The rapid advance by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in northern and central Iraq and their takeover of the Turkish consulate in the city of Mosul is presenting Ankara with a host of new political, diplomatic and security challenges.
After ISIS fighters took over Mosul yesterday with barely a shot fired, members of the previously al Qaeda-linked group stormed the Turkish consulate, taking 49 people hostage, including the consul general and three children (this is in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers detained earlier by ISIS). The Turkish consulate in Mosul, the only foreign diplomatic presence in the city, a former Ottoman provincial capital, has been a source of pride for Ankara, which saw the mission as an important reflection of Turkey's growing political and economic presence in northern Iraq and its growing outreach to Middle Eastern neighbors.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, the fall of Mosul into ISIS's hands and the capture of the consulate dramatically changes Turkey's position and ability to operate in that part of Iraq. From the WSJ:
[ISIS's] capture of the mission also fuels mounting threats against Turkey's interests across its southern border, with diplomatic hostages joining about 30 Turkish truck drivers who were kidnapped Tuesday while carrying diesel from Turkey's southern port of Iskenderun to a power plant in Mosul.
"There is an emergency situation right now," a senior government official said. "(ISIS) is a very worrying organization and we can't be sure about how they're treating people and we don't know what to expect from them."
The storming of the consulate underscored how the gains of ISIS are reverberating beyond Iraq and Syria, and threatening to draw in regional heavyweights like Turkey, with potentially significant geopolitical consequences. Analysts said the militants had appeared to specifically target the Turkish consulate, which had no obvious strategic or military value, raising the prospect that they would use the captives for political propaganda purposes.
"In the short term, our priority should be to get our diplomats freed without harm," said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who is now chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. "If they are harmed, then Turkey would have no other choice but to launch a military operation to free them. In the longer term, we may be seeing the unraveling of the regional balance with far-reaching implications."
For Turkey, the Sunni militant group's quick march through Iraq is another reminder of the dangerous spillover it faces from the ongoing conflict in Syria, where ISIS rose to prominence as a particularly brutal fighting force. While previous concerns centered around the spillover from Syria coming across the Syrian-Turkish border, ISIS's success in Mosul and other parts of Iraq opens up a dangerous new front that Ankara needs to worry about.
ISIS's success on the battlefield also once again raises questions about what role Turkey might have played in the group's spectacular rise. Although Ankara has denied aiding ISIS in any way, there have long been suspicions that in its zeal to see Syrian leader Bashar al Assad removed from power, Turkey had worked out various arrangements with ISIS and other Islamist groups fighting in Syria (at least until late last year, when it shifted its position regarding ISIS). There have also been charges that Ankara has provided ISIS members with weapons and safe passage in their fight against the Kurdish militias known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in an effort to undermine the Kurds' efforts at self-rule in northern Syria.
Whatever deals the Turkish government may have worked out with ISIS in the past, the events in Mosul make it fairly clear that the Islamist group now views Turkey as an adversary, something which dramatically changes the security landscape for Ankara and which turns yet another area in the Middle East from one where it can project power and influence to one where Turkish interests are severely endangered.