Turkey’s Tomb Raiders

Turkey's mission to save an ancient tomb in Syria sheds unexpected light on Ankara's complicated regional entanglements.

464107232 cropped

It was a story that mystified many non-Turks. On the night of Feb. 21, Turkey sent a military convoy into Syria to rescue 38 of its soldiers who had been surrounded by forces of the Islamic State. So what were those Turkish soldiers doing inside Syria? They were guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire and, correspondingly, a figure of considerable emotional significance to modern-day Turkish nationalists. In 1921, Turkey negotiated a treaty with France (the colonial power that then controlled Syria) that gave Ankara sovereignty over the tomb.

Lately, however, the position of the Turkish soldiers stationed around the site had become increasingly untenable, and the decision was made to pull them out — along with the remains of Suleyman Shah himself. Just to make sure Islamic State fighters didn’t get any ideas, the Turkish army sent in a force of 39 tanks, 57 armored cars, 100 other vehicles, and 572 soldiers. They demolished the original site in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of IS militants, then moved what was left of Suleyman Shah to the Turkish town of Urfa. (As if this macabre odyssey needed an additional twist, Turkish officials have said that they will soon move the body to a new tomb just inside Syria.) One Turkish soldier was accidentally killed in the overnight raid. (The photo shows a Turkish army vehicle driving down a street in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.)

The government of Bashar al-Assad condemned the operation as an act of “flagrant aggression,” since the Turks didn’t consult with Damascus before making the move. The Syrians, who habitually accuse Ankara of abetting the Islamic State, declared that the raid offered additional evidence of a “deep connection between the Turkish government” and the jihadis.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pro-government media pronounced the operation a resounding success. But opposition parties berated the government for allegedly “abandoning” Turkey’s only territory outside its borders. “For the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, we lost part of our homeland without even fighting,” said Gursel Tekin, an official of the opposition Republican People’s Party, in a press conference Sunday. The Nationalist Movement Party’s deputy chairman, Celal Adan, also criticized the government for “making Turkey seem weak in the region.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu quickly retaliated, slamming the opposition for casting aspersions on a “night of honor,” and describing their critical comments as “black marks that will go down in history.”

The Turkish public seems to be equally divided. No sooner was the operation announced than social media came alive with controversy. Some commentators drew a parallel with the hostage crisis that ended a few months ago with the liberation of 46 Turks who had been held captive by Islamic State forces (probably in return for the release of Islamic State prisoners held by the Turkish authorities). Government sympathizers linked the fate of the hostages, who finally made it home after three months in captivity, with the rescue of the Turkish soldiers stationed at the tomb, who, it was said, could have ended up in Islamic State hands if it hadn’t been moved. Critics, meanwhile, insisted that Turkey had staged a humiliating “retreat.”

While Turks continue to play the blame game, the Independent’s Robert Fisk wondered about the timing of the operation. Fisk pointed out that Ankara made no reaction at all last year when the Islamic State threatened to attack the tomb, and suggested that a deal may have been reached, perhaps allowing Turkish oil experts to assist the Islamic State in return for the safety of Suleyman Shah’s remains.

But perhaps the thorniest question of all is the extent to which Kurdish forces assisted the tomb operation. President Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, denied claims that the Turks were assisted by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), calling the group a terrorist organization. In a press briefing on Monday, Kalin said Turkey informed its allies about the raid and had also notified the Syrian government. Yet he strongly rejected claims that Turkey acted in close coordination with local Kurdish authorities.

Though Turkish officials persist in denying rumors of cooperation, the Kurds beg to differ. Pro-Kurdish politician Hasip Kaplan said that the tomb caper marked the first time in their history that Kurdish and Turkish forces had participated in a joint military operation. Murat Karayilan, the military leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), insisted that the operation took place with the approval of the PYD (which is actually a PKK affiliate), and added that Turkey had also reached an agreement with the Islamic State to prevent possible trouble. Asked about the strenuous denials of the Turkish authorities, Karayilan said: “In that case how was it possible to enter a war zone and carry out the operation without firing a shot? You went through Kobani and traveled 33 kilometers. The security forces there escorted you and provided assistance.”

There’s a major irony here. Just a few months ago, President Erdogan was describing the PKK as a terrorist organization virtually indistinguishable from the Islamic State. That was his justification for refusing to allow PKK-affiliated troops to cross through Turkey to help defend the Syrian city of Kobani against Islamic State attackers. Now the Turks have sent their own forces through Kobani to rescue the soldiers who were guarding the tomb, and Ankara is creating a new tomb site in the Kurdish-controlled town of Ashme. Apparently the Kurds aren’t quite the enemies that Erdogan would have had us believe.

At the same time, all the heated discussion among Turks misses an essential point. After years of hemming and hawing, Ankara and Washington recently signed an agreement to jointly train and equip of thousands of moderate Syrian rebels. That could indeed have made the Turkish soldiers guarding the tomb prime targets for retaliation, so removing them can also be seen as part of Turkey’s preparations for a new stage of confrontation with the Islamic State.

Now that the tomb has been moved and the Turkish soldiers are safe, perhaps Ankara will feel free to provide active support to the international coalition against the Islamic State, maybe even taking measures against its sleeper cells inside Turkey along the way. Viewed in this light, the operation to save Suleyman Shah was neither a triumph nor a fiasco. It was simply a necessity.

AFP/Getty Images

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola