At the end of September 2015 a United Nations backed ceasefire in Idlib, Syria was announced, which might have been facilitated by the kidnapping of 18 Turkish workers in Iraq by a Shiite armed group. In Syria, rebels, the Syrian Army, and Lebanese Hezbollah agreed to end the siege of several towns and allow for civilians to leave those areas. Coincidentally, a Shiite group calling itself the Death Squads had previously included two of those towns in its demands for releasing the Turkish workers it seized in Baghdad earlier in the month. The group was likely connected to Iran, and kidnapped the Turks to put pressure on Ankara to agree to the U.N. brokered deal.
On September 2, 2015 18 Turkish workers were kidnapped in eastern Baghdad. The men who took the workers were wearing military uniforms and drove black SUVs. A few days later a group calling itself the Death Squads released a video detailing their demands, which included Turkey stopping jihadists travelling through its territory to Iraq, stopping Kurdish oil exports, and ending the siege of two Shiite towns in Syria, Fua and Kafayra by Syrian rebels. Shortly afterward Iran’s Fars News Agency claimed the Turks were working for a company that helped finance the Islamic State. Because of that report and the fact that the Death Squads’ concerns were all foreign led suspicion to immediately fall on Iranian backed armed groups as being responsible. Baghdad seemed to think the same thing when it raided the offices of Kataib Hezbollah in the capital, which led to a shootout and several casualties. That group was created by Iran in 2007 as an elite unit to carry out attacks upon American forces in Iraq, and is currently part of the Hashd al-Shaabi fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Iraqi militias supporting the Assad government in Syria. In fact, in September the group said that it had sent some of its fighters to help defend Fua and Kafayra. Eventually two of the workers was released, and then all the rest on September 30 in Musayib in northern Babil.
Al Mada and Hurriyet Daily both reported that the Turks’ release occurred after the Death Squads’ demands were met and the Idlib ceasefire was announced in Syria. Under the agreement the Syrian Army and Lebanese Hezbollah would allow Sunnis from the town of Zabandi to move to Idlib, while Syrian rebels would end the siege of Fua and Kafayra and allow people to move to government controlled territory. Iran and Turkey were both involved in the negotiations. Whether the kidnapping in Iraq actually influenced Ankara’s decision to support the deal is unknown, but it seems more than just coincidence.
Albayrak, Ayla, “Kidnapped Turkish Construction Workers Released in Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 9/30/15
Cunningham, Erin, “Shiite militias in Iraq flex muscle over captured Turkish hostages,” Washington Post, 9/11/15
Ergan, Ugur, “Iranian intelligence helps in release of Turkish workers in Iraq,” Hurriyet Daily News, 10/3/15
Knights, Michael, “The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel, November 2010
Al Mada, “Security forces find 16 Turkish workers in North Babylon,” 9/30/15
Naylor, Hugh, “Will a U.N.0backed agreement end fighting in parts of Syria?” Washington Post, 9/26/15
Sabah, Zaid Alexander, Caroline, “Secretive Militia’s Challenge Risks Eroding Abadi Power in Iraq,” Bloomberg, 9/28/15
Shafaq News, “Iranian report: Turkish workers kidnapped in Iraq were working with Wali Baghdad to finance ISIS,” 9/12/15
Smyth, Phillip, “Iran’s Iraqi Shiite Proxies Increase Their Deployment to Syria,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 10/2/15