Ottoman tomb too important for Erdogan to abandon but move signals no major policy change on ISIL.
The mausoleum of Suleyman Shah is located in an 8,797sq m enclave on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River at Karakozak village, considered as Turkish territory in Syria. It is some 30km from the Turkish border, 92km from the biggest Turkish town of Urfa and 123km from Aleppo.
Until Saturday, the enclave comprised the mausoleum and a 38-man symbolic garrison (recently increased from 11 due to tensions). It was built in 1975 when the Syrian government asked Turkey to relocate the original tomb due to the construction of the Al Tabqa Dam. The mausoleum was first built in 1886 at another location during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II when the area was Ottoman territory.
According to the official narrative, in 1086, Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the first Ottoman sultan and founder of the Osman Bey dynasty, drowned while trying to cross the Euphrates River. This would have happened near the spot of the original mausoleum, in the area of Djaber Castle. Over time, the area came to be known as the “Turkish Grave”.
Still, there is no clear-cut historical evidence that the sepulchre belongs to Suleyman Shah. Towards the end of World War I, the area was first occupied by the British and then the French. In 1921, the bilateral Ankara Agreement between France and Turkey, which established the Turco-Syrian border, declared the area to be under Turkish jurisdiction. This allowed Turkey to have a skeleton force and raise its flag there. Two years later, the Lausanne Treaty reaffirmed the provisions of the Ankara Agreement on Turkish sovereignty over the grave. The area is unique in that it is the only Turkish territory outside the state’s borders.
According to the official account, the rescue and evacuation operation began on Saturday evening and was completed before dawn. The military personnel were evacuated and the sepulchre was taken to Turkey. At a later stage, it will be transferred to a new location in Eshme, a village on the Syrian-Turkish border controlled by the Syrian Kurdish authority.
Domestically, the so-called “Operation Shah Euphrates” has not been received with enthusiasm by anyone except staunch AKP supporters. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government will not be able to exploit this operation as an act of heroism or patriotism in the upcoming elections as it signals, if anything, a loss of territory, even if it is a symbolic one. Indeed, the opposition parties were quick to criticise the outcome of the operation. Republican People’s Party General Secretary Gursel Tekin said: “For the first time in our 90 year history as a republic we have surrendered our own soil without a fight.”
As for the Kurdish opposition, it rejoiced at the cooperation between the Turkish armed forces and the militia of the Democratic Union Party without which Turkish forces would never have been able to pull off the operation at all.
The Turkish army is not very experienced at this sort of “hit and run” operation and is rather a heavy machinery of classic warfare. Contrary to the official declaration by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who dismissed the cooperation with Syrian Kurds, a Syrian Kurdish official, Idris Nassan, announced that the local authorities had allowed Turkish forces to cross their territory to reach the area which has been surrounded by ISIL for some time. Not to mention the fact that the rescued sepulchre will be buried at Eshme, which is under Syrian-Kurdish control.
Finally, the irony is not lost on the Turkish public that Turkish authorities have openly collaborated with a group they still label as terrorists. Meanwhile, ISIL did not impede the Turkish forces’ operation. As for the Syrian government, it condemned the military intervention as a violation of its territory.
Mausoleum as target
In Turkey, the mausoleum first hit the news last March when an illegal wiretapping of a top officials’ meeting revealed discussions over the potential use of the mausoleum as a casus belli to intervene militarily in Syria. The news was never confirmed and was even vehemently rejected by the authorities. Three months later, in June, ISIL took 49 Turkish consulate personnel hostage in Mosul, including the consul general. They were released only in September. At the time, the Turkish daily Taraf had published information according to which the Turkish authorities would have agreed to disengage from the mausoleum in exchange for the hostages’ release. The information was never denied.
Today, the disengagement has effectively taken place and the area is most probably under full ISIL control.
There also remain several unclear aspects like the death of one Turkish soldier – ruled “accidental” – and the fact that the mausoleum and the garrison facility were destroyed to make sure that they would not be abused by others, possibly ISIL. Unconfirmed accounts suggest that the area was already destroyed by ISIL even before the arrival of Turkish forces.
On Sunday evening, Turkish authorities were upbeat, and talking tough about the capabilities of the Turkish armed forces – which are not especially reputed for their out-of-area operations. Yet, the so-called “Shah Euphrates” operation is bound to remain an exception and certainly not a precursor of further Turkish military involvement in Syria.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the operation will change Turkey’s stance vis-a-vis ISIL. Turkey recently reached an agreement with the US to train some 6,000 Free Syrian Army personnel in Turkey who will not necessarily be involved in fighting ISIL. Their role will most probably remain limited to the “train and equip” capacity as well as intelligence sharing and border control, rather than engaging ISIL from the air or land.
Cengiz Aktar is a senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Center.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.