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The bind facing Turkey over 'Islamic State'

The Turkish government is under pressure to react to "Islamic State" fighters using the country as a transition point on the way to Syria. The US would like to build a global anti-IS alliance, but Turkey is hesitant.

When "Islamic State" (IS) militants took the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June, diplomats in its Turkish consulate hesitated for too long. The jihadists surrounded the post, threatening to shoot. IS took hostage 49 people, among them diplomats, consular staff and their family members, some of them children.

The Turkish government imposed a news embargo to prevent a public debate about the kidnapping, but details seeped through all the same. According to the main opposition CHP party, the hostages are held in three separate groups to complicate liberation attempts. The Davutoglu government says it is aware of the hostages' whereabouts, but their return to Turkey is not expected anytime soon.

Ankara underestimated IS

Initially, Ankara regarded IS as a group opposed both to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to Kurdish attempts at autonomy in Syria, but other than that, Turkey didn't really take the IS seriously, columnist Rusen Cakir writes in the country's "Vatan" newspaper. In the framework of Turkey's support for Assad's opponents, extremist groups like the Islamic State benefited from the fact that Turkish authorities turned something of a blind eye to movements along its border with Syria.

A burnt vehicle Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

Muslim insurgents seized control of Mosul in June

As a result, fighters from the Mideast, the Caucasus and the West managed to travel to Syria - where they joined IS or other Islamist militant groups - via Turkey. Weapons found their way to Syria on the same route.

Arms, militants and diesel

The West is partly to blame for the fresh supply of foreign fighters for IS, an expert in Ankara told Deutsche Welle. Faced with 30 million tourists every year, it is impossible for Turkish security authorities to know who is posing as a tourist while actually headed to war, Celalettin Lekesiz, the governor of Turkey's Hatay border province, said in a report that emerged in the press earlier this year. Often IS fighters enter Turkey legally with EU passports, he wrote, adding that they are then taken across the border to Syria in small groups. A 20-year-old German IS fighter was arrested last week in the attempt to cross from Turkey to Syria.

While fighters and weapons make their way to Syria via Turkey, tons of diesel fuel from IS-controlled areas in Syria are smuggled to Turkey, hidden on trucks, in plastic pipelines and plastic barrels. The Turkish Army reportedly confiscated more than 15 tons of diesel from Syria in the border region within a two-week period. According to media reports, the diesel shipments net the Islamic State militants up to $15 million (11.59 million euros) per month.

Revising opinions

But Turkey's attitude toward IS is changing: not only has the jihadists' advance in Iraq hurt Turkish exports to the region, Turkey's western partners are also increasingly vocal in their criticism of Ankara's lackadaisical handling of the militant group. The Turkish government also fears that IS could launch terror attacks on Turkey, said analyst Sinan Ülgen, head of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank.

Chuck Hagel, Tayyip Erdogan Photo: REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press

Hagel and Erdogan: No definite promises

As a result, Ankara has increased controls of its 900-kilometer-long border with Syria. The Turkish government has also significantly expanded entry bans for alleged foreign jihadists from about 1,000 people at the start of the year to 5,300 six months later, Ülgen said.

Hostage situation hampers Ankara

Experts like Ülgen suggest Turkish and western intelligence services work more closely together. Apart from that, the Mosul kidnappings have put Ankara out of action as far as further steps against IS are concerned, for instance in the military sector, columnist Cakir writes.

In effect, the group is using the hostages to keep Turkey from taking decisive steps against the militia. "Turkey's hands are bound," said Serdar Erdurmaz, an expert on the region at Hasan Kalyoncu University in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey. "One wrong movement and the hostages could die," he told DW, adding that politicians in Ankara would not take any risks now, in the wake of the extremists' decapitation videos.

Shaky role in anti-IS alliance

Turkey with its long borders with Syria and Iraq could play a key role in a global anti-IS alliance. But concern about the lives of the hostages and Turkish tolerance toward militant groups like IS in past years makes its embrace of that role doubtful. For a long time, Turkish government politicians were confident they could control organizations like IS, a Western diplomat in Turkey told DW, adding, "That is now coming back to haunt them."

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday in Ankara, called Turkey an essential partner in the fight against IS. It appears Erdogan refrained from giving Hagel concrete promises. But according to media reports, Turkey is allowing the US to use Incirlik Air Base, about 100 kilometers west of the Syrian border, for unarmed reconnaissance flights over Iraq, while combat missions from Turkish territory are prohibited.

The US expects Ankara will continue to keep a low profile concerning active help, Hagel indicated following his talks with Erdogan. "Each country has its own separate limitations, its own separate political dimensions," Hagel said. "We have to respect those."

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