Soldier’s view: Better late than never

Soldier’s view: Better late than never

There will be a lot of political discussion on the evacuation and relocation of the Tomb of Süleyman Şah in Syria. Historically, last week’s military operation carries a lot of significance. And no matter who says what it is, it is an obvious withdrawal. But the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had a pretty good reason for the move.

My sources told me that the military decided for a change-of-guards in the Tomb in the early summer of 2014. Then came the fight for Kobane. Between the months of August and October, political decision makers in Ankara were reluctant to launch any sort of a military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Turkish National Intelligence (MİT) took the initiative then and pushed for “local elements” to get involved. This meant that MİT was in touch with some Sunni tribes in the area that could facilitate the change-of-guards. But the air raids of the coalition forces and Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) surge to push ISIL almost made MİT irrelevant. Nobody really cared about Turkey’s position, nor Turkey’s soldiers in the Tomb.

A Former Major in the Special Operations, and currently a scholar at Bilkent University, Metin Gürcan told me the TSK accelerated their plans to evacuate the Tomb after Jordanian RAF pilot Muath al-Kassasbeh was taken hostage and burtally burned to death. “There is a very deep trauma in Jordan” Gürcan said, “There are increasing cases of radicalization against ISIL, suicides [bombings] etc. Unfortunately, it may take a decade for the Jordanian Army to overcome this trauma.”

Sources close to the TSK told me even the slightest possibility of an image of a single Turkish soldier in orange jumpsuit caged by ISIL would send chills to the bones of every soldier in uniform. “Look at Peshmerga fighters that are taken hostage in Iraq” said one source, “we would never be able to tolerate or overcome such a trauma. So Turkey had to react.”

Gürcan also told me recent stories from his colleagues that came back from the Tomb. “Recently, one Turkish militant of ISIL had come to the gate and told our soldiers to take the Turkish flag down and pull the Caliphate flag up. A couple of weeks later, they shut down the power to keep themselves in the dark for an entire day. They even hinted that they were digging tunnels underneath the tomb to blow them up” said Gürcan, “Imagine living through this ordeal day in and out. Your nerves cannot handle it after a while.”

So when it came to decide whether the Davutoğlu government could take the heat of a withdrawal versus a hostage crisis like the one in Mosul, the Turkish military pushed the envelope and implied that “it had to be done.”

The technical execution of the so-called “Şah Euphrates Operation” looks flawless with the exception of the casualty of one soldier. As the new Tomb is being built in Kurdish territory, I had to ask my sources about the significance of leaving Turkish soldiers right into the heart of the Kobane Canton. Is it a deterrence against an independent Syrian Kurdistan? Or more like a conciliation effort with the PYD?

Military and political experts stress the need of cooperating with the PYD and their armed forces the People’s Protection Units (YPG) against ISIL. Turkey, as a NATO member, also had to react to the claims in the West that Turkish soldiers were cozy with ISIL militants. As the possibility of Turkey being sent to the International Criminal Court is not a far-fetched fantasy anymore, it looks like the TSK have started doing damage control on their part.