Almost four days after Islamic State released an internet video film showing the apparent execution of two captured Turkish soldiers in Syria by burning them to death, the authorities in Turkey remain silent, apparently waiting for the event to be forgotten.
The film showed two haggard-looking young Turks being dragged from a cage like animals by their captors. Unlike most ISIS execution videos, however, the condemned men were not wearing orange clothes. They made statements identifying themselves as Sefer Tas, 21, from Igdir in eastern Turkey and Fethi Sahin, 26, from Konya, apparently a gendarme intelligence operative. After condemning President Recep Erdoğan and Turkish intervention in Syria for getting them into their situation, they stood silently and waited. A fuse behind them was lit and the flames travelled swiftly towards their bodies.
In a few minutes both were ablaze and dying in great pain. The film was accompanied by ISIS slogans and chanting, and showed active combat against the Turkish army inside Syria from the ISIS side, including the destruction of two tanks.
A Turkish-speaking ISIS official warned that the two soldiers had been killed in revenge for Turkish attacks on ISIS positions in Syria and that ISIS would claim further victims in Turkey. “We are waiting for you,” he said.
The news broke on the Internet late on Thursday night. Two news websites reported it briefly but apparently without wishing to give the story too much prominence. London newspapers also reported it the following morning but Turkish TV news channels and the government stayed resolutely silent. President Erdoğan the next day warned that Turkey would strike back at anyone who struck at it, but made no reference to the soldiers.
The nearest the government has so far come to discussing the film was on Friday when the Turkish Minister of Defence, Fikri Isik, confirmed that three Turkish soldiers are being held prisoner by ISIS but did not give their names. Without specifying what he was referring to, he said that “until they are confirmed, reports should not be respected.”
Even more than in most countries, the welfare of soldiers is regarded as a sacred duty in Turkey and emotional scenes of funerals of the latest casualties slain by the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, currently top TV news bulletins almost nightly, often being attended by the president or ministers. Erdoğan regularly speaks of the glory of being a “martyr” in the struggle against the country’s enemies.
The brutal killing of two soldiers by ISIS in Syria would almost certainly have aroused a tidal wave of anger nationally, had it become known through news bulletins in the normal way.
In an apparent attempt to stop news and pictures of the immolations spreading on social media, Turkey’s authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on Internet sites, blocking Twitter and Facebook for hours. Access was barred to VPNs, the virtual private networks used by thousands of Turks to bypass the government ban on social media. As part of tightening control on the Internet, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced plans to introduce a Turkish search engine. Some writers contrasted the government’s silence with the national mourning proclaimed in January 2015 by King Abdullah of Jordan after ISIS immolated a Jordanian air force pilot.
A few news organizations did publish news of the videos but without giving them prominence. One was Diken, a news portal, which ran the story. Its editor, Tunca Ogreten, and a reporter, Metin Yoksu, and were taken into police custody in the early hours of Sunday, accused of engaging in terrorist activities,
There was no announcement of any connection between the reports and the arrests, though one or two other sites appear to have withdrawn or toned down their initial coverage of the burnings.
Turkey’s two Turkish main opposition leaders, Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Devlet Bahceli made guarded references to the videos challenging the government to make a statement, but both seemed reluctant to press the issue. Government supporters denied that the film was genuine and one even suggested that it was a “scenario” concocted by Britain and the US.
By Saturday, there appeared to be no more news appearing about the burnings in Turkey. The last report came from the father of Sefter Tas who said that he had recognized film footage of his son but had no word from the authorities about his fate.
Even the identity of the other soldier who died was unclear with speculation that “Fethi Sahin” might have been an agent captured on an undercover mission to infiltrate ISIS.