The AKP’s public relations disaster

The AKP’s public relations disaster

The evacuation of the Süleyman Şah tomb, and its relocation a hundred meters from the Turkish border, is a public relations disaster for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, with support from their spin doctors in the media, are trying to present this as a major military success. They will have a hard time convincing a large segment of the population.

There is bound to be some doubts even among AKP supporters given what is surfacing about the operation and the degree to which Ankara cooperated with Syrian Kurdish forces that are allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Süleyman Şah was the grandfather of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. His tomb is the only piece of sovereign Turkish territory outside of Turkey, based on a 1921 agreement between Turkey and France, the mandated power in Syria at the time. Not many Turks knew of the existence of the tomb until the Syrian civil war. Since then it has been the cause of much chest-beating by the government.

Davutoğlu is on record saying the tomb, and the Turkish soldiers garrisoned there, would be defended to the end, especially after it was encircled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Given this backdrop it is not hard to understand why the whole affair is a public relations disaster for the government. 

Last year’s raid against the Turkish consulate in Mosul by ISIL, and the taking hostage of its personnel – including the consul general – is clearly not something Ankara wanted to see a repeat of. 

Given that the consulate building is reportedly being used by ISIL as its headquarters, the possibility that something similar might happen at the Süleyman Şah garrison was clearly too much for the AKP. The garrison was demolished by Turkish forces after the tomb was evacuated.

The “Operation Shah,” as it is official being called, points to a number of things. To start with, this is a retreat under any name, even if it has a rational explanation. The government has shown it does not want any confrontation with ISIL and would rather concede ground.

Normally this would be considered a reasonable choice, but the operation comes after much government bombast about not conceding a centimeter, and this is what many are judging it by now. It is also not possible for the relocation of the tomb to have been achieved without cooperation from the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey officially sees as a terrorist organization allied with the PKK.

According to press reports, the YPG provided a safety corridor for Turkish tanks and armored personnel carriers involved in the operation, as they carried the tomb to an area near the Turkish border which was recently cleared of ISIL by the YPG.

In other words, the tomb will be relocated in an area under PYD control and press photographs show this clearly. These are developments dictated by the realities on the ground and might not have caused much public anger if the AKP government had pursued realistic policies in Syria instead of engaging in bluster that turned out in the end to be hollow.  

Davutoğlu says the tomb will be returned to where it originally was after normality returns to Syria.

What that normality will turn out to be is not clear though. Damascus has already declared the entry of Turkish troops into Syria for this operation a hostile act. It is unlikely that it will allow Turkey to return the tomb to it old place should the Bashar al-Assad regime prevail.

Syria continues to be a disastrous quagmire for Ankara, and the situation is getting progressively worse with no clear indication of how Turkey will extricate itself from this entanglement. It is more apparent now than ever that the AKP never had a coherent Syrian policy to start with, other than a lot of wishful thinking.