Protecting Turkish soldiers in Syria poses challenge

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Article Summary
Since the 1921 Treaty of Ankara, Turkey has maintained a small detachment of troops at the tomb of Suleiman Shah, in northern Syria, but ensuring their protection has become difficult as ISIS-linked groups gain ground nearby.

Developments in Ukraine have pushed the Syrian civil war and the human tragedy there to the back burner. Turkish public opinion is focused on the approaching local elections. The Syria tragedy continues, however, as President Bashar al-Assad’s army is benefiting from the world's lack of concern by scoring important military victories. The capture of the strategic town of Yabrud, near the Lebanese border, is a serious threat to the opposition’s supply routes.

The opposition, already suffering from internal problems, is clashing with the Assad regime and al-Qaeda-linked organizations, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In recent days, ISIS has captured villages near the tomb of Suleiman Shah, 32 kilometers [20 miles] from the Turkish border. ISIS is now poised to pose a threat to the tomb, and Turkish soldiers are guarding it.

Turkey maintains a symbolic, small detachment [originally 15 soldiers but recently increased to 25] at the tomb as stipulated by the 1921 Ankara Treaty with France. [Suleiman Shah was the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The treaty recognized the tomb and a small area around it as a sovereign enclave of Turkey, with the Turkish flag hoisted above it.] In the past, the security of the guard detachment was the responsibility of the Syrian government, so much so that even during the worst period of tensions with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], there was never any concern about the safety of our soldiers posted there. The Syrian government had international legal obligations to protect them.

The situation today, however, is drastically different. The safety of the tomb and our soldiers guarding it are threatened by a nonstate actor. We are talking about an organization described as a terror outfit that outright rejects all religious symbols, including tombs.

Ankara is now obliged to find a way to maintain the security of its soldiers and the tomb. The first option that comes to mind is to solve the problem through negotiations. That, however, will not be easy. For Turkey to sit down with ISIS openly or secretly could create problems with our allies. In Turkish political debates, some groups opposed to the government constantly accuse it of having relations with radical groups in Syria. The government cannot be seen confirming these charges.

Second, dialogue with radical groups such as ISIS is not an assured way of solving the problem. Groups directly under ISIS or otherwise could nevertheless attack the tomb and the Turkish soldiers.

Third, Turkey can abandon the tomb for the safety of its soldiers. It is a prestige issue, however, for Turkey to protect the tomb. Such a move could also trigger serious debates in internal politics.

The final option would be direct military intervention by Turkey if our soldiers are attacked. This would require the Turkish army and air force to cross the Turkey-Syria border. In such an eventuality, the key determinant of what is to follow would be the attitude of the Assad regime. The best outcome would be a Syrian complaint with the United Nations about Turkey’s "violation of its sovereignty." If the Assad regime opts to respond with air defenses and missile fire, however, the situation would change rapidly, and Turkey could find itself in a war with the Damascus regime.

What happens now is in the hands of ISIS or those manipulating it.

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Found in: turkey, syria, soldiers, ottoman empire, islamic state of iraq and al-sham, civil war, bashar al-assad
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