News / Middle East

Turkey Warns of Syrian Intervention to Protect Ancient Tomb

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) marching in Raqqa, Syria.
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) marching in Raqqa, Syria.
Dorian Jones
— Turkey has warned it will take any necessary steps to protect the Suleyman Shah tomb in Syria if it comes under attack.  The tomb, which is protected by Turkish soldiers, is located in the city of Aleppo in Syria near the Turkish border and Ankara considers it to be Turkish territory.  

Turkey’s political leadership has reacted strongly to a threat made by the radical group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, to attack the Suleyman Shah tomb protected by Turkish soldiers in Syria.  Tensions recently have been on the rise with Ankara strongly condemning ISIS’s tactics in Syria.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a television interview said everything would be done to protect the tomb saying it is Turkish property under the guarantee of international agreements.  He said any attack on the tomb would be considered an attack on Turkey.

Suleyman Shah was the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.  In a deal between France and Turkey in 1921 when Syria was under French rule, the tomb and a 25-kilometer area surrounding it became Turkish territory.  A Turkish flag flies above it. 

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar for the Carnegie Europe institute, says Ankara is serious about its threat to intervene.

"There is now a threat to ISIS to that shrine; there are 25 Turkish soldiers currently there and the Turkish government takes this threat seriously because it is Turkish territory," said Ulgen.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Ankara has strongly backed the Syrian rebels.  Turkish forces have been massed along the 900-kilometer Syrian border for more than a year. 

Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish newspaper Taraf and Al Monitor website says any incursion into Syria could be for the long term.

"I can foresee a period where Turkish forces go in there, but not only go there to protect the tomb; to actually create a safety buffer zone around it and maybe even open a corridor between mainland Turkey and the region," said Idiz.

Turkish-Syrian tensions have been on the rise.  Last week, Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian bomber after Ankara claimed it violated its airspace, a charge Damascus denies.  In the past few days, the Turkish military has alleged Syrian air defenses locked their missiles on its planes. Ulgen says any incursion into Syria to protect its forces is an extremely risky move.

"An incursion deep into Syrian territory [of] Turkish expeditionary forces to reprisal attacks by not only extremists groups but by also possibly by Syrian regime as well and from that point onward Turkey would be implicated in the Syrian war," said Ulgen.

Turkish opposition parties oppose the government’s support of the Syrian rebels.  They have accused the prime minister of trying to provoke a conflict with Syria in order to change the political agenda, which remains focused on high level government corruption allegations, a charge angrily dismissed by ministers. 

Columnist Idiz says the government will have to finely calibrate any intervention into Syria.

"Whatever operation Turkey engages in as a result of this tomb will have to be seen as a self-defense operation or an operation in response to an attack rather than as a stepping stone to start attacking Syrian forces; because that could turn public opinion against the government and against an operation," said Idiz.

Opinion polls indicate there is little backing for government support of the Syrian opposition.  Observers, however, say the government will be looking to the country's strong nationalist sentiments to back any operation into Syria, whatever the dangers.

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