Hundreds of Turkish troops in armored vehicles crossed into northern Syria Feb. 22—apparently to evacuate forces guarding an historic tomb, demolishing it, and moving the remains to a different site. The remains of Suleyman Shah were moved to a location in Syria closer to the border, and a Turkish flag raised at the new burial site near Esmesi (Aleppo governorate). Turkey considers the site sovereign territory, so it is unclear if it has now abandoned claims to the previous site and transfered them to the new one. The Damascus regime (which has long since lost control over the north) condemned the incursion as "flagrant aggression," saying Turkey had informed its Istanbul consulate of the operation but not waited for Syria's consent. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his armed forces had carried out a "successful operation which is beyond all kinds of appreciation." Ominously, the column of Turkish armor swept through the border city of Kobani on its way to the site—an unsubtle message to the autonomist Kurdish fighters there. (BBC News)
Suleyman Shah, who lived from about 1178 to 1236, was grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman empire, Osman I. ISIS has threatened to destroy the tomb, which would appear Turkey's ostensible motive in relocating it closer to the border. This speaks to the difference in the brands of political Islam represented by ISIS and Erdogan, despite the evident collaboration between them. The resting place of Suleyman Shah is critical to Erdogan's Ottoman fetish, while ISIS is so zealous in its ultra-puritanism that it even seeks to destroy the Kaaba in Mecca and the birthplace of Saladin in Tikrit as manfiestations of "idolatry."
But we think safeguarding the tomb was only part of Erdogan's agenda. The other was to intimidate the Kurds and make a show of force in their autonomous zone. Recall the giant Turkish flag that Erdogan had raised on the border overlooking the town after the Kurds drove the last ISIS fighters out of Kobani last month. EKurd Daily reports that the Kurdish YPG militia issued a statement saying it approved the Turkish operation in its territory, and even participated in it—which is a sign of hope. But maybe the YPG felt it was better to acquiesce than force a confrontation.
The Kurds are continuing to press their offensive against ISIS, dirving them back into their heartland in Raqqa governorate, with the aid of US air-strikes. We must ask again: After they've outlived their usefulness to the empire, will they be betrayed, as Turkey is given a free hand to overrun their autonomous zone?
The world must be watching. Very, very closely.