BEIRUT: Ankara’s top priority is the safe release of its kidnapped nationals in Iraq after jihadists seized Turkey’s consulate in the city of Mosul, the Turkish finance minister told The Daily Star Thursday on the sidelines of an economic conference in Beirut.
Mehmet Simsek said his government was still considering the appropriate action to take after militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took 80 Turkish nationals, including diplomats, staff members, security personnel and truck drivers, as hostages in the northern Iraqi city.
“Our top priority now is to ensure the safe release of the kidnapped Turkish nationals,” he said, stressing that Ankara was “working on all channels,” while declining to disclose further details when asked whether any contact with the kidnappers had been established.
He said the incident offered proof that accusations of Ankara’s collusion with enabling extremists to join the war in next-door Syria held little water.
“Yesterday’s incident proves that allegations against Turkey of helping extremist movements are untrue and politically motivated. Otherwise, how would you explain the kidnapping of Turkish nationals by the very same extremist movements that Turkey is being accused of supporting?” Simsek asked, referring to ISIS.
As for the Syrian regime’s possible role in the offensive by ISIS in Iraq, after the militant group seized large swathes of territory in Syria, Simsek said more than one aspect of the surprise developments required further examination.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this part of a bigger scheme. ... I don’t like to talk about conspiracy theories but let’s face it, what is happening in Mosul and the rest of Iraq is rather unusual with the whole government-run security apparatus overrun so quickly,” Sismek said.
While Ankara was seeking a prompt and peaceful resolution to the hostage crisis, he spoke of the importance of active engagement with regard to two pressing issues – the war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.
Simsek said Turkey was seeking a resolution for the Syrian conflict that would preserve the country’s borders under a new system where all factions could play a role.
“We are seeking to resolve the conflict in a way that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity while creating a system that would embrace everyone, similar to Lebanon,” he said.
Asked whether Syrian President Bashar Assad could be part of the new system, Simsek said: “I am not going to comment on individuals. But when I talk about a democratic system, it entails respecting the right of majorities and minorities.”
He said the recent, dramatic expansion of ISIS’ influence in Iraq, after it made dramatic gains in several provinces this week, shouldn’t be used as a pretext to maintain the status quo in Syria.
“Regional powers have no interest in the prolongation of the status quo because it is creating an environment for extremist movements to thrive,” the Turkish minister warned, partially blaming the West for failing to take action in Syria to bring the conflict to an end.
“If the West is sincere in seeking a prosperous Syria, it wouldn’t sit on the fence despite attempts by Russia to block some decisions regarding Syria. ... It is just a pretext for the West that appears to have no interest in a stable, more democratic and united Syria,” he said.
Disagreements over Syria between Turkey and Iran, a staunch ally of the Assad regime, shouldn’t hinder dialogue between the two countries, Simsek added.
“Tehran is one of the major actors in the region, and we want it to play a constructive role because it will benefit the whole region,” he said.
Negotiations between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program are “promising and very encouraging,” according to Simsek, who said the interim agreement between world powers and Iran demonstrated that some of the most contentious regional issues could be addressed through political means.
“The last thing we want is a confrontation between the West and Iran. Sanctions are not only hurting the Iranian people, but the prospects for the whole region,” he said.