24 February 201
Two days ago a large Turkish military column entered Syria to bring back to Turkey the remains of Suleyman Shah and evacuate the some 40 soldiers guarding his tomb.
Suleyman Shah was the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman Ghazi. He was drowned while trying to cross the Euphrates River in early 13th Century and buried nearby.
So long as Syria was part of the Empire his tomb was not a problem. But when the Ottomans lost the First World War and signed, on 10 August 1920, the Treaty of Sevres which carved up the Empire including most of today’s Turkey, other lands including Syria were gone. The Treaty of Sevres was the darkest page of our history.
Under Atatürk’s leadership a patriotic movement challenged the Treaty and launched the War of Liberation against the Allies. As their determination started to reflect on the battlefield the mood in Europe started to change. Thus, on 20 October 1921, the new Turkish government and France, then mandatory power for Syria, signed the Treaty of Ankara ending the state of war between them.
Under Article 9 of the Treaty it was agreed that the tomb of Suleyman Shah would remain the property of Turkey. Turkey was also recognized the right to have guards there and fly the Turkish flag.
The Treaty of Ankara marked the beginning of a new chapter in Turkish-French relations. It also and gave further credibility Atatürk’s struggle which was to be crowned with the declaration of the Republic two years later on 29 October 1923, now Turkey’s National Day.
When Syria started to build a dam around the site in 1973 the tomb was moved to another location, again on the banks of the Euphrates River closer to Turkey. Another dam project led to a new proposal by Syria to once again relocate the tomb but Ankara and Damascus eventually agreed to leave the tomb where it is. Turkey did some work to protect the tomb against the risk of flooding. At the time nobody had even heard of the town of Kobani which is not very far from the tomb.
I visited the tomb in April 2002 on my way back to Ankara from my first ever visit to Damascus where I had diplomatic consultations with my counterparts in the Syrian Foreign Ministry. In its new location the tomb stood on a tiny peninsula.
As Syria started falling apart ISIL emerged to control large swaths of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border. The tomb of Suleyman Shah was now under their sway. This put the forty members the honor guard under enormous risk. ISIL failed to capture Kobani thanks to the air strikes of the coalition but the area where the tomb was located remained under their power.
The operation to remove the remains of Suleyman Shah and evacuate the honor guard has unleashed a bitter political debate in our already polarized society.
With a little exaggeration, the government has presented the incursion as a victory almost on the scale of the Normandy landings.
The opposition has called it a stinging retreat, a shameful giving up of Turkish territory. Some have made statements implicitly accusing the Government of having some kind of an understanding with ISIL as well a Syrian Kurdish group which it continues to label as terrorists.
Syrian Government officials called it a flagrant act of aggression. Iran voiced its disapproval as a supporter of the Assad regime.
Since Turkey is three months away from general elections the operation will no doubt continue to divide the nation.
Without going into any detail of this incursion and the current debate around it, I wish to underline that this last episode is further fall out from Turkish Government’s mistaken Syria policy. Had Turkey not burned all bridges with the Assad regime, supported initiatives coming from no matter where to find a political solution, it would have made a much better investment in the future of Turkish-Syrian relations and its own security. ISIL could still be where it is today but we would have more options. We could have the agreement of Damascus for the evacuation. We could have secured their commitment to rebuild the tomb at its present location in the future. We could even get Assad’s agreement to send our troops to the tomb area and then give an ultimatum to ISIL to better remain at a safe distance. This we had done with Iraq. It is also worth remembering that Syria is still represented at the UN by the Assad regime in spite of the atrocities it has committed.
Such a policy could have made us the principal pillar of region al stability.
It remains to be seen whether this operation is going to have any implications for the “process” launched by the Government to solve Turkey’s own Kurdish issue and the contribution Turkey is expected to make to the anti-ISIL coalition.
Since this incursion into Syria has become highly politicized nobody seems to worry about how Suleyman Shah feels about all this in his mobile tomb…