The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq last week, abducting 49 people, including several diplomats, guards, and others. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that Turkey would retaliate if any Turkish citizen were harmed, warning ISIS should not “test Turkey’s resolve.” Ankara also requested an emergency NATO meeting, after which Secretary-General Rasmussen said that NATO would not hesitate to defend and protect Turkey.
The Turkish government is clearly alarmed by the crisis in Iraq. ISIS has threatened Turkish national security since it emerged as a key player in Syria, particularly after it took control over the strategic town of Jarablus in January. Now, the militant group seems to have increased its control over Turkey’s bordering towns in Iraq as well. So why does Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insist on referring to ISIS as an “entity,” while avoiding calling it a terrorist organization?
ISIS may have become a security threat to Turkey, but many blame the very existence of this threat on the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) itself. Turkey’s open-door policy since the beginning of the Syrian crisis has allowed many Syrians jihadists to freely enter its territory, and Ankara has been accused of turning a blind eye, if not direct support, to foreign jihadists in its territory. Syrian Kurds continue to argue that Turkey provided Sunni jihadists, including ISIS, with arms and sanctuary. They allege that Turkey has done this to counter the Kurdish militant group People’s Protection Unit (YPG), which it regards as the Syrian arm of the Kurdish terrorist group that has long plagued Turkey, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).
It’s not only foreigners who fault the Turkish government on this issue. In an address to his party meeting on June 17, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Turkey’s main opposition leader, openly accused Erdogan of supporting ISIS, saying that for the first time in history Turkey has become a country that supports terrorism. “The biggest terror attack in our history was done by al Qaeda in 2003, and yet so many foreign al Qaeda fighters have crossed over to the Middle East from Turkey. We have paid the price for this, and we continue paying it,” Kilicdaroglu said. Following the speech, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) submitted a proposal to the parliament for an inquiry into ISIS funding by Turkey.
On the same day, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Turkish Nationalist Party (MHP), also made a similar speech. Calling the apparent shift in the government’s Syria policy the product of “a late confession of remorse,” he explained that those who helped and provided support to ISIS in Syria are now primarily responsible for the blood that is being shed. “Unfortunately the AKP is in this mess and it is a rotten ring of this dark hand that has inflamed this ISIS monster. The AKP’s Syria policy is the reason why our borders are now filled with radical and savage elements,” Bahceli said.
Ankara has denied all accusations, charging instead that the West is to be blamed for not intervening in Syria when the civil war first erupted, or even after Syrian president Bashar al Assad crossed the American red line by his alleged use of chemical weapons. Still, Ankara has indicated a shift in Turkish policy by condemning extremism in Syria and pledging to tighten its border control efforts. Arguably, most of this has remained in rhetoric as Turkey’s borders still seem open to jihadists. It’s also worth questioning why Ankara designated Jabhat al-Nusra, another al-Qaeda linked militant group, as a terrorist organization on June 3, but not ISIS. However, it now appears clear that Ankara at least acknowledges that it cannot contain the extremism problem that it helped create.
Turkish officials are now reportedly holding talks with ISIS for the return of the hostages. But the problem goes beyond freeing the diplomats. On the same day the Turkish consulate was seized, ISIS also captured 28 Turkish truck drivers who were carrying diesel from Turkey to a thermal power plant in Mosul. On Tuesday June 17, ISIS abducted another 15 Turkish citizens. ISIS is not expected to relinquish these Turks any time soon.
Finally, there is an open question as to whether Turkey’s dangerous border policies have already allowed foreign terrorists to establish cells inside Turkey. With ISIS expanding its control over key provinces in Iraq and Syria, Turkey will need to recalibrate its policies if it is to escape this current crisis unscathed.