came as relief for both the nation and the foreign policy makers in Ankara. But now, since they are free from the hostage problem, will they be more active against ISIL?

I think they should, because ISIL is a major threat for everybody in the region, including Turkey. But I also think both Turkey’s fears of a terrorist backlash, and the conspiratorial anti-American sentiment among policy makers, if the not whole nation, can keep Ankara’s participation in the anti-ISIL coalition limited.