The moment Turkey decided to be a “regime changer” in Syria, it not only meant abandoning its soft-power-based “zero problems with neighbors” policy, but also marked a turning point for bringing the troubles onto itself.
Yesterday’s headlines in the Taraf daily made people shiver, albeit briefly. It claimed that Ankara decided to relinquish its only territory in Syria, the tomb of Süleyman Şah — the burial place of the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire — to the radical militants who have been holding Turkish hostages for more than two months in Mosul. The newspaper argued that Turkey initially offered a ransom for the hostages, but that the two sides agreed on a land-for-hostages deal.
The Foreign Ministry called the allegation “unfounded” and slammed the report as an “act of grave irresponsibility,” pointing out to the sensitivities about the state of 49 Turkish hostages, held by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants in Iraq.
Whether the story is accurate or not does not matter much. The bitter fact remains that 49 people, some of whom are diplomats, have been held hostage for weeks.
This means, in a broad picture, Ankara itself is being held hostage, paralyzed, as ISIL presents itself as the “clear and present danger” for the entire region, as the source of an epidemic of violence without borders.
“ISIL is the most dangerous terrorist group in the world because they combine the fighting capabilities of al-Qaeda with the administrative capabilities of Hezbollah,” David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert who spent several years working as a top aide to Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq War. Kilcullen told Foreign Policy, “It’s clear that they have a state-building agenda and an understanding of the importance of effective governance.”
Before such a serious — and shrewdly opaque — threat, the mother of all challenges for Ankara will be to choose a clear stand. But the challenge may be bigger than imagined, because President Abdullah Gül already shared the news that Ahmet Davutoğlu is to be Turkey’s next prime minister.
“Look what is happening in the south. Who is responsible? [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and Davutoğlu,” said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), in an interview for Today’s Zaman yesterday.
“It was they who helped ISIL to grow. Now they say they are ‘sensitive’ about the issue because they have hostages at the hands of ISIL. … How can a government that cannot call ISIL a terrorist organization not have any links to ISIL? The entire world calls ISIL terrorist, but we [the government] cannot. It cannot call it terrorist because the government sent arms to ISIL through al-Qaeda. It did so in order to pursue its own policy in Syria. Weapons captured in trucks were sent to ISIL, not to Turkmens. And the terrorist group the government nurtured has now begun to hit Turkey.”
The heinous murder of our colleague, James Foley, and the unknown destiny of all the hostages held and people kidnapped by ISIL, has now worked as a powerful wake-up call for the world.
Sensing the clear and present danger of ISIL’s barbarism, following the return of the US air force strikes, France joined Washington to arm the Kurds — which is the only option for counter-insurgency on the ground. Germany and Italy will follow suit in supplying arms.
Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister, said France wanted “all countries of the region, including Iran” and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to join in the action against ISIL.
This means a moment of truth for Ankara: Since such an opaque terror group cannot be defeated so easily, Turkey will have to face a very clear choice — either to join the war against ISIL terror or, kept out of the loop, to have to “follow,” only to face the consequences.
Will Erdoğan and the new government change the parameters?
Risks are that the “monster” can turn its rage against Turkish soil. Another aspect is that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) now has a very strong argument, citing the international engagement targeting ISIL, that disarmament of its units will be suspended, putting the Kurdish Peace Process in disarray.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Ankara has come to the end of the road regarding its “policy of ambiguity” across its southern border.
As a NATO ally, its credibility will be at stake.