On Saturday, NATO ally Turkey executed a major military operation inside of Syria to secure a former Ottoman tomb and rescue the surrounded Turkish soldiers tasked with guarding it. It’s no exaggeration to say that this development constitutes a limited invasion of Syrian territory by Turkish armed forces.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a statement that the mission—called Shah Firat, or Shah Euphrates—had resulted in the successful repatriation of the soldiers guarding the mausoleum of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is located in Syria’s war-torn Aleppo province. Mr. Davutoglu added that the mission, which involved some 600 Turkish ground forces backed by 100 military vehicles and 39 tanks, also rescued Shah’s remains.
One soldier was killed in an accident during the early stages of the operation, which also moved the tomb to another location in Syria closer to the Turkish border, Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu reported.
The mission came following days of reports in Turkish media that claimed an attack on the shrine by the Islamic State as imminent. In March, Turkey sent troops over the border into Syria to reinforce the garrison protecting the shrine in coordination with the Kurdish YPG militia. That’s notable for the fact that the YPG is an extension of the Kurdish Worker’s Party, a militia group that Turkey once viciously opposed and that remains a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization according to the State Department.
Turkey’s intervention in Syria and the loss of one of its soldiers in that operation could have international ramifications. Ankara has warned in the past that an attack on the Suleyman Shah Tomb would be considered an attack on Turkish territory by a foreign power, and would possibly trigger NATO’s mutual defense provisions.
“The tomb of Süleyman Şah [in Syria] and the land surrounding it is our territory. We cannot ignore any unfavorable act against that monument, as it would be an attack on our territory, as well as an attack on NATO land,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a televised interview late Aug. 5. “Everyone knows his duty, and will continue to do what is necessary.”
Having successfully evacuated its remaining forces from this contested shrine, Turkey may have neutralized it as a potential flashpoint. As a result of another military operation carried out simultaneously alongside the evacuation of that tomb, however, Turkish forces are now occupying a small enclave of ethnic Turks inside Syria. There, Ankara’s flag now flies over what remains Syrian sovereign territory.
There is no shortage of irony in Turkey’s threat to invoke NATO’s Article 5 considering Ankara’s reluctance to join with its fellow members of the Atlantic Alliance in targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus is livid over Ankara’s “flagrant aggression” represented by Turkey’s incursion into its territory, according to a report via Assad’s allies in the Kremlin-funded network RT.
Syria said the Turkish government had informed the Syrian consulate in Istanbul about its plans regarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah in northern Syria. Shah was the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
However, Turkey didn’t wait for permission from Damascus and mounted a rescue operation to the tomb, to salvage its relics and evacuate 40 Turkish soldiers who had been guarding it.
In dramatically short order, the crisis in the Middle East sparked by ISIS has forced Turkey to abandon its antipathy toward a semi-independent Kurdistan and has precipitated a cascading crisis has the potential to involve NATO and Moscow (which continues to operate a critical naval base inside Syrian territory). Those who are inclined to shrug off this development should be aware that the geopolitical implications are significant.