How did Turkish troops manage to safely enter and exit Syria?

Published February 24th, 2015 - 08:29 GMT

Turkish troops entered Syria, as part of a well-planned operation, to relocate the remains of Suleyman Shah. The “seamless” operation relied on alliances and understandings forged by Ankara with the Kurdish force in the region and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Today, Turkey chose a new location to bury the grandfather of the Ottoman empire's founder Osman I, thus playing a more active part in the operations taking place in north Syria, particularly in matters regarding the Kurds and the Syrian Army.

Turkey seems to be the only state to have accomplished such strong relations with Syrian opposition factions. Over the past few years, Qatar and Saudi Arabia witnessed a number of setbacks with groups they were supporting in Syria, while Ankara has maintained improving and varied relations with different opposition factions. This success was crowned on Sunday with an operation “without clashes,” carried out on Syrian territories that are controlled by Turkey’s supposed enemies: the Kurdish units and ISIS.

Away from its “direct” relationship with groups such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, Turkey has exerted a great influence over most major factions (such as al-Shamia Front), in north Syria. It may even be the only major power to have entered into tacit agreements with ISIS. The besieged mausoleum complex of Suleiman Shah “al-Sharqi”— as referred to by ISIS — did not witness the same fate as other tombs and graves, where citizens and leaders were buried, in regions infiltrated by the “soldiers of al-Baghdadi.”

Turkey today is implementing a new strategy in north Syria. It is the country that viewed the Ain al-Arab battle as a win-win situation, as it sponsored breaking the backbone of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) (which had launched a “self-management” project), through the massive ISIS invasion of the village of Ain al-Arab and its countryside in September 2014. Ankara then used the presence of the fundamentalist organization near its borders to justify interferences in Syria, and allowed Iraqi peshmerga fighters to step in and support Syria’s Kurds after the Baghdad-Erbil agreement, which coincided with the start of the US coalition’s strikes.

Turkish military vehicles arrived in Syria on Sunday through the Murshid Binar border crossing (in Ain al-Arab), and peacefully entered locations manned by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), to reach the “besieged” tomb of Suleiman Shah, thus completing a several-hour long operation without firing a single bullet. Ankara, which is seemingly at ease in north Syria, placed the village of Esmesi (west of Ain al-Arab) “under the control of the army,” and raised the Turkish flag above it, making it the new location of the tomb. Ankara is regarding the new location, about 200 meters away from its borders, as part of Turkish territories. It is now guarded by the PYD, an affiliate of Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) in Syria, which means that the Turkish presence in the Kurdish-Syrian region has became a key launching point in the north. This achievement also gives Ankara an “armed wing” in the Kobani Canton. Accordingly, Syrian-Kurds must think twice, from now on, before adopting policies that contradict Turkish interests. 

As the critical battle between the Syrian Army and Turkish-backed armed opposition groups continues in Aleppo’s northern countryside, Turkey confirmed its “official” presence in nearby operations — as its tanks and soldiers advanced about 30 kilometers deep into Aleppo’s countryside — as well as farther away in the region extending from the city of Aleppo to the borders, through thousands of armed men. However, Ankara had previously informed Syria of its operation, indicating Turkish unwillingness to risk a war between the two countries.

The YPG confirmed that several of its members, “designated by the leadership,” met with Turkish officials for four days before the operation, helping to set up its plan and determine their own role in it.

For its part, Turkey confirmed that it had contacted its allies, the peshmerga in Kobani. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu indicated that “39 tanks, 57 armored vehicles, 100 other military vehicles and 572 soldiers” were involved in the operation. He added that “another military force [meanwhile] headed to the village of Esmesi to prepare it for receiving the remains within the next few days, after they were temporarily moved to Turkey.” Davutoglu also indicated that the decision to launch this operation — dubbed “Shah Euphrates” — “was made in Ankara according to legal regulations, without requesting permission or authorization.”

Planning the operation

Turkey’s allies paved the way for the Turkish operation prior to its implementation. On Saturday, the Euphrates Volcano Operations Room (which includes Shams al-Shamal (Sun of the North), Jabhat al-Akrad (Kurdish Front) and Raqqa Revolutionaries factions)) declared the Qara Quzak bridge and the Qara Quzak region, as well as the Sirrine junction and the Sirrine silos, a military zone. A few days back, these factions had seized three villages — Nasro, Kharous and Ja’da — in the southern countryside of Ain al-Arab, after clashes with ISIS insurgents. They thus reached the surroundings of the Qara Quzak bridge, closer to the tomb of Sultan Suleiman Shah. 

Meanwhile, the YPG declared these same regions conflict zones, confirming that there was no direct ISIS presence in regions separating the Kurdish units from the tomb of Suleiman Shah. The YPG media center further reported that “those designated by the Kobani leadership met with Turkish officials for four days and discussed the plan of the Suleiman Shah tomb campaign.” In a statement, the center explained that “our units transported Turkish soldiers in their vehicles to the tomb of Suleiman Shah on the previously set path. Our men were entrenched in their locations, and successfully completed their tasks in order to lead Turkish Army forces [to the mausoleum].”

A “previous rehearsal”

Last month, renowned Turkish reporter Metehan Demir, former editor-in-chief of Hurriyet newspaper in Ankara, wrote that “ISIS has been providing water and food to the [Turkish] soldiers who have been trapped in the tomb,” as supplies from Turkey were late. Therefore, official Turkish concerns regarding a military response from ISIS seem untrue, as Ankara had delivered supplies to its soldiers in the tomb back in April 2014 and replaced them. Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper then cited opposition leader in Aleppo’s countryside Munzir Salal, as saying that “coordination between the Turkish government and ISIS is not new.” Salal confirmed that “three months ago, it [ISIS] secured the entrance of Turkish forces to replace the soldiers guarding the tomb [of Suleiman Shah], provided that the Turks would supply arms and take down the Turkish flag raised on the tomb.”

In the same context, YPG spokesman Redor Khalil stressed that “ISIS facilitated the protection of the Turkish troops after they crossed Kurdish regions.” The Aleppo Media Center had confirmed that ISIS insurgents accompanied Turkish Army troops near the tomb of Suleiman Shah in the countryside of Manbij as they returned to Turkey. “[ISIS] militants accompanied the troops to secure them, which led to believing that the organization had seized them,” the center reported.

Damascus condemns incursion as blatant aggression

For its part, Damascus declared that Turkey “committed a blatant aggression on Syrian territory.” In a statement, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said that “although the Turkish Foreign Ministry had conveyed to the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul, on the eve of the aggression, its wishes to move the tomb of Suleiman Shah elsewhere, it did not wait for Syrian approval as required, according to the treaty signed in 1921 by Turkey and the French occupation at the time.” On Sunday night, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explained that “we had informed the Syrian Consulate in a diplomatic memorandum that we were evacuating the location [of the tomb], but this land is ours and we shall return to it. We also told them we were moving the tomb to the village of Esmesi, and therefore, no lands shall be abandoned…” 

Tomb of Suleiman Shah: from Marj Dabiq to Esmesi

The mausoleum complex of Suleiman Shah, grandfather of the Ottoman empire's founder Osman I, is perched on the banks of the Euphrates river, near Manbij in Aleppo’s countryside. When Selim I first conquered Syria in the battle of Marj Dabiq (in Aleppo) in August 1516, he built a mausoleum worthy of the grandfather of the Ottomans, and the pilgrims called it the “Turkish sanctuary.” In 1968, the Tabqa Dam was constructed in al-Tabqa region (currently al-Thawra or The Revolution), and water from the dam’s lake flooded the shrine, as well as parts of the Qal'at Ja'bar monument. It was then decided to move the tomb to a high hill, north of Qara Quzak. According to Article 9 of the Treaty of Ankara, which was signed in 1921 by Turkey and France during the French mandate of Syria, it was agreed that the tomb of Suleiman Shah would remain under the Turkish sovereignty, and would be guarded by Turkish soldiers, with a Turkish flag raised above it.

By Elie Hanna

© Al-Akhbar. All rights reserved

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