As soon as the Turkish government secured the return of its consular staff held hostage by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants, a new cliché began to surface: "So where were we? What now?" These questions do not reflect curiosity or the overall sense in the country. Instead, they are translated inquiries from foreign capitals seeking to put Turkey between a rock and a hard place.
Turkey's story fundamentally differs from the background of the "where were we?" camp. If one must answer, though, it might be beneficial to remind them where we were. There are several things that distinguish Turkey from those posing the aforementioned question. The first refers to a simple truth that cannot be changed - the country's geographical location, which alone factors into a cost-benefit analyses and compels Turkey to steer clear of short-term approaches. In this sense, it is only natural that the plans and statements coming from players from outside the region, blessed with a comfortable political playground, do not mean much for Turkey.
Another key issue relates to the nature of Turkey's relations with neighboring regions, which differs from the region's ties with both outsiders and other governments from this part of the world in terms of its historic depth and strategic priorities. Western actors in particular have the luxury of building conflict-oriented and individual relations with the region - Turkey already knows that any misstep could have serious long-term consequences. Similarly, the urgency of regional players differs from Turkey's strategic, humanitarian and economic priorities in terms of how they relate to ongoing conflicts. Most notably, no regional actor except Turkey feels the pressure of having to be held accountable by their citizens.
The fact that the hostages were returned from ISIS militants does not change where Turkey's operational framework is located. There might be, of course, certain tactical and strategic changes, but they do not necessarily entail a rupture in macro-level policies. After all, a political line of thinking whose main features can be challenged by ISIS alone is not sustainable. The easiest way to lose sight of long-term goals in the Middle East would be non-state actors, including ISIS, setting the tone for regional politics. Turkey has encountered similar developments in Iraq for 11 years and Syria for the past three years and nonetheless maintained a coherent foreign policy. Keeping this in mind, there is no reason to claim that the most recent developments will be the tipping point here.
As to those who wonder where we were - if they please, they can go back a century and try to spot the actors that served the same purpose as ISIS during the emergence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement's state building. They could also try and test the coherence of Turkey's post-2003 road map in Iraq. The outcome, no doubt, would provide ample evidence about where we were.
Those pursuing the answer to what we are doing should first decide whether this is the main question or mere details. If this question merely relates to ISIS, the answer is quite simple. After all, we would be talking about an immaterial question that means little when it comes to alleviating the pain of the Middle East. But if it is the main question, then it is worth asking. In the most general sense, do we support the waves of change in the Middle East or invest in postponing change through violent means?
When it comes to what we are doing today, Turkey has perhaps the clearest answer. This is, after all, a question that influential players from the region and elsewhere would rather avoid. We live in a time when having a concrete idea about where we were and what we ought to do represent the single most valuable political asset.