Turkey Held Hostage in Syria

No uprising in the Arab world has been as sectarian as the Syrian crisis, writes Tulin Daloglu, and Turkey's efforts to help been tainted by its own sectarian issues. Many question Turkish inaction to save the lives of kidnapped Shiite pilgrims, and its prime minister has accused an opposition leader of solidarity with Assad because of their common sectarian background.

al-monitor Turkish boys look through a shattered window after an anti-aircraft shell fired from Syria hit a health center across the border in the Reyhanli district of Turkey's Hatay province October 23, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

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syrian, hostages, erdogan, assad

Oct 23, 2012

No revolutionary uprising in the Arab world has been as sectarian as the Syrian crisis, but the uniqueness of the Syrian case is partly because it was inevitable for Syria to muddle into this dark religious divide.

The most serious split is between the Alawites and the Sunnis. Although there has always been talk of successful coexistence among the different sects in Syria, the truth is out there on the streets across the country. The majority-Sunni population is full of anger, resentment and violent retribution for the more than four decades of rule by the Assad family, which comes from the minority Alawite sect.

While the Syrian opposition may say all the right things to Western ears — that Syrians are Syrians first and that the Alawite community should not feel intimidated — there is nonetheless an underlying and worrying sectarianism in their message. In neighboring Turkey, for example, where more than 100 thousand Syrians fled to safety, there is not even one Alawite. There is a civil war underway in Syria, and it’s not only Assad’s killing machine that is ending lives.

While Turkey is actively seeking regime change in Syria, the Islamist-based Erdogan government argues that they have no sectarian-motivated ambitions for the newly shaping majority-Sunni Arab world. Often shown as a model to its immediate Muslim neighborhood, Turkey unfortunately, not only risks failing to lead by example at this critical turning point for the region, but also underestimates critical perceptions about its policies.

Right or wrong, perception is reality. And since the Syrian rebels kidnapped 11 Lebanese pilgrims on May 22 just as they crossed into Syria from Turkey while returning from a pilgrimage in Iran, many Lebanese are wary about Turkish inaction to save their lives and even question as to whether Turkey shies away from using its influence because the hostages were Shiite. Turkish authorities, who ask not to be named, tell Al-Monitor that they are well aware of such talk in Lebanon, but that they consider it Hezbollah propaganda.

My observation as a follow-up to a recent visit to Beirut is, however, different. Not all Lebanese who expect Turkey to rescue these hostages are Shiite or Hezbollah supporters. Many genuinely believe that Turkey’s excessive support to the Syrian opposition, and its free use of the 877 km-long Turkey-Syria border, should give Turkey a significant level of control over the opposition groups. Therefore, if Ankara chooses to use its leverage over the rebels for the release of the Lebanese hostages, they will be back in Lebanon before Eid al Adha, which is next Thursday, Oct. 25.

In fact, since the Free Syrian Army members released two hostages — Hussein Ali Omar in August and Awad Ibrahim last month — there is a new sense of expectation for the remaining nine hostages' safe return to their families. The Syrian rebels also keep Hassan Meqdad and one more Lebanese as hostages.

That said, the Meqdad family of east Lebanon’s Bekaa region had kidnapped over 30 Syrians as well as two Turks in August as retaliation for their family member’s kidnapping in Syria. As they soon after released all the hostages except for four Syrians, it’s speculated that their act was the reason for the Syrian rebels to free some of the hostages.

After a 19-month uprising and an estimated 30 thousand deaths, Assad is still in power. He continues to win time, and that sharpens the Iranian and Hezbollah support to Assad. It looks evident that they — as a Shiite bloc — will fight for him to the end. Just take Ali Hussein Nassif's suspicious death on Oct. 1. The Lebanese Shia Islamist group did not say where exactly its military commander was killed. It was no different for Musa Ali Shahimi, another senior Hezbollah military commander, who died in August. Hezbollah announced that Shahimi, like Ali Nassif, had “died while performing his jihadist duty.” While there have been reports in the media that both were killed in Syria, sources tell Al-Monitor that these Hezbollah members died on the Lebanese border.

Moreover, 47 Iranian nationals were also kidnapped in Syria in August. According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the abducted Iranians were on a pilgrimage tour in Syria to visit the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque. The Syrian rebels, however, claim that they were on a “reconnaissance mission” in Damascus. In any case, Iran holds the rebels responsible for the captive Iranians' lives, and has asked Turkey and Qatar to help for their safe return — at no avail, so far.

Last but not least, Cuneyt Unal, a TRT cameraman who was doing freelance work for Al-Hurra when he was kidnapped in Syria two months ago, is being kept as a hostage by the Syrian regime. The Turkish Foreign Ministry holds Bashar al-Assad directly responsible for his life, but the Turks have not appealed to the Russians or Iranians for Unal’s safe release.

In all this hostage traffic over Syria, Turkey has failed to get results. Yet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week added to his strong criticism of the international community for failing to end the bloodshed in Syria by calling the United Nations Security Council incapable of addressing the needs of the Muslim people.

"If we leave the issue to the vote of one or two members [referring to Russia and China] of the permanent five at the UNSC, then the aftermath of Syria will be very hazardous and humanity will write it down in history with unforgettable remarks," he said. While his overture will likely bring him points on the Arab street, Turkey should be aware of the differing views about its growing interest in the region. More so, Turkey will certainly need the support of the permanent members of the UNSC, where three out of five of them are key NATO allies.

There may be arguments about the need to challenge the world system as set after World War II, but there is a time and place for everything. Turkey is hardly a perfect democracy, or a country that has overcome its own sectarian issues.

The Turkish Prime Minister accuses Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition party leader or the CHP and an Alevi, for showing solidarity to Assad because of their common sectarian background.

“Tell me why you’re sympathizing the Syrian leadership without making any twists,” Erdogan said in May. But it was Erdogan, not Kilicdaroglu, who built a close personal relationship with Assad. Erdogan had even gone as far as making a joint cabinet ministerial meeting with Syria under Assad’s leadership in 2011.

In addition, one of the best-kept secrets about the sectarian-oriented politics in Turkey is that prior to the last general elections in June 2011, the AKP motivated the imams in the east and southeast of Turkey to talk about the drawbacks of an Alevi leading the majority Sunni Turkish population.

The fact remains that Erdogan, who has been taught Islamist ideology since childhood, has caused massive polarization in Turkey also on sectarian grounds, and the Turkish Alevi community today has not solved any of its problems with the state. A Turkish leadership that lacks the support of its 20% Alevi population risks being perceived as taking part in sectarian politics, and that not only cuts Turkey’s interests short in the region, but also creates a dramatic vacuum for the entire Muslim population that seeks a more prosperous, equal and just future.

Tulin Daloglu is a journalist and foreign-policy analyst based in Ankara, Turkey. She tweets at @TulinDaloglu.

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