Yesterday, Turkey woke up to the news of two Turkish Airlines pilots being abducted in Lebanon. Later in the day, the abduction was claimed by a group called Zouar Imam Reza and the kidnappers stated their terms for exchange. Nine people have been hostages of the Free Syrian Army for a year now and the pilots are going to be released in exchange for those civilians. I wish hostages on both sides would be released soon in good health. We are talking about real lives, real families and real agony, not subjects.
In events like this, we have to look at some main points and not be distracted by the mass media screams. One of these things is the character of abduction.
The pilots were going to their hotels to rest and their bus was stopped by two gunmen. This does not look like a high profile case of abduction at first glance. The idea of abduction is not new in Lebanon but the nature of this specific kidnapping suggests some operatives with a bit more sophisticated knowledge and training than usual. They learned and understood the movement of the pilots, they ambushed the bus, they made a clean grab with no casualties and they got away clean. They then released a carefully worded media statement and so far have remained undetected by authorities. That suggests a higher level of knowledge of how these plans work, and suggests likely prior experience.
Then we have to look at the place where the abduction took place. This event took place in Lebanon where Hezbollah is a strong force. Small predators cannot coexist in the territory of a shark. It is a known tactic for organizations like Hezbollah with political sides to create instant militia groups of their own to avoid complications in politics. Since Hezbollah’s military side is now declared a terror organization by the EU, it is highly possible that the organization created Zouar Imam Reza group as a contractor for their supposed such actions. When we think about Lebanon and Beirut, we all know that especially the airports are under Hezbollah’s control. We all know that Hezbollah is very active there in security. Again it is not possible to say that a Shiite contractor organization would ever be able to do such an act without the permission of Hezbollah.
From a micro perspective, how do we move to a macro perspective?
Turkey has to be more assertive in its foreign policy and establish an alliance with those who fight the same wars.
This is not the first Turkish person that has been abducted in Lebanon. They have abducted Turks last year as well. Again there was another contractor group behind the action. It was a feudal Miqdad family in Lebanon. However when we look at this family we see strong connections with Hezbollah. A parliamentarian from this family is a parliamentarian from Hezbollah’s party to prove an organic connection. What we should dwell on now is the question “why now?” Last year two people were abducted and they have made the same demands. They demanded the release of nine Shiites abducted in Syria. Abducted Turkish civilians were released before their demands were met. Why do they repeat this with the same demands after a year? Can this be just an excuse to start a push for Turkey to change its certan foreign policy points?
Turkey’s moral compass
Turkey acts in line with a certain foreign policy, which is determined through a moral compass rather than a political one. It is clear by their eleventh year in power that AK Party government is not an expert in foreign policy. Not acting like politicians is their strength at home but weakness outside Turkey. We see that in Syria, Turkey acts in line with its moral foreign policy and is targeted by the Shiite groups there not because Turkey is Sunni but because its pathway doesn’t serve the interests of Shiite groups there. Turkey doesn’t have sectarian difference problems with any group in the region, or within its borders. There is no direct tension between Turkey and Hezbollah organization too but it is known that Syria has a certain adversity.
In a more macro perspective, we cannot evaluate this differently from the recent event in Somalia. In Somalia the al-Qaeda terror organization has carried out an attack last week and a Turkish police officer died. In Somalia, al-Shebab has been attacking Turkish schools for some time now with the excuse that they pave the way to Western education in Somalia.
If you remember Egyptian revolution from the very beginning, Prime Minister Erdogan was shunned by his beloved Muslim Brotherhood members because he called for a secular democracy in Egypt, which would allow the religious people to coexist with the non-religious. And his stance with the military coup now also reflects the expected reaction of this certain moral foreign policy.
When you look at the map of Middle East, we see two main dangerous movements, replacing Baathist regimes in some places in the wake of Arab Spring. Political Shiite movement and politicized, radical Sunni movement. Of course I am not talking about all Shiite or Sunni movements in the region but politicized and radicalized ones. Turkey is taking a third stand point between these movements since we don’t have a sense of politicized sectarian prejudice or any strain of radical leaning politicized religion. This puts Turkey’s interests under a great global attack due to her independent foreign policy and in the same block with Western nations since we are fighting the same enemy ideologies but for an undetermined reason, fighting alone.
Turkey offers a democratic Sunni, a democratic Muslim model to the region. Turkey already has a foreign policy that transcends sectarianism. Buoyed by a dynamic economy and a decade of political stability, Ankara has been building influence in the Middle East. Turks are ambitious for a role as a bridge builder between East and West. The timing is also right for Turkey to look back to the Middle East more comfortably after a century of absence. Turks are now returning and being more welcomed like a long lost relative who come from a long distance bearing signs of success to take place in today’s global arena. By the end of Baathist mindset, Arabs now are looking at Turkey with a more positive perspective.
In this time period when the cards are being reshuffled, Turkey contradicts the interests of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. With Hezbollah’s being an actor fighting in Syria together with al-Assad, it is possible to see that they embrace that Shiite identity much more strongly and that they stress on their Shiite sectarian identity much more. This again is a policy of Iran upon the region. Contrary to Iran, we all know that Hezbollah cannot develop a policy that will step out of Iran’s words. When you turn your face to Somalia, Turkish nation building trials contradict with the terror organizations al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab that gave nothing but misery to the people there for years. When you go to other places you encounter other organizations. Turkey’s foreign policy is under constant attack and we need to read what the real purpose is here. The purpose is to force Turkey to take a step back from her foreign policy. The purpose is to make it withdraw from all lands and geographies it has stepped foot on till now and that it abandons its own interests.
Turkey’s PKK peace process
At the same time, with this Kurdish issue, Turkey is being displayed as a Turkey standing against Kurds. However that this is not the case. Turkey is well aware it is a peninsula surrounded by seas on three sides and by Kurds on three sides. Turkey has been cultivating economic, security and trade ties with the Iraqi Kurdistan. Barzani is the greatest ally of Turkey in the region. While trying to solve the issues with the Kurds in its own region, we can see that he is also trying to get a hand on the Kurds in Syria. The alliance of Turkey and Kurds will be disturbing many groups in the region. For instance PYD leader Salim Muslim visited Turkey and made statements to point out to the fact that the advances of PYD, is not a development despite Turkey. Giving a good but cautious hand to Kurdish nationalists elsewhere serves Turkey’s PKK peace process. As a result, PYD is very different when compared to its status two years ago and it is moving distant from Iran/Assad and coming closer to the Syrian opposition and Turkey.
Right now, if there is any American strategy at play in the Middle East, it can be summarized as: Try to keep Egypt from getting worse and build up diplomatic capabilities in the Gulf monarchies while China is only acting like a giant mall and Russia is busy supporting Assad’s barren hill from falling. Actors like Iran and some Gulf countries are not pleased by the model Turkey is presenting in the region. Looks like Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s slogan “zero problems with the neighbors” turned into neighbors that offer zero aside from problems. Turkey has to be more assertive in its foreign policy and establish an alliance with those who fight the same wars.
Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, TLB Contributor and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak