ANKARA, Turkey – After months of siege by ISIL, Turkey early Sunday sent an armored column into Syria to rescue troops who had been guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
The government announced that nearly 600 soldiers were deployed to the site on the Euphrates River, traveling in more than 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers, and aided by airborne early warning and control aircraft, military helicopters and drones.
The troops removed Suleyman Shah’s sarcophagus, and then destroyed the mausoleum. Turkey said it would house Suleyman Shah’s remains in the Ashma region, near the Turkish border, after a new mausoleum is built.
The operation ended what in effect was a long-running hostage crisis, which began when forces from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant captured the area surrounding the enclave about a year ago. About 48 Turkish soldiers were stationed in six-month shifts at the mausoleum, but for the past eight months, it was impossible to replace them safely, the government said.
“The ongoing conflict and state of chaos in Syria posed serious risks to the safety and the security of the tomb, and to the Turkish Armed Forces personnel valiantly guarding it,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
More active role for Turkey?
ISIL’s control also had geopolitical implications.
The presence of the Turkish troops at the tomb was “an insurance policy” for ISIL, and the extremists could use the tomb “to stage provocations,” an official said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Left unsaid was that removing the troops may allow Turkey to take a more active role in the U.S.-led battle against ISIL, if the Turkish government so decides. Last week, Turkey and the United States signed a memo of understanding for the joint training of Syrian forces to counter ISIL.
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. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the tomb would be returned to its former location once conditions allowed.
The prime minister said there were no clashes during the mission and only one casualty, a soldier who was killed in an accident.
Davutoglu said 572 troops, 39 tanks, 57 armored vehicles and 100 other vehicles were involved, and that the column reached the tomb shortly after midnight.
“A religious ceremony was held for the transfer of the tomb remains while other items of cultural significance were removed with similar care,” he said. “Our troops were safely removed from the area.”
Turkish officials said ISIL militants gathered near the tomb as the operation began and “shouted slogans” but otherwise did not contest it.
Turkey informed the Syrian government in advance of the operation but proceeded without permission. Syria denounced the incursion as an act of “flagrant aggression.”
Turkey also informed ISIL in advance, though it was not clear how.
Both ISIL and the local Kurdish militia — which also was given advance warning — asked for 24 hours to formulate plans, but the Turks moved without delay. 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 until it was recently freed by local Kurdish forces rebel fighters.
The New York Times contributed to this report