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Turkey’s rescue of Suleyman Shah’s tomb: Retreat or victory?

In a nine-hour operation called Operation Shah Euphrates, the Turkish army entered into Syria

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

In a massive operation that included at least 572 military personnel and backed by an air support, the Turkish military has conducted its first ground military incursion in another state since 1918, when it briefly conquered much of the South Caucasus, in a bid to save its small number of troops from a possible assault by Syrian extremists.

In a nine-hour operation called Operation Shah Euphrates, the Turkish army entered into Syria with 39 tanks, 51 armored vehicles and 100 cars and rolled 37 kilometers deep into Syria to evacuate the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. As the Turkish army headed toward the tomb, another military unit crossed into Syria from theSuruc district in southern Turkey and carved out a small territory that would be another resting place for the Shah. The new Turkish-held area is so close to the border that Defense Minister İsmet Yilmaz urged Turkish citizens to “pay a visit by walking.”

Retreat or triumph?

Turkish pro-government newspapers hailed the operation as a glorious military success while the opposition blasted the government for dumping its only territory outside the mainland in the face of a threat by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A few days before the operation to relocate the tomb, the Turkish opposition claimed that the tomb, which is guarded by 38 Turkish troops, was surrounded by ISIS militants and that orchestrating arms and food supply to the military unit had been impossible for several months.

The relocation of the Suleyman Shah tomb has unleashed a new debate about Ankara’s more active participation in a campaign to defeat ISIS

Mahir Zeynalov

In the run-up to key parliamentary elections slated for June 7, the last thing Ankara wants to deal with is a damaging hostage crisis, which dominated the presidential electoral campaign and consumed the authorities for 100 days last year. Unable to take precautionary measures, such as the evacuation of its diplomatic personnel, more than 30 Turkish diplomats and members of the special forces were held captive by the ISIS militants for more than three months. Ankara didn’t reveal how it saved its nationals, but media widely reported on a prisoner-exchange deal.

The government largely designed its discourse based on a narrative that the lives of the troops were a priority for Turkey and that the Turkish “flag was raised before the one in the tomb was downed.” Ankara insisted, despite an outcry by critics, that Turkey didn’t lose its only territory outside the mainland. The land is considered as a Turkish territory based on a 1921 Turkish-French deal.

Although the authorities have made efforts to calm the public criticism over the retreat, Kurdish militants in northern Syria celebrated an alleged “deal” with Ankara, which is tantamount to a de facto recognition of Kurdistan in northern Syria by Turkey. The relocation is also most likely a major PR victory for ISIS, which had been threatening the tomb but was unable to capture it pending retaliation from Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier said that the attack on the tomb would be a casus belli for Turkey.

Part of anti-ISIS campaign?

The relocation of the Suleyman Shah tomb has also unleashed a new debate about Ankara’s more active participation in a campaign to defeat ISIS. The operation on Sunday came two days after Turkey and the U.S. signed a deal to arm and equip moderate Syrian rebels. Both Turkish and U.S. officials did not comment on whether Ankara will now allow the military base of Incirlik to be used by the Americans as part of the anti-ISIS air campaign.

Turkey’s unwillingness to participate in the coalition was largely due to the hostages as well as the troops in Suleyman Shah who faced possible imminent attacks. With the hostages saved and the Suleyman Shah tomb no longer under threat, observers suggest that Turkey will now seriously consider contributing to the anti-ISIS efforts.

However, days before the relocation of the tomb, a Turkish intelligence document warned in a troubling report: More than 3,000 ISIS militants are in Turkey and are preparing an attack on sensitive areas before the elections, including embassies of states who joined the anti-ISIS coalition. The threat could seriously restrict Ankara’s room for maneveur in its unceasing search for a way out in dealing both with ISIS as well as the Syrian regime. Considering only several months are left to the elections, Ankara may feel reluctant in joining a war in neighboring countries.

Recognition of Kurds

The most underlooked aspect of the operation is Turkey’s tacit agreement with Syrian Kurds for the new territory for the tomb, which is close to Kobane, a Kurdish populated border town that has been under the spotlight for months. Hours after the Turkish flag was raised in the area, Kurds disseminated photos that depicted the flag of Kurdish militants – some 100 meters away from the Turkish one. Both Syrian Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed that Turkey discussed the new location of the tomb with Kurds. PKK leader Murat Karayilan claimed that the tomb is now located in a territory that belongs to “Kurdistan.”

Ankara was quick to dismiss the reports. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey considered the Syrian Kurdish militant group PYD, an offshoot of the PKK, a “terrorist group.” Only few months ago, Erdogan said the PKK is “the same as the ISIS.” He was also blamed for refusing to aid the Syrian Kurdish militants fighting ISIS in Kobane and criticized the U.S. when it dropped food and weapons to the Kurds last year. No matter what the official discourse is, the tomb is now located in a land that is under the control of the Syrian Kurds.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.