Why Turkey Finally Made A Move Against ISIS
It wasn’t to help the U.S.-led air campaign against the group, something Turkey could do by making its strategic Incirlik Air Base available to American jets. It wasn’t, as has been the case for Egypt and Jordan, to avenge an attack by the extremist group on its nationals. And it wasn’t to aid the Syrian Kurds of Kobani, who faced an Islamic State assault for months as Turkish tanks stood idle on nearby hilltops.
It was, instead, because of history.
Turkey sent tanks and hundreds of troops into Syria late Saturday to save a celebrated shrine threatened by Islamic State militants.
The shrine is the tomb of Suleyman Shah, whose grandson founded the Ottoman Empire. That empire, the immediate predecessor of the modern Turkish republic, decayed for centuries and eventually collapsed after World War I. But many Turks — among them Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — see the Ottoman period as their nation’s grandest moment. Though the tomb is in Syria, where Shah is thought to have died in the 13th century, Turkey retained control of it through a 1921 agreement with Syria’s former colonial ruler, France.
That arrangement, like others in the region, appears to have worked fairly well until the Islamic State entered the picture. Militants linked to the extremist group and other rebels who seek to take portions of Syria from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad have been operating near and indirectly threatening the Suleyman Shah shrine for months. In March 2014, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s then-foreign minister and current prime minister, said his country would counter any assault on the mausoleum.
“Should there be an attack, either from the regime, or radical groups or elsewhere, it would be countered equally,” Davutoglu said, according to The New York Times. The comments made clear that the Turkish government, a vocal opponent of Assad, would enter his country to defend the shrine.
The incursion over the weekend was the first overt Turkish participation in the four-year Syrian civil war. Reports say up to 40 Turkish soldiers were rescued from the shrine, along with the historical remains and relics stored there. One Turkish soldier was killed in an “accident” during the operation, the Turkish military said. Whether the Turks had to actually fight off Islamic State militants remained unclear.
The government was reportedly nervous that the Islamic State would take the soldiers stationed at the tomb hostage, the way it kidnapped 46 Turks and three Iraqis working with them when it took over the Iraqi city of Mosul over the summer. (The 49 hostages were eventually released under circumstances that remain murky.)
The fighting around the shrine had become more intense in recent days as Syrian Kurdish fighters, fresh from a victory in Kobani, were advancing against fighters with the Islamic State, or ISIS.