On the evening of Dec. 22, 2016, social media accounts affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) shared a gruesome execution video, showing two Turkish-speaking soldiers being burned alive. The Turkish authorities were quick to restrict access to major social media sites to prevent the spread of the video.
Still, the two soldiers were soon identified as Sefter Tas and Fethi Sahin. Tas was already familiar to the public as the private whom IS militants had abducted on Sept. 1, 2015, in the Kilis region at the border with Syria, where he was doing his military service. Both his family and opposition parties had queried the government about his fate, but no one had managed to extract an answer. Eight months after his abduction, Tas had been featured in a Turkish-language online magazine published by IS. He was quoted as asking the Turkish authorities why no one was looking for him. The remarks suggested that the government had taken no action to rescue the soldier.
Ankara maintained its policy of silence after the release of the execution video as well. Pro-government media claimed the footage was a digital fabrication, citing information allegedly shared at a Cabinet meeting. The then-government spokesman, Numan Kurtulmus, even warned the media “to watch their step” and “not agitate the people with made-up images.” Following the warning, the mainstream media chose to ignore the execution story. Yet lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) continued to press the government for answers, though without any success. HDP deputy Mehmet Emin Adiyaman tried to raise the issue in parliament, but his speech was obstructed by members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
When it comes to the Tas family, the media reported that the soldier’s mother had a nervous breakdown after watching the video. After some time, officials reportedly visited the parents in their village in the eastern province of Igdir and assured them the footage was a fabrication. “I believe my son is alive,” the soldier’s father, Aydin Tas, told the press. Heavy-hearted but still hopeful, the parents waited for almost a year to hear from their son, but nothing happened. In early October, the father went to court, seeking a judicial declaration of disappearance. On Oct. 9, the day the court was to make a decision, the local garrison commander and the sub-governor visited the family to inform them that the video was in fact authentic and that their son had been “martyred,” the father told the press.
Speaking to Al-Monitor after paying a condolence visit to the parents, Adiyaman, the HDP deputy who represents Igdir and closely followed the case, described an “aggrieved” and “angry” family. “They were always in a state of dilemma. On the one hand, they were trying to accept the death of their son after watching him being killed in the video, but on the other hand, they wanted to believe the state officials who were telling them that their son was alive,” he said. “Their biggest misery was the mental torture to which they were subjected during that period. They are very perplexed and aggrieved but angry at the same time.”
Al-Monitor contacted Aydin Tas for comment, but he refused to answer questions, saying only he had nothing left to say.
Adiyaman believes the government could have saved the private during his captivity through a swap or similar methods. “Turkey and IS were flirting behind closed doors during that period. Images of Turkish soldiers and IS militants greeting each other at the border circulated on social media. The government thought the abduction of a soldier was no big deal,” the lawmaker told Al-Monitor.
He opined that the execution had to do with Ankara’s U-turn in Syria. In the days that the private was abducted, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “was still seeking to topple [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad and dreaming of praying at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus,” Adiyaman said. “Then, this policy changed. For IS, Operation Euphrates Shield was a betrayal, and Sefter Tas’ execution coincided with those developments.”
According to Adiyaman, the AKP did whatever it could to make the public forget the execution footage. “Those were images of big savagery and sparked outrage all over the world. Everyone was shaken in Turkey, be they rightist, leftist, believers or unbelievers,” he said. “Hence, the AKP could not afford to confirm that Sefter Tas was the soldier in the footage and adopted its typical attitude, trying to get the issue out of public attention, which it eventually managed to do.”
Beyond ignoring the footage, the government hurled accusations at those who sought answers, CHP deputy Murat Bakan recalled. “Sefter Tas was burned alive before the eyes of the whole world, and while our hearts wrenched, the state kept mum. They went even further, virtually proclaiming those asking about his fate traitors,” Bakan, who also closely followed the issue, told Al-Monitor.
“Sefter Tas was burned alive before the eyes of the whole world, and while our hearts wrenched, the state kept mum."
Incriminatory allegations swirled also about the second soldier in the video. The Aydinlik daily, an affiliate of a small but vocal party that has recently stood close to the AKP, claimed the footage was fabricated, while at the same time alleging that Sahin, the second soldier, had in fact defected from the military and joined IS. The source it cited was an anonymous caller. The paper quoted Sahin’s fellow villagers as saying the soldier was a “shadowy” type and a drug addict, which purportedly backed the claim he had joined IS. In the video, however, Sahin was identifying himself as a member of a gendarme intelligence unit based in the northwestern province of Tekirdag.
Who was he in reality? Was he an intelligence officer who might have infiltrated IS, an army defector who had joined IS or a captive soldier abducted just like Tas? The government has not provided an answer. The death of Tas has now been officially recognized, but what about the “official” fate of Sahin?
The executioners of the soldiers were reportedly Turkish as well. Though the execution remained “fabrication” officially, intelligence officials identified the “abductors” of Tas as Turkish nationals, Hurriyet reported in January.
“Both the executioners and the victims are Turks, which makes the incident even graver and more painful,” Bakan said. “There are hundreds of people with an IS mentality in Turkey. Some of them have joined IS. It is well-known that many also came [from abroad] to join IS and crossed [to Syria] via Turkey’s borders.”
According to Bakan, close to 30 Turkish soldiers remain captives of IS and the Kurdistan Workers Party. “The families of those missing soldiers have contacted our party. We held several meetings together and asked for help from the authorities. And despite the Tas case, no effort has been made for them,” he said.
Officials have said that Tas will be officially designated a martyr and his memory will be honored with a monument. For Sahin, there is still no explanation. Bakan says Turkey should hold a big funeral ceremony for Tas, pointing to the example of Iran in late September when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials led a crowded ceremony for a soldier beheaded by IS.
Can Turkey send a similar message to IS? Judging by the fact that the AKP representative in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly abstained in a recent vote on a resolution holding IS responsible for genocide, such a prospect seems quite unlikely.