The Turkish government is responding to a critical situation in Syria, announcing the death of 16 of its troops in al-Bab after the release of an Islamic State video showing jihadists burning two other soldiers alive.
The extremely graphic 19-minute video, titled “The Cross Shield,” contains an extensive propaganda segment before the executions targeting Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who the Islamic State has repeatedly insulted as a traitor for attempting to bring Turkey closer to the European Union. The video shows photos of Erdogan meeting with several Western leaders, including Pope Francis and President Barack Obama, as evidence of his unacceptable comfort around “infidels.”
The video then shows parts of Syria and alleges to show the damage of Turkish airstrikes in Sunni civilian areas near al-Bab, where the Turkish military has been engaged in significantly fighting.
The video concludes with Islamic State jihadists walked two Turkish soldiers on their knees and calling them “dogs,” then setting them on fire. Heavy translates the text on screen as the men burn as reading “You burned the Muslims, O Government of Turkey. So this will be your fate with the permission of Allah.”
The soldiers are identified in the video as Fethi Sahin and Sefter Tas. The Agence France-Presse notes that Turkish journalists claimed that a soldier with the name Sefter Tas went missing in September 2015, but the government has not confirmed whether this is the same man. In December of that year, the Islamic State announced that it had taken captive two Turkish soldiers without naming them in the al-Bab area. “Expect a nifty video with the soldiers of the tyrant infidel Erdogan,” an Islamic State jihadi wrote on ISIS social media.
While Erdogan Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been responsible for pro-Islamic reforms in Turkey, particularly in schools, Erdogan has been linked to the international Muslim Brotherhood, a group the Islamic State sees as apostates traitors to true jihad. Islamic State propaganda has precisely referred to Erdogan as a “Brotherhood apostate” and a “begger before the doors of Crusader Europe” for his attempts to bring Turkey into the EU.
In September 2015, the same month Sefter Tas reportedly went missing, an Islamic State judge allegedly issued a fatwa calling for Erdogan’s death. The “death warrant” appeared on ISIS social media and accused Erdogan of “shedding Muslim blood” in Syria and working too closely with the United States. It provided Erdogan with an offer to “repent,” without explaining what he must do to prove his remorse.
The Islamic State video published Thursday followed a particularly deadly week for Turkish troops in Syria. Sixteen soldiers lost their lives fighting the Islamic State in al-Bab in attacks on Wednesday, according to the Turkish government.
“Turkey is in the midst of a great struggle – our fight against terror continues both in our country and outside our borders,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said following the announcement of the casualties, according to Hurriyet.
“This is an existential struggle for Turkey. This is a great battle in the name of Turkey’s unity.”
Erdogan himself responded to the news by announcing that 200 Islamic State jihadists had died in the same time as the 16 on Wednesday. “Our struggle is not an ordinary struggle,” he said in a statement, “We could not stay silent against those that threaten our country, and we are doing what is necessary.”
In addition to the 200 reportedly killed in Syria, Turkey arrested another 31 Islamic State suspects within its borders Friday, after the release of the burning video. The state-run Anadolu Agency reported Friday that another 22 ISIS jihadis were killed in al-Bab.
The Islamic State video released this week recalls a similar production depicting the burning alive of Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, a Jordanian military pilot whose plane was shot down over Syria. In that video, Islamic State killers keep al-Kaseasbeh in a cage and burn him behind bars. The video triggered a robust military response from Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who himself put on a military uniform and was rumored to participate in airstrikes following the attack. “This is a war the world cannot afford to lose, but to win it, all of us must be in it,” Abdullah told listeners at a speech in Washington following the launch of the new military operation.