BEIRUT: The kidnapping early Friday of two Turkish Airlines pilots en route from Rafik Hariri International Airport to a hotel in Beirut was an “isolated incident” and “100 percent connected to the Azaz hostages,” political analysts have told The Daily Star. The commentators also downplayed suggestions that the incident exposed shortcomings in security at Beirut’s airport, adding that they did not anticipate significant deterioration in Beirut-Ankara relations.
“This was an isolated unfortunate incident ,” said Kemal Wazne, director of the Beirut-based Center for American Strategic Studies, adding that the kidnapping of the two pilots was certainly linked to nine Lebanese pilgrims held by the Free Syrian Army in Azaz near the Syrian border with Turkey since May 2012.
Wazne also said that with the difficult security situation across the region presently, it was unlikely that this particular incident would raise excessive red flags at this juncture about security in Lebanon.
Similary, Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general and the current director of Beirut-based think tank the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research, said that unlike many of the kidnapping incidents across the country, this clearly was not a kidnap for ransom case.
“It’s related to the nine Lebanese citizens,” he said. “I think it’s only a message [to those involved in the Lebanese hostage situation].”
“I don’t think it will be repeated,” he added, noting that the abductors could have taken more Turkish hostages but chose not to.
Turkish Airlines pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca were forced out of a shuttle bus on which they were traveling with a number of their colleagues at the Cocodi Bridge, less than a kilometer from the airport, shortly after 3 a.m. Friday morning and taken away by six gunmen, security sources told The Daily Star.
The shuttle serves the Radisson Blu Martinez Hotel in Ain al-Mreisseh.
A group calling itself Zuwwar al-Imam Ali al-Reda has since claimed responsibility for the abduction and demanded the release the nine Shiite pilgrims held in Azaz in exchange for the pilots.
The victims’ families believe Turkey has the power to leverage the pilgrims’ release and has repeatedly targeted Turkish interests to protest Ankara’s perceived lethargy on the case. However, the families, while welcoming the abduction of the pilots, have denied involvement in the crime.
In the aftermath of the incident, Turkey quickly urged its citizens to leave Lebanon and advised against all but essential travel to the country. Ankara had already announced on Aug. 6 that it was withdrawing its military deployment to the United Nations Interim Force in South Lebanon.
However, both Wazne and Jaber say they don’t think Turkey will take further measures and that a deterioration of relations between the two states’ governments is unlikely. Indeed, Jaber goes so far as to say that Turkey’s recalling of its citizens is illogical.
“We’re talking about thousands of [Turkish] workers,” he said. “I don’t think it’s logical.”
“ Turkey has a lot of commercial interests in Lebanon,” Jaber added on the subject of whether or not Ankara would take steps to sever ties further, highlighting Beirut’s increased significance as a trade route since the onset of the Syrian crisis.
“Why would Syria close this gate?” he asked.
“This incident will spoil the atmosphere between Lebanon and Turkey but it will not lead to a deteriorating relationship between the Lebanese government and the Turkish government,” Wazne said.
Wazne believes that what has already happened will be the extent of Turkey’s tangible reaction to the incident. “There is no conflict between the Lebanese government and the Turkish, and there will not be a conflict between the Lebanese and Turkish governments,” he emphasized.
As for the questions that have arisen regarding the provision of security at Rafik Hariri International Airport, Jaber immediately points out that the kidnapping took place “outside the airport.”
Security at the airport is “fine” and there is “no need for revision,” he said, pointing out that the flight and hotel transfer information used by the kidnappers was in the public domain.
The March 14 General-Secretariat said that the abduction of two Turkish Airlines pilots in Beirut damaged the reputation of the Lebanese airport as unsafe for passengers.
“[The incident is] ... extremely dangerous because it runs the risk of listing Beirut airport, which is the lifeblood of Lebanon, on the list of dangerous and unsafe airports,” the group said in a statement.
It added that the abduction “aims primarily at serving a blow to the Lebanese state’s credibility in preserving the country’s safety and its relations with Arab and foreign countries.”
But the security of Rafik Hariri International Airport has long been in question. It is located in an area of the city widely acknowledged as directly under Hezbollah’s influence, and in May 2008, controversy erupted when a secret camera, allegedly installed by Hezbollah, was found in a container overlooking the main runway.
Suspicions abounded at the time that then-airport security chief Brig. Gen. Wafik Shoucair had granted the party permission to monitor the arrival and departure of aircraft and VIPs at the airport. Shoucair resigned from his post in 2010.
Jaber did acknowledge that “every side in Lebanon can get information from people working at the airport,” but he was also clear that it was “not in Lebanon’s interest” to call the security of its international airport into question.
Wazne for his part said it was “too early to declare Beirut airport an unsafe airport” and that an “investigation is needed to determine how [the kidnapping was executed].”
But even as politicians across the spectrum condemn Zuwwar al-Imam’s actions, both analysts indicate that this incident could prove the turning point in endeavors to secure the release of the Azaz hostages.
“Maybe this incident will be a breakthrough for the case,” Jaber said, suggesting that what will now happen is that Ankara will ask the Lebanese government to exert every effort to free Akpinar and Agca in exchange for Turkey doing all it can to leverage the release of the nine Lebanese.
“But this kind of negotiation will be secret,” he added.
Meanwhile, Wazne commented that he thinks that now “this issue will be resolved away from the media.”