Will kidnapping of Turkish pilot drag Ankara into a sectarian swamp?

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Shiite Lebanese gunmen kidnapped a Turkish Airlines pilot and his assistant in Beirut, highlighting increasingly growing perception of Turkish foreign policy as sectarian-based amid a crisis in Syria that is rapidly dragging its smaller neighbor into its bloody and protracted conflict.

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov

Days after Lebanese senior political sources indicated that authorities have information about possible kidnapping of Turkish citizens, four Lebanese gunmen intercepted a bus carrying Turkish Airlines crew to their hotel from capital Beurit’s Rafik Hariri International Airport on Friday. According to reports, gunmen allowed other seven Turkish Airlines crew free but two pilots, Murat Akpınar and his assistant Murat Ağca, were taken away. The rest of the crew arrived in Istanbul late on Friday.

Lebanese Shiite militant group Zuwar Imam Redha (Visitors of Imam Redha) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and demanded nine kidnapped Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Syria be released in exchange for the Turkish pilots.

Turkey has been working closely with Syrian rebels to oust Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad in a conflict that has now left more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced.

The Lebanese group held Turkey responsible for the nine Shiite Lebanese hostages, who were among 11 kidnapped by Syrian rebels in Azaz near the Turkish border last May. Turkey frequently made it clear that it is working closely with Lebanese authorities to help secure the release of the kidnapped Lebanese pilgrims.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül called his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Suleiman, on Friday and demanded the Lebanese authorities find the kidnapped Turkish pilots. He earlier said on Friday that Turkish diplomats are in touch with Lebanese authorities over the pilots.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu phoned Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Barri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati to discuss the details of comprehensive investigation Lebanese authorities have launched. “As it was in previous cases, we are making every effort for the return of our pilots to their families,” Davutoğlu said hours after the kidnapping.

Lebanese prime minister described the kidnapping as “unacceptable” and in violation of international law in a statement he released on Friday. He added that the way to free kidnapped Lebanese pilgrims is not taking others hostage. “All security units are on high alert to locate and secure the release of Turkish pilots,” Mikati said.

The kidnapping came days after the Syrian rebel group, identifies itself as Azaz Northern Storm Brigade, refused to set nine Lebanese hostages because the Syrian regime didn’t “live up to their end of the deal.” The rebel group said in a statement that they were expecting the Syrian regime to release nearly 130 female Syrian prisoners in exchange for the kidnapped hostages but not a single female prisoners were freed. Officials earlier said Turkey’s intelligence agency is involved in talks to help secure the release of the Lebanese pilgrims. Two of the nine hostages were released late last year as a result of the Turkish mediation.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gümrükçü said Lebanese authorities were “alarmed” and that “necessary investigation” is under way.

A statement Turkish Foreign Ministry released on Friday said Turkish officials are working closely with relevant Lebanese authorities for the well-being and return of the kidnapped pilots, who were under supervision of Turkish Embassy staff.

In a separate statement, Foreign Ministry warned Turkish citizens against traveling to Lebanon besides essential trips and urged Turks in Lebanon either to leave the country or exercise extreme caution for their security.

The abduction of the Turkish pilots is the latest in a series of kidnappings involved Turkish citizens in the past year and half in Lebanon, illustrating frustration among the country’s Shiite groups with respect to Ankara’s policies in the region. The kidnapping is also clear evidence how the 28-month long conflict in Syria could destabilize its southern neighbor Lebanon that sits atop sectarian fault lines.

“The kidnapping is most likely related to Syria and Turkey's support for the Syrian rebels,” Hassan Hassan, the Abu Dhabi-based Deputy Comment Editor of The National, said. “We've seen such kidnapping incidents in Lebanon against Turks before.”

Two Turkish citizens were also kidnapped last summer in Lebanon. They were later released.

Hassan noted that the manner of the kidnapping, which took place at a very early morning hour on their way from the airport to their hotel - suggests the group cooperated with Hezbollah elements who work at the airport.

The airport, he said, is known to be controlled by the party. He suggested that this doesn't necessarily mean Hezbollah itself is involved but elements that might be cooperating with the Syrian regime which invariably seeks to embarrass the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.

Recently, Turkish leaders sharpened their tone against Hezbollah and demanded “foreign militants” leave Syria particularly following the invasion of Qusayir on the Lebanese border mostly by Hezbollah fighters.

In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s stronghold, Turkish unit serving within the UN international peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) have significantly increased security measures in areas they operate.

Meanwhile, families of the kidnapped Lebanese citizens welcomed kidnapping of Turkish pilots with fireworks in southern outskirts of capital Beirut. The families long sought Turkey’s help and blamed Ankara for not doing enough for the kidnapped pilgrims. The families frequently stage protests outside the Turkish Airlines bureau in Beirut and the Turkish Embassy, calling on Turkey to use its influence over the Syrian rebels to free their relatives.

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