How Turkey tomb-raided its way out of confronting ISIL

One hundred days after Operation Shah Euphrates, Turkey is still dithering over the threat across the border.

Turkish prime minister prays in Tomb of Suleyman Shah [Getty]
Turkish prime minister prays at the tomb of Suleyman Shah [Getty]

On February 22, the world woke up to the news that 600 soldiers, 57 armoured vehicles, and 39 tanks of the Turkish military rolled through a still-smouldering Kobane in order to evacuate and relocate the 700-year-old tomb of Suleyman Shah.

The tomb, and the small patch of land surrounding, is Turkish territory inside Syria based on the 1921 Treaty of Ankara, which ended the brief Franco-Turkish war. It had been besieged for months before it was moved with much fanfare to a new location in the Syrian village of Eshme, a mere 180m from the Turkish border.

Many commentators were interpreting Turkey’s decision to relocate the tomb as the beginning of a new and robust policy dealing with ISIL. Others thought it was an electoral ploy.

Turkish troops pass smouldering Kobane to save shrine

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political opponents pointed out that the tomb’s removal was the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that Turkey had surrendered sovereign territory without a shot being fired in its defence.

No major change

One hundred days after the operation there has not been a significant change in Turkish policy. Instead, the operation marked a continuation of Turkey’s policy of fence-sitting and reluctance when it comes to dealing with the threat ISIL poses to Ankara and the region.

What little Turkey has been willing to contribute to the international coalition to confront ISIL has been petty when compared to what it is capable of doing.

Yes, Turkey has agreed to host a mission to train 15,000 Syrian opposition fighters, but in the eyes of Ankara, the main goal of this force will be to take on Assad’s regime – not to confront ISIL.

Yes, Ankara has agreed to allow American UAVs to fly from bases in Turkey, but this was agreed to months before the operation to relocate the tomb took place.

All of this allows the Turkish government to do the bare minimum required to give the impression that it is doing something, when it reality, it is doing next to nothing.

Yes, Turkey has agreed to host a mission to train 15,000 Syrian opposition fighters, but in the eyes of Ankara, the main goal of this force will be to take on Assad’s regime – not to confront ISIL.


Different view of the threat

In a way that is almost completely inconceivable to policymakers in the West, the Turkish government still does not see ISIL as serious threat, or at least not as its number one threat.

While many in the West saw Kurdish “heroic fighters” defending Kobane, many in Turkey saw Kurdish “terrorists” that have been responsible for the deaths of 40,000 Turkish citizens over the past two decades.

After a brief honeymoon period in their relationship (do not forget the Assads and Erdogans use to holiday together) Erdogan sees his secular and embattled counterpart in Damascus as a bigger threat to regional stability.  

Consequently, Turkey does not share the same sense of urgency to confront ISIL as many of its NATO partners do.

Don’t forget the politics

Another factor explaining Turkey’s reluctance to confront ISIL is the upcoming elections on June 7. Erdogan’s legacy is riding on this election, the outcome of which is far from certain. 

If the Kurdish dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) passes the 10 percent electoral threshold – and some polls are indicting it will – then it is likely that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) will not be able to form a government without first building a coalition. This would seriously dampen Erdogan’s plans to consolidate even more power.

Every decision taken by his government in the past year has been decided through the lens of this election. Erdogan knows that if he confronts ISIL and fails, there could be electoral consequences. If ISIL would have attacked and occupied the tomb, Erdogan would have had no other choice but to respond militarily. By removing the tomb of Suleyman Shah, Erdogan removed the main catalyst that could force Turkey into a military confrontation with ISIL.

Turkish prime minister visits tomb of Suleyman Shah [Reuters]Turkish prime minister visits tomb of Suleyman Shah [Reuters]

Turkey has the most to lose

It is clear that Turkey is no more willing to confront ISIL now than it was before the tomb was relocated. In fact, there is growing evidence that Turkey continues to turn a blind eye to the cross border traffic that is helping ISIL.

Even if Erdogan does not see it, Turkey has more to lose than the US or any other NATO member if ISIL is successful. Erdogan is sitting on the fence, but someday ISIL will jump over that fence.

ISIL’s English language magazine, Dabiq, recently stated that it believes the area in northern Syria “will play a historical role in the battles leading up to the conquests of Constantinople, then Rome”.

Turkey is already in ISIL’s crosshairs whether Erdogan believes this or not. As Winston Churchill once said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.