Middle East

Turkey’s role in ISIS fight may hinge on ancient tomb

File - The Suleyman Shah tomb near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo is seen in this May 16, 2008. REUTERS/Salih Boztas/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency

ISTANBUL: A vow to defend the 700-year-old tomb of Suleiman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in a Turkish enclave in northern Syria could decide Turkey’s role in the military campaign against ISIS.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Tuesday that the militants were advancing on the white stone mausoleum, guarded by several dozen Turkish soldiers and perched on a manicured lawn under a Turkish flag on the banks of the Euphrates.

The tomb was made Turkish under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when France ruled Syria. Ankara regards it as sovereign territory and has made clear that it will defend the mausoleum if it is attacked.

“We can’t leave that place, which is ours through agreements, unprotected. Regardless of pride, this is important for our historical memory. This is important for everyone, not just for Turks,” said Ilber Ortayli, a leading Turkish historian at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University.

Turkey has so far been reluctant to take an active role in the U.S.-led military campaign against ISIS, but the government Tuesday sent a proposal to parliament to beef up its powers to order cross-border operations in Syria and Iraq.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in March Turkey would retaliate against any attack on the tomb, 30 kilometers from the Turkish border, as ISIS tightened its grip on surrounding areas.

ISIS and other Islamist groups, whose strict Salafi interpretation of Islam deems the veneration of tombs to be idolatrous, have destroyed several tombs and mosques in Syria.

Suleyman Shah was the grandfather of Osman I who founded the Ottoman Empire in 1299. Traveling through modern-day Syria with the Kayi tribe, he fell off his horse and drowned in the Euphrates near Jabar, south of the current site of the mausoleum, according to historians.

The Kayi tribe settled in Anatolia, which became the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

Other academics question how knowledgeable the average Turk is about the tomb’s history and the extent to which an ISIS attack on it would spark popular support for a Turkish military intervention.

Hasan Unal, professor of international relations at Ankara’s Atilim University, said Turkey could play it either way. “It would depend largely on how the government presents it. If it had a serious intention to take part in the war, the tomb would look to have greater significance ... But if it didn’t, it could downgrade its significance in the public eye,” he said.

The tomb also made news in March when it cropped up in a leaked audio recording on YouTube of top security officials, including Davutoglu and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, discussing possible military action in Syria.

The conversation appeared to center on a possible operation to defend the tomb as a pretext for a military incursion. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, called the leaks “villainous” and temporarily shut down YouTube in response.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 02, 2014, on page 8.

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