The “hostage crisis” between Turkey and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is one of the most mysterious and bizarre “crises” that any nation could face. When the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul was seized and 49 people — including Turkish diplomats and security personal — were taken by ISIL, many people asked why the consulate hadn’t been evacuated.
Conflicting statements were released; after that, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confidently stated that Turkey would take the hostages with ease, as if they were not in the hand of the most brutal terrorists. Many people believed that it was a political saga that both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and ISIL had agreed upon rather than a real hostage-taking.
Although ISIL had the Turkish diplomats in its hands, they were treated as if they were not hostages. For instance, the Turkish consul was allowed to use his cellphone during his captivity of more than 100 days. ISIL is not a stupid organization which does not know that an electronic signal could be used as intelligence to reveal where the hostages are. In order for ISIL to allow the Turkish diplomat to use his cellphone, it must have had a guarantee that Turkey would not conduct an operation to rescue the hostages.
Like its beginning, the hostage-taking saga ended in a bizarre way. ISIL released the Turkish hostages, but left many unanswered questions behind it.
A retired American diplomat friend of mine raised the following questions:
“It was good news indeed that the Turkish hostages were released, but the circumstances, as reported in the Turkish press, do not ring true. No shots were fired, no military pressure was applied, and no ransom paid. Why, then, did ISIL agree to give up the hostages? There must have been a quid pro quo. The assumption among some of the bloggers here is that Turkey agreed to something that ISIL wanted, like a guarantee not to engage in offensive operations against the ‘Islamic State’.”
These are some of the questions that remain unanswered. At this stage no one, except a few people who negotiated with ISIL, can answer these questions.
More importantly, I don’t think the Turkish press — and especially the pro-government media outlets — will give us accurate background information about the negotiation process.
It is a typical tendency of Turkish media outlets that under such circumstances, they run heroic stories, most of them fabricated with barely any truth in them. Thus, I tend to read the Turkish press with caution these days. It would take years for the Turkish press to write true stories about events like this.
It is not a new phenomenon to the Turkish media. We know it from the Abdullah Öcalan case. When Öcalan was brought to Turkey, we read many heroic stories about how he had been captured. Similarly, we read stories how other Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants such as Şemdin Sakık were brought to Turkey.
In order to understand what has really happened between Turkey and ISIL, the pro-government Turkish media is the least reliable source of information. I prefer to follow the news from opposition media outlets and pro-ISIL Internet sites.
Tevhidhaber.net, a pro-ISIL website that openly and freely publicizes in Turkey — which is another bizarre fact, that the Turkish authorities are shutting down Twitter and YouTube and closing Twitter accounts which criticize the government but allow ISIL to freely propagate in and recruit from Turkey — stated that Turkey had guaranteed not to join the international coalition against ISIL.
As a security expert, I will make some guesses about the possibilities of what Turkey might have promised to ISIL to get the hostages back.
First, as the ISIL website claimed, some form of guarantee to not join the coalition against ISIL. Another possibility is to give ISIL a promise to delay possible international operations inside Syria to allow it to gain some time and more territory. If these are not possible, Turkey may even offer to play an intermediary role between the West and ISIL to end the violence.
Second, Turkey may provide strategic information to ISIL to defeat its enemies in Syria and Iraq. In fact, when ISIL was pushed back in Iraq, it launched offensives against the PKK/Democratic Union Party (PYD) stronghold Kobane and seized some strategic locations. Without information such as strategic intelligence about the locations of PYD units and powerful weaponry, it would have been difficult for ISIL to win against the trained PKK militants.
Third, instead of giving direct aid to ISIL, Turkey might have given aid in the form of economic, armament or intelligence help to the pro-ISIL tribal leaders who facilitated the negotiations.