On Saturday, Turkey woke up to happy news: The 49 Turks held hostage in Iraq by the Islamic State for 101 days had finally been released. When they arrived in Ankara with a delegation headed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the survivors were welcomed by family members who had feared that they would never see them again.
The hostages were captured by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, on June 10, when the terrorist group occupied the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and raided the Turkish Consulate, the last remaining diplomatic mission there.
How the release was achieved has not been fully disclosed yet. Turkey’s newly elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told the press that there had been a “bargain” but “not a monetary one.” Reportedly, indirect contacts with the Islamic State through Sunni tribes in Mosul were crucial. Turkish media now claims that there was an exchange of Islamic State prisoners held by a moderate Syrian rebel faction with apparent ties to Turkey. It seems that Ankara’s hesitancy in joining the anti-ISIS military collation led by the United States paid off. No wonder the self-proclaimed “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reportedly said that Turkish hostages were released “with the condition of Turkey not joining the Crusader alliance.”
But now that the hostages are freed, the pressing question is: Will Turkey be more willing to take part in the anti-ISIS alliance?
Probably yes. After all, the Islamic State poses a major threat to Turkey. Ankara had a black-and-white perception of the Syrian civil war during its first two years, condemning only the ruthless regime of Bashar al-Assad while supporting virtually all rebel parties, including jihadist factions. “The Turkish authorities thought they could work with extremist Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war and at the same time push them to become more moderate,” Francis Ricciardone, the former American ambassador to Turkey, told journalists earlier this month. But as the Islamic State emerged with an unforeseen fanaticism and bloodlust in mid-2013, Ankara began to wake up to the threat.
In the past year, both official statements and the views from the pro-government media show that the Islamic State is viewed in Ankara as a traitor to the Free Syria cause — that it only helped defame the revolution and legitimize the Assad regime. In collaboration with its Western allies, Turkey also became more careful about foreign fighters, and has captured 830 European citizens who attempted to enter Syria via Turkey to join the Islamic State.
Ideologically, as well, the Islamic State is an abomination for both the Turkish government and the overwhelming majority of Turkish society — which, despite some illiberal tendencies, subscribes to a peaceful and pro-democratic understanding of Islam. It’s true that the Islamic State gathers recruits from Turkey, as recently reported in the Times, but the group gains even more recruits from Britain, France and Russia.
Yet, even after the freeing of the hostages, there is one risk that may restrain Turkey in its actions against ISIS: its extreme vulnerability to terrorist attacks. The territory controlled by the Islamic State extends from northern Syria to central Iraq, but there is only one country that it borders: Turkey. Moreover, this long border is permeable, mostly because of Turkey’s humane policy of welcoming every refugee. Consequently, more than 1.5 million refugees have poured into Turkey in the last three years, with more than 130,000 in the past week. It is very hard to determine who is a real refugee and who is a fighter — and if so, a fighter for whom?
In an event that laid bare Turkey’s vulnerability, two car bombs killed 51 people in Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border, on May 11, 2013. Although the government blamed the Assad regime for the attack, the real culprits are still unknown, and they could have been connected to jihadist groups.
While the United States can bomb Islamic State targets and still feel relatively safe 6,000 miles away, Turkey has to reckon with the possible local backlashes of joining the anti-ISIS military campaign. Some fear that if Turkey gets too involved, bombs might start exploding in Turkish cities — detonated by fighters for the Islamic State who cross the border, or even by ISIS cells within. If Turkey chooses to stay silent and keeps a low profile due to such fears, Western policy makers and commentators should not view this caution as a betrayal of the West or interpret it as a sign of sympathy for the terrorist group.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s leaders, especially Mr. Erdogan and his supporters in the media, must stop denouncing every criticism of ISIS activity inside Turkey as libels and conspiracies, as they have been doing recently.
Like every other government on Earth, the Turkish government sometimes makes mistakes. And like other governments, it is sometimes also blamed mistakenly. If Turkey’s government wants to gain the respect and sympathy of the outside world as it faces the dilemma of the Islamic State on its borders, then it must learn to respond to criticism with tolerance, patience and maturity — rather then insult and fury.
Mustafa Akyol is a columnist and the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.