A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

As Turkey Tilts Towards Intervention, the Tomb of Suleyman Shah Becomes an Issue

Turkey's standoffish approach to the coalition campaign against ISIS appears to be rapidly eroding as the fighting increasingly engages direct Turkish security interests.  The Turkish government has asked the Grand National Assembly (Parliament) to approve possible intervention in both Iraq and Syria, and the government has indicated this could include opening Turkish bases to foreign troops or aircraft; in recent days Turkey has increased troop levels along the border and has deployed tanks on a hill on the border overlooking the ongoing battle at Kobanê, where a huge flow of refugees have already poured into Turkey. Parliament, which is dominated by the ruling AKP, will debate the issue Thursday. But since the reluctant party in Turkey has been the AKP itself, it seems likely that Turkey will take some action, perhaps creating a much-discussed "buffer zone" inside Syria and Iraq.

But there is another issue looming that could not be resolved by a limited buffer zone: ISIS in Syria is said to be approaching the tomb of Suleyman Shah (Süleyman Şah in Turkish).

I wrote about this anomalous shrine back in 2012, when the Syrian Civil War threatened it and then Prime Minister (now President)  Erdoğan identified it as a Turkish interest that Turkey would definitely defend. It is an enclave of sovereign Turkish territory deep within Syria; it flies the Turkish flag and is guarded by a Turkish honor guard. In 2012, Erdoğan said that an attack on the tomb would be treated as n attack on Turkish sovereign territory and thus as an attack on NATO. Given ISIS' propensity for blowing up tomb-shrines (which it considers idolatrous), there is little reason to think they would spare the tomb of Suleyman Shah.

Location of the Tomb
But Suleyman Shah was the grandfather of Osman I, eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty. The 1921 Treaty of Ankara between the Turkish government (soon to be the Turkish Republic) and France (the Mandatory Power in Syria, recognized it as sovereign Turkish soil. When the Tabqa Dam threatened in 1973 threatened to drown the tomb under Lake Asad, both the tomb and the Turkish sovereignty were moved north to a site on higher ground.

Given Erdoğan's so-called "neo-Ottoman" policies, his threats in 2012 to defend the tiny enclave (geographers actually call it an "exclave" of Turkey; it's an "enclave" within Syria) were unsurprising.

Turkish Soldiers at Tomb (Wikipedia)

The tomb was not actually threatened in 2012, but with ISIS said to be moving toward it today, and with their track record of blowing up tomb-shrines, the threat is clearly one more factor pushing Turkey towards intervention.

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