2015-02-24

Turkey moves soldiers, tomb to safer location in Syria

Amid the increasing threat of an assault by ISIL, Ankara moved soldiers and a historic mausoleum from a Turkish enclave to a Kurdish-controlled region of Syria.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 24/02/15

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Turkey's military launched an operation in Syria overnight on Sunday (February 22nd), and evacuated Turkish soldiers guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, located in a small Turkish enclave on the eastern side of the Euphrates River.

  • Necdet Ozel (right), chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, informs Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (front left) about the relocation of the Saygi Outpost and the tomb of Suleyman Shah on February 22nd. [AFP/Turkish Prime Minister's Press Office]

    Necdet Ozel (right), chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, informs Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (front left) about the relocation of the Saygi Outpost and the tomb of Suleyman Shah on February 22nd. [AFP/Turkish Prime Minister's Press Office]

  • Turkish Army vehicles and tanks move near the Syrian border in Suruc on February 23rd as part of an operation to relocate a historic tomb and evacuate soldiers guarding the monument after it was surrounded by Islamic State jihadists. [AFP]

    Turkish Army vehicles and tanks move near the Syrian border in Suruc on February 23rd as part of an operation to relocate a historic tomb and evacuate soldiers guarding the monument after it was surrounded by Islamic State jihadists. [AFP]

The operation, named Shah Euphrates, was accomplished with 572 personnel, airborne early warning and control (AWACS) aircraft, drones, military helicopters and military tanks, and without international assistance. There were no clashes, but one soldier was killed in an accident during the movement of the troops.

After the evacuation, Turkish soldiers used explosives to destroy the burial site and the security station to prevent the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from using the property and buildings as a base.

Turkey's General Staff released a press statement, which said that the tomb and the artefacts were moved to another location within Syria, Ashme village, 200 metres away from the Turkey-Syria border, which will be guarded by Turkish soldiers. The village is located in Rojova, a Syrian Kurdish region.

In a press conference following the operation, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the action is provisional and that the tomb will be moved back to its old site in Aleppo after conditions in Syria improve.

Davutoglu also said that allied forces carrying out a military campaign against ISIL were informed prior to the operation.

The move was made just days after media reports claimed that the tomb was besieged by ISIL militants, who trapped several dozen Turkish soldiers protecting the territory. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later refuted those stories.

The enclave surrounding the tomb is about 10 decares and has been Turkey's sovereign territory since 1921 following a treaty signed with France, which ruled Syria at the time.

Ayse Gulnev Osmanoglu, the great granddaughter of Sultan Mehmed Murad V, told SES Türkiye that she was relieved that the Turkish garrison guarding the tomb had been moved to a safer location. She added that she is grateful to the government for rescuing the remains of the grandfather of the Ottoman dynasty.

"For the last few months I have worried about the vulnerability and security of these Turkish soldiers, bravely guarding our enclave in an area of such hostility and conflict. I congratulate the commanders and forces involved in the planning and execution of this successful operation," she said.

"It remains a tragic fact that so many people live in constant fear and are enduring so much suffering in Syria and in the region as a whole," Osmanoglu said. "I pray for the swift return of peace to these former Ottoman lands, where people can once more live together in a peaceful, tolerant society which shows respect and kindness to all its citizens." Espousing an extreme version of Islam, ISIL considers tombs and mosques as idolatrous, and destroyed many of them in rebel-held areas. Last year, the group released a video in which it threatened to attack the Suleyman Shah tomb unless Turkey withdrew its special forces, but did not take any action.

Last summer, ISIL held 46 Turkish and three Iraqi nationals hostage after a military raid on Turkey's consulate in Mosul, Iraq. The hostages were released on September 20th, after being held for 101 days.

Just two days before Sunday's evacuation, Turkey and the United States announced an agreement to train and equip a small group of moderate Syrian rebels to fight against ISIL and Syrian regime forces over the next three years.

Turkey's Army reached Syria through Kobane, another Kurdish territory in Syria that was recently liberated from ISIL militants, a move that some observers said is a sign of improved relations with the Syrian Kurds.

However, Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in Qatar, said relations will not be improved overnight, and that the overarching strategic problems between Ankara and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) still remain.

"Certainly the trust is very low on both sides," Stephens told SES Türkiye. "The PYD did co-operate to allow the army passage but that is as far as the arrangement went. Certainly it's positive and shows that both sides respect each other to at least co-ordinate on an important strategic issue."

"Ankara is clearly worried about expanding PYD influence in northern Syria as they move toward Tel Abyad and Jarablus," he added. "This is not the situation Turkey had wanted, however it may be what they have to accept for the time being, and ultimately the relationship will have to function as a result of the PYD controlling as many as five border crossings with Turkey."

About the timing of the evacuation, Stephens said Turkey might be concerned about a potential backlash from ISIL.

"To train and equip is following a specific anti-ISIL policy and that brings Turkey into direct conflict with ISIL in a way that hasn't occurred before," Stephens said. "Now, with ISIL on its back foot and liable to take drastic actions of retribution against its enemies, it was clear the tomb was under severe threat of being destroyed."

"In this way, Turkey realised that its policies, combined with ISIL's strategic weakness following the loss of Kobane, meant that something had to be done to save the shrine from potential destruction," Stephens added.

In a press conference on Monday, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that if the operation had not taken place, the tomb and soldiers would have been directly vulnerable to ISIL. Kalin also denied that Turkey's army co-operated with Syrian Kurdish military groups during the operation.

Reactions to the move were polarised along political lines. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, called it a "retreat" and said "the government sold the territory."

Emre Erdogan, founding partner at Infakto Research Workshop in Istanbul, said that for Turkey's government and its supporters, the intervention was a military victory, allowing the nation to save a "sacred" piece of its heritage.

"It was a case in which Turkey showed its power to the region and the government proved its competence," Erdogan told SES Türkiye. "Moreover, according to the government perspective, it was a clear rational act, a kind of chess move which strengthened the government's hand in the game in the Middle East."

Erdogan added that the statements from both sides of the issue indicate the importance of nationalism in Turkey's politics.

"Both are taking an almost imperialist stand by accentuating 'Turkish soils.' For the government, Turkey still has soils in foreign countries; and for the opposition it does not, because of failure of foreign policies of government," he added.

What role should Turkey's armed forces play in the fight against ISIL? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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