Last night Turkey invaded Syria – for a little while anyway. The Turkish army crossed the border with hundreds of troops and armoured vehicles, rolling through Kurdish and Islamic State territory. Their target – The Tomb of Suleyman Shah. So why did the Turks launch this sudden mission in force? What is the tomb? And what does this say about the state of Syria?
The tomb that the Turks were heading to is actually on their own territory. It is one square kilometre of Turkish soil, 35 kilometers into Syria. The tomb itself houses the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, and dates back hundreds of years. When the Ottoman Empire was broken up after the First World War, Turkey faced the issue that the tomb was within Syrian territory claimed by the French. In a treaty made in 1921 they agreed that it would forever remain part of Turkey, and ever since it has been an enclave guarded by Turkish soldiers.
Until the Syrian Civil War, this tomb was just a unique quirk of modern borders. But when the war started, the tomb was suddenly an island in the middle of Islamic State. This was obviously not a situation that could continue forever, especially with Turkey allowing Kurdish fighters to attack IS in Kobane. Any assault on the tomb would be an attack on Turkey – and Turkey is desperately trying to avoid getting too involved in the civil war. If IS attacked, the Turkish army would be forced to respond, which could escalate up to a large scale Turkish invasion. This is not something they wanted to contemplate without a serious international effort to back them up.
So that’s why last night Turkey decided to solve the problem. After letting the Syrians know for the sake of politeness, their forces barrelled through enemy territory to reach the tomb. There they evacuated the remains of Suleyman Shah, loaded up the tomb’s guards, then destroyed all structures on the site. They then drove back to a hill closer to the border with Turkey, where Suleyman Shah is now guarded by Turkish tanks. Interestingly, the remains will stay in Syria, which seems to be to be more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. After that, the troops went home, mission complete.
While this adventure has been a triumph for Turkey (despite the accidental death of one soldier), it’s another sign of how badly the Syrian state has deteriorated. Foreign powers can now launch airstrikes and even armoured incursions without even asking permission. Off the top of my head, there are now at least eight foreign powers operating in and above Syria: Turkey, the US, the UK, Jordan, the Gulf States, Iraqi Kurds, Iran, and Hezbollah, in addition of course to the multinational militants of Islamic State. All of these forces have their own interests – and the welfare of the Syrian people comes way down the list. With every month that goes by, this war looks harder and harder to end.
If I have time, I might write a post focusing on all the different countries involved in the Syrian Civil War. To stay updated, bookmark yourworldexplained.net, or follow @YW_Explained on Twitter.