“I’m on my way to the airport [to fly back to Beirut], interrupting my vacation for a second consecutive time, just like last year,” Inan Ozyildiz, Turkey’s ambassador to Lebanon, told Al-Monitor by telephone, as the news broke that two Turkish Airlines pilots were abducted early in the morning today, Aug. 9, a short distance from the Rafik al-Hariri Airport on their way to their hotel. “It’s an unfortunate incident. Today is the first day of the end of Ramadan for Shiites, and the second day for the Sunnis. We are working on all fronts to help bring the pilots home safe.”
Ozyildiz recalled that Aydin Tufan Tekin, a Turkish businessman, was kidnapped last year on Aug. 15, which was followed two days later by the abduction of another Turkish citizen, Abdulbasit Arslan, a truck driver. Tekin was released on Sept. 11, and Arslan followed a week after.
“It’s the same story,” Ozyildiz said. “They are keeping Turkey responsible for the nine Lebanese people who are kept hostage in Azaz [within the Syrian border], south of Kilis, for over a year. They believe we have a role to play [to bring them home].”
The Turkish authorities, however, stress that these nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims are in the hands of a split gang that listens to no authority and draws attention to the complexities of this war-torn theater in Syria, where the sectarian divides play a tremendous role in support of or resistance to the Bashar al-Assad regime. According to United Nations records, more than 100,000 people have already died in that civil strife.
A group calling itself Zuwar al-Imam Rida claimed responsibility today in the kidnapping of the two Turkish Airlines uniformed pilots — pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca — and stated that they would be freed in exchange for nine Lebanese hostages in Syria.
When asked what group that is, the ambassador said, “These are sporadic things. The names of these groups are not really that important. There is a kind of a gang here, and a clan, that is trying to put pressure on Turkey. And they must be getting orders from somewhere. We’re trying to get to that address.”
In doing so, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke with Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, and speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri. “We make all efforts to bring back the pilots safe and sound,” Davutoglu said. “News that came from Beirut in the early morning overshadowed the happiness of Eid al-Fitr.”
Turkish President Abdullah Gul also expressed the same sadness. “Contacts have been made immediately after the incident on which we have some guesses,” Gul said. “I will also talk to the Lebanese president. I hope the pilots will soon arrive home safe and sound.” The Lebanese authorities expressed dismay with this news and reiterated that this incident won’t impact their relations with Ankara.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also released a travel warning and urged Turkish citizens to leave Lebanon. “In light of current events, if there is no life emergency, it will be best for our citizens not to travel to Lebanon,” the Ministry said in a written statement. “For those Turkish citizens currently in Lebanon, we urge them to come back to Turkey if they can, and if not, we urge them to take all the necessary precautions for their safety, and be cautious.”
While hoping that these pilots are safely rescued and returned to their families, this may yet be another reminder to Turkish policymakers to think twice before speaking and acting on anything concerning Middle East politics. Erdogan’s overly ambitious and aggressive approach in conquering the Arab streets is faced with the challenge to keep the balance between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims of this region. These threats toward Turkish citizens in general are nothing but the result of Erdogan’s open policy since August 2011 to bring down the Assad regime. In narrow terms, it is a distrust of Ankara by the Shiites, that Erdogan knows all those Sunni groups fighting in Syria but is not helping those hostages because they are of Shiite origin.
How to walk back from this tangle is certainly a challenge, but it’s not impossible to accomplish.
Tulin Daloglu is a contributor to Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has also written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.
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