How the Islamic State Took Turkey Hostage

The 49 Turkish diplomats captured by the jihadist group in Mosul may now be free, but Ankara still has many reasons to think twice about confronting the extremists on its border.  

Ozan Kose / AFP
Ozan Kose / AFP

Is Turkey part of the broad coalition against the Islamic State (IS) that President Barack Obama has been trying to fashion, or not? There is certainly reason to think it would be interested in the effort: Turkey shares a long land border with Syria, many of the moderate Syrian opposition leaders have long been based in Turkey, and the Turkish government has been at the forefront of the opposition to the Assad regime, along with many of the other states in the anti-IS coalition.

Turkey, however, did not join the 10 Arab countries that signed on to help build a coalition against IS at a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this past week, and has made it clear that it will not partake in military operations against IS. It is willing to provide humanitarian aid, and will in all likelihood offer clandestine support to U.S. efforts.

The primary reason the Turks give for their reticence was their concern for the fate of 49 Turkish diplomatic and security personnel who were seized by IS when the group overran the Iraqi city of Mosul; they were released on Sept. 20. The hostage crisis was emblematic of all that has gone wrong for Turkey in Syria: Although warned of the impending fall of Iraq’s second-largest city, the Turks terribly miscalculated in thinking that IS would not harm Turkish personnel, given how critical Ankara’s support for the anti-Assad effort had been.

The end of the hostage crisis in Mosul, however, does not necessarily mean Turkey has a free hand to confront IS. Ankara still faces a second quasi-hostage crisis that gives Turkish leaders reason to think twice about joining Obama’s coalition. South of Turkey’s border with Syria, a squadron of Turkish soldiers guards an ancient tomb which is said to belong to Suleyman Shah, the first Ottoman sultan’s grandfather. It was ceded by the French occupying power to the new Turkish state in 1921. The tomb had to be moved closer to Turkey in 1975 following the damming of the Euphrates and the creation of Lake Assad; the new location, in Syria’s Aleppo province, is some 20 miles from the Turkish border. Since then, a contingent of Turkish troops has been stationed there, rotating through regularly with supplies.

Were the jihadists to decide to overrun the Turkish enclave, they could probably do it easily, although it would certainly prompt a Turkish military reaction. Either way, the situation is a delicate if not impossible one for Ankara, as the only way to resupply this small contingent of troops is by reaching some sort of understanding with the jihadist group. The last known resupply operation occurred near the end of April, when IS did not enjoy the dominance it does today.

While the details of the hostage deal are still unclear, Ankara has had interlocutors with IS — from Arab tribes to former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who sought refuge in Turkey — who could have been instrumental in reaching it. Such a deal, however, may include a promise of continued non-involvement in the campaign against the jihadist group, with the soldiers stationed at Suleyman Shah serving as an insurance policy for the jihadists.

Turkey’s other problem has been the emergence of a jihadist support infrastructure within its own territory. Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone recently told journalists that Ankara had been working with groups that the United States considers "beyond the pale," including the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Earlier this year, Turkish police also stopped a truck reportedly belonging to the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), an NGO close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that made its name organizing the ill-fated 2010 flotilla to Gaza, for allegedly carrying weapons to fighters in Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has denied that Ankara has worked with al-Nusra Front, while IHH denies that it had anything to do with the stopped truck.

Aid, munitions, and fighters have been smuggled across the border at will, sometimes via ambulance. The resulting infrastructure — consisting of groups of sympathizers or enablers, networks of safe houses, transportation and smuggling channels, and medical support — is now autonomous of the government.

Estimates vary, but Turkish media reports have suggested that as many as 1,000 Turks have joined IS. According to opinion polls, only 70 percent of Turks view IS as a terrorist group. In a country of 75 million, the 30 percent who do not share such a view represent an important potential recruiting pool for the jihadist group.

For some time, the Obama administration had been pushing former prime minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to clamp down on supporting jihadists in Syria. After the fall of Mosul and the mobilization against IS, pressure on Turkey has been ramped up. The United States has not asked to use its mammoth Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for military operations against IS, knowing full well that Ankara would turn them down.

The use of Incirlik would make it much easier and cheaper for the United States to conduct operations, instead of routing them out of the air base in Doha or the carriers in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. But the truth is, the United States does not need that base to achieve its limited objectives. Instead, Washington wants to work more closely with Ankara without making much of a fuss. However, the dismantling of the infrastructure in Turkey that supports jihadists of all stripes, and the oil-smuggling routes benefiting IS, must come first.

Erdogan bristles at any criticism from the American press, accusing it of engaging in slander and malicious propaganda. But he is in a difficult situation, much of it of his own doing. To be fair, the 560-mile Turkish-Syrian border is difficult to seal completely; people in that region have for decades made a living off smuggling.

The bigger problem, however, is that the Turkish government has little faith in the United States. This is partially ideological, but also based on experience. After all, the bungled management of post-invasion Iraq does not inspire confidence in Washington’s ability to steward this new effort.

Between the hostages IS has captured and the important residual support it commands in Turkey, the jihadist group has managed to significantly restrict Erdogan’s room to maneuver. The natural policy for Turkey now is to sit on the sidelines — but as the fight against IS escalates, Turkey could find itself under increasing pressure to be drawn in. Will this resemble 2003? Then, the Turkish parliament, despite the Ankara government’s efforts in support, voted down a resolution that would have allowed American troops to cross into Iraq through Turkish territory. That decision cast a shadow on Turkish-American relations as the United States struggled to control post-Saddam Iraq. Turkey’s dilemma, in short, is that it has lost the initiative to IS; while it has rescued its hostages, it still remains hostage to IS.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @hbarkey

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