FM denies that Turkey, ISIL agreed to trade territory for hostages
Two Turkish soldiers guard the entrance of Süleyman Şah tomb in northern Syria. (Photo: DHA)
The Taraf daily reported on Thursday that Turkey has promised to hand over the sole piece of Turkish territory outside the country's borders to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in exchange for the 49 Turkish citizens who were taken hostage at Turkey's Consulate General in Mosul in June, but the Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the allegation later on the same day.
Taraf claimed that Ankara had agreed to hand over the tomb of Süleyman Şah -- the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is located within Syria -- to the radical terrorist group within three weeks. However, the Turkish Foreign Ministry later issued a statement denying the claims.
ISIL -- an al-Qaeda splinter group which has recently styled itself the “Islamic State” -- kidnapped 49 people from the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul on June 11, including Consul General Öztürk Yılmaz, diplomatic staff, special forces members and children. ISIL broke into the consulate after threatening the diplomats with a bomb attack.
There is still no word from the Turkish hostages and due to a government gag order, the media is effectively prevented from discussing the issue and questioning the government's handling of the hostage crisis. Justice and Development Party (AK Party) officials claim that the gag order is necessary because discussing the issue may irritate ISIL militants and therefore pose a risk to the lives of the Turkish hostages.
Taraf claimed that Turkey initially offered a ransom for the hostages, but the two sides finally agreed on a land-for-hostages deal. According to the newspaper, the government has already told the Turkish military to remove the troops guarding the tomb, arguing that the swift advance of ISIL poses a threat to the lives of the Turkish soldiers on duty there. The report also claimed that ISIL initially demanded money and arms from Turkey for the hostages, but later requested the Turkish territory in northern Syria.
It is not clear what ISIL would gain by obtaining this territory from Turkey. One day before the report was published, Taraf said on Twitter that they plan to publish a big story on Thursday.
FM denied the report
The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Thursday saying that the claims of the press about the hostage situation are “baseless and an example of great irresponsibility.”
The ministry also said that exploiting issues such as national security and the well-being of Turkish citizens is “not acceptable” and an abuse of press freedom. “With such a sensitive subject, journalists should act in line with media ethics and avoid baseless, speculative and irresponsible reporting that manipulates the public. We urge all media organizations to be sensitive to such issues and we ask the Turkish people to ignore such reports,” said the Foreign Ministry.
It was also stated that the ministry is, in cooperation with other government units, working to bring the personnel of the Mosul consulate back to Turkey as soon as possible.
CHP asks Davutoğlu to resign
In the meantime, main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu submitted a parliamentary question on Thursday to ask whether Taraf's claims are true and whether Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is going to resign as a result.
Tanrıkulu also asked about the number of soldiers who are posted at the tomb of Süleyman Şah as of Aug. 21 and whether the Turkish government had promised only a part of the territory in which the Süleyman Şah tomb is located or all of the land. The CHP deputy chairman emphasized that it is against the Constitution to involve Turkish territory in a bargain and asked Davutoğlu, “In this case, are you going to resign?”
CHP Ardahan deputy Ensar Öğüt said on Thursday that he will visit the tomb of Süleyman Şah soon if Parliament does not establish a commission to investigate the issue. Ögüt called Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek to work on the establishment of such a commission.
In a related development, CHP deputies Vahap Seçer from Mersin and Aylin Nazkıaka from Ankara submitted a parliamentary question addressed to Davutoğlu to ask if the alleged logistical and weapons support provided by Turkey to ISIL had prompted Germany's decision to eavesdrop on Turkey -- an allegation which has been circulating in German and Turkish media.
Drawing attention to reports in the German press suggesting that Turkey allows arms transfers to terrorist organizations in the region, the CHP deputies asked if these claims are baseless and whether Turkey is going to send a letter of protest to Germany. In the parliamentary question, they also asked about the doubling in spending from a discretionary fund that is available for use by the prime minister. “Can you confirm that this fund is not misused for other [and illegal] purposes?” asked the CHP deputies.
Meanwhile, renovations are under way at the Süleyman Şah tomb, according to the Culture and Tourism Ministry records, along with 20 other renovations funded by Turkey in 14 different countries. However, it is not clear what sort of renovations are going on there with the ISIL threat close at hand.
Fuat Avni says report is true
A Turkish government whistleblower who writes under the pseudonym “Fuat Avni” and who is believed to be a senior government official also posted tweet about the Taraf report.
On his Twitter account, Avni claimed that the Taraf report is true and that Foreign Ministry officials are in panic after their plans to give up the tomb of Süleyman Şah to ISIL became public. Avni also claimed that the Turkish government offered money to ISIL in order to arrange the timing of the release of the hostages, suggesting that the government is trying to use the hostage crisis for its own benefit.
If the plan had not been revealed, Avni claimed, Turkey was going to make its own territory part of a bargain. He further claimed that that option is still on the table.
In his last tweet, Avni alleged that Turkey's spy chief Hakan Fidan is planning to get the tomb of Süleyman Şah demolished by “his men,” in coordination with ISIL militants. Avni also claimed that Turkey is getting ready to say “We are withdrawing our troops there, we should not take any risks.”
Back in March, ISIL threatened Turkey with an attack on the tomb of Süleyman Şah, the burial place of the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, Turkish officials repeatedly said that the area is Turkish territory and that Turkey will protect that land just as it would protect its own borders.
Following threats by ISIL shortly before the March 30 local elections in Turkey, a recording was leaked allegedly featuring the voices of Davutoğlu, the country's intelligence chief and a top army general discussing possible intervention in war-torn Syria. The voices heard on the recording discuss staging an attack on the tomb of Süleyman Şah, possibly as a pretext for starting a war with Syria, with the aim of gathering votes in the local elections.
Ankara regards the tomb as sovereign Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. About two dozen Turkish special forces soldiers maintain a permanent guard at the tomb.
The allegations come amid speculation that Foreign Minister Davutoğlu will be chosen as the successor to President-elect Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Many people have criticized the possible decision to appoint Davutoğlu as prime minister given his failures in Turkish foreign policy as well as his inability to rescue the Mosul hostages.