ISIL continues to spoil Turkish positions
The relocation of the Turkish tomb in Syria with an army operation overnight on Feb. 21 could be taken as the Turkish government’s second retreat regarding pressure from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq in the last six months.
Exactly six months ago on Sept. 20, 2014, the Turkish government was able to take back 46 of its citizens who used to work in the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq but were taken captive by ISIL as they occupied the city on June 11, 2014 through proxy bargaining by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). The Turkey’s Mosul has been under ISIL occupation since then.
The relocation operation looks like a well-planned and executed operation in technical terms. Turkish troops (a total of 572 as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu later revealed) entered Syria from two points with tanks and armored vehicles at 9 p.m. on Feb. 21. One of them secured the place where the tomb of Süleyman Shah was to be relocated, again in Syria, to the tomb that had been protected by a unit of a total of 38 soldiers, took the tombs and soldiers there, evacuated and destroyed the facilities and returned to Turkey as of 4:45 a.m. the next day.
What is problematic is not the operation itself but the political meaning behind it.
Süleyman Shah was the grandfather of Osman Gazi, who had founded the Ottoman dynasty late 13th century and the piece of land where his tomb has been acknowledged as Turkish soil abroad by a 1921 agreement between France and Turkish parliamentary forces carrying out the War of Liberation (before the regime changed into the Republic in 1923) when a border between Turkey and Syria was drawn.
The tomb had been relocated twice before, in 1939 and 1975, due to dam construction in Syria.
This time, the forcing factor was ISIL. The organization has been threatening the tomb and military station since 2013. But particularly after they failed to take Kobane, a border town by the Turkish border Kurdish forces with the backing of the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition, they started to close the circle around the tomb, which is some 30 km south of the Turkish border but in their control.
After Turkey signed a document with the U.S. in Ankara on Feb. 19 about training and equipping the rebel forces in Syria, the Turkish government obviously endorsed its official position considering ISIL as a terrorist organization threatening the country.
One official source, who asked not to be named, told the Hürriyet Daily News that though there was no direct assault on the station guarding the tomb, all indications showed that an attack could be imminent, after which Turkish army would strike back and find itself directly in the middle of the Syrian theatre.
Davutoğlu, had a final consultation with President Tayyip Erdoğan on the issue the same day. On that day, Chief of Staff Gen. Necdet Özel was in Saudi Arabia with his colleagues in the region and in NATO to review new measures in the collective fight against ISIL. Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz was coming back from a similar meeting in Washington DC, under the auspices of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Davutoğlu called them for a meeting on Feb. 20 in the Chief of Staff Headquarters, where they went through the contingency planning carried out by the military (with intelligence support) for months. That plan was executed the next day.
It would be twice a problem if the government had abandoned the tomb, or take it to Turkey and left no Turkish flag on Syrian soil as the country heads for a critical election on June 7. A relocation formula was found. But the new location of the tomb (or the flag for now, until a building to be erected there) is very close to the Turkish border, but in the area controlled by Kurds and the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), who led the resistance of Kobane, and is a sister organization of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with which the Turkish government has been carrying out talks to end a three-decade armed campaign.
One of the branches of Turkish troops entered Syria from Kobane, in coordination with the PYD. That is why the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is focused on the Kurdish problem, in parliament, sharing a similar grassroots with the PKK, began opening the issue since Feb. 19 in order to corner the pressure on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) during the controversial security bill debate.
Yes, the relocation operation may be a successful one in military terms, but traumatic in political terms.
The Turkish government is expected to toughen its stance further against ISIL from this point, as security forces are on alert with Turkish ISIL militants rushing back to Turkey, especially after the defeat in Kobane.