war on the rocks

The Tomb that Could Drag Turkey into the Syrian Civil War

October 6, 2014

On the banks of the Euphrates in Syria, 20 miles from the Turkish border, stands the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman, founder of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet the territory and complex — roughly the size of two football fields — is controlled by Turkey under a 1921 treaty between France, then the mandatory power in Syria, and what later became the Turkish Republic. Under the agreement, the Turkish flag waves and soldiers man their posts in Turkey’s only extraterritorial possession.

The territory is now at the center of a flammable mix of Turkish domestic politics, a vicious civil war now in its third year, and international counterterrorism efforts. The situation could easily ignite, providing a justification for a Turkish military intervention in Syria. As long as the Syrian civil war drags on and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remains a potent force, the Tomb of Suleyman Shah will remain a major issue.

Earlier last week, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç said ISIL is “approaching” the tomb. This news was followed by commentary and speculation in the Turkish media that the tomb was already surrounded and its elite guards taken hostage. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday then clarified the situation, saying that claims the tomb is surrounded are “made up.” He added: “It’s obvious what we’ll do if something happens to the tomb … Turkey is under threat.”

The threat against the tomb isn’t new. In March, Turkish officials stated their resolve to ensure the security of the tomb, upping the ante by replacing 25 ceremonial guards with an estimated 60 elite special forces. The government has made it clear an attack on the tomb would constitute an attack on Turkey, as well as be met by an immediate response from the military.

Yet, now that a U.S.-led coalition is bombing ISIL positions in Iraq and Syria, the situation has changed from March. Until now, Turkey has largely stayed on the sidelines, but since the release of 49 hostages two weeks ago, it has signaled it will take a tougher stance against the extremist group and join the international coalition.

A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based research center, said, “In case Ankara decides to partake in the coalition effort, the Tomb of Suleyman Shah would become one of the likely targets for a potential ISIL retaliation.”

On Thursday, the Turkish parliament voted to renew and expand an existing mandate for the military in Iraq and Syria. Under the bill the Turkish military is authorized to carry out operations in Iraq and Syria, and foreign troops are allowed to be based in Turkey.

The bill and challenge from ISIL comes as Turkey is pushing for a buffer zone, safe haven, and no-fly zone to safeguard its border, stem the flow of refugees, and ultimately get the international community behind an effort to topple the Assad regime. Washington has shied away from the Turkish strategy, preferring the immediate and more limited goal of “degrading and destroying” ISIL without committing the U.S. military to a more robust role as would be required for the Turkish preference in Syria.

Meanwhile, in the areas controlled by Syrian Kurds with ties to Turkey’s own Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fighting continues with ISIL, especially around the border town of Kobane. The Kurds accuse Turkey of backing ISIL. Kurds in Syria and Turkey are concerned Turkey could now use ISIL as a pretext to intervene and squash the Syrian Kurdish experiment in autonomy. Instead of intervention, they are asking for international airstrikes on ISIL, an open border with Turkey to bring in fighters, and a supply of heavy weapons to battle the better armed ISIL.

Some are suspicious of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s motives. The current spotlight on the tomb comes after leaked tapes in March allegedly revealed then foreign minister, now Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, head of intelligence Hakan Fidan, and other senior officials discussing options for Syria and the tomb. Davutoğlu admitted he chaired the meeting, but said the tapes were “doctored.”

On the tape, Davutoğlu mentioned that Erdoğan said that, if necessary, treat the tomb as an “opportunity.” The discussion then turned to creating a justification to strike ISIL and get more involved in the Syrian conflict, even though Fidan admitted the tomb is of psychological and not strategic value. Among the options discussed was creating a pretext to drag Turkey — and therefore NATO — into the Syrian conflict by orchestrating an ISIL attack on the tomb. “I’ll create a justification,” the head of intelligence suggested at one point, “If necessary we will arrange an attack [on the tomb].”

The question that remains to be answered is what response Turkey, the international coalition, and Syria would take in the event of an actual ISIL attack on the tomb. This surely figures somehow into ISIL’s calculations vis-à-vis the tomb. One also might wonder if secret terms behind the recent liberation of ISIL-held Turkish hostages relate at all to the tomb.

With the crisis in Syrian-Kurdish areas boiling over and Turkey pushing for a stronger international response against the Assad regime, the leaked tapes may suggest Turkey’s motives and objectives extend beyond just defending the tomb. Its objectives may include justifying military intervention in Syrian-Kurdish areas and drawing the United States and NATO into the Turkish preference for a safe haven, buffer zone, no-fly zone and ultimately the ouster of Assad.

One potentially dangerous variable mentioned in the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies report is what the Syrian response would be, and the risk that a counterterrorism operation to protect the tomb could turn into an interstate conflict if regime forces fire on Turkey, or any part of a mission goes wrong.

While Assad has not fired on the international coalition bombing ISIL in Syria and appears to be cooperating, the regime described the passage of the Turkish military authorization bill this week as an act of aggression. It may not look the other away to Turkish intervention around the tomb. Ironically, the biggest danger might not be an ISIL attack on the tomb, but rather a Turkish response 20 miles inside a complex war environment that results in clashes with Syria. That could draw in the United States and NATO to support a member state against the regime at a time when NATO and the United States have no interest in bombing or ousting the regime, especially with the threat of ISIL continuing.

With the conflict in Syria having no end in sight, it is questionable how long Turkey can remain at the tomb and if protecting a historical footnote is worth the risk and cost.

 

Chase Winter is a writer and analyst covering Turkey, the Kurds and Middle East. He has been following Turkey for more than 10 years, including two years as a Turkish news editor and four years in-country researching Turkish politics, foreign policy and the Kurdish issue. He holds a BA in International Studies and MA in Middle East Studies from the University of Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @chaseawinter.

 

Photo credit: I Wish I Was Flying