After months of siege by Islamic State extremists, Turkey early Sunday sent an armored column into Syria to evacuate troops that had been guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
The government announced that nearly 600 troops were deployed to the site on the Euphrates river late Saturday, traveling in more than 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers, and aided by airborne early warning and control aircraft (AWACS), military helicopters and drones.
The troops removed Suleyman Shah’s sarcophagus, then destroyed the mausoleum. Turkey said it would house Suleyman Shah’s remains in a new location in the Ashma region, close to the Turkish border, once a new mausoleum is built.
The operation, which was completed in the early hours of Sunday, ended what in effect was a long-running hostage crisis, which began when Islamic State forces captured the area surrounding the small enclave about a year ago. About 40 Turkish troops were stationed in six-month shifts at the mausoleum, but for the past eight moths, it was impossible to replace them safely, the government said.
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“The ongoing conflict and state of chaos in Syria posed serious risks to the safety and the security of the tomb,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “and to the Turkish Armed Forces personnel valiantly guarding it.”
But the Islamic State’s control also had geopolitical implications.
The presence of the Turkish troops at the tomb was “an insurance policy” for the Islamic State and the extremist could use the tomb “to stage provocations,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Left unsaid was that removing them may allow Turkey to take a more active role in the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State, if the Turkish government decides. Last week, Turkey and the United States signed a memo of understanding for the joint training of Syrian forces to counter the Islamic State.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters this was “an extremely successful operation, with no loss of our rights under international law.”
Under the terms of a treaty signed in 1921 that broke up the Ottoman empire, Turkey was given sovereignty over the tomb on what became Syrian territory. Davutoglu said the tomb would be returned to its former location once conditions allowed.
One Turkish soldier died in an accident during the operation. There was no report of any fighting.
A Turkish television reporter said Turkish armored vehicles had to take detours off the road, apparently because it had been mined. Turkish officials said Islamic State militants gathered near the tomb as the operation began and “shouted slogans” but otherwise did not contest it.
Turkey had informed the Syrian government in advance of the operation but did not wait for the Syrian government’s agreement. Syria denounced the incursion as an act of “flagrant aggression.”
Turkey also informed the Islamic State in advance, though it was not clear through what mechanism. Asked, officials said only that the notification had gone to Islamic State troops “in the area.”
Both the Islamic State and the local Kurdish militia, which also given advance warning, asked for 24 hours to formulate plans, but the Turks moved without delaying the operation. The U.S.-led coalition also was told in advance of the plan.
Turkish forces traveled into Syria via Kobani, the Kurdish town in northern Syria that had been under siege by the Islamic State until it was recently freed by local Kurdish forces, with enormous help from U.S.-led airstrikes and support from peshmerga fighters from northern Iraq and Syrian rebel fighters.
Guvenc, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Ankara, Gutman, from Istanbul. McClatchy special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee reported from Istanbul.