Ankara: Almost 600 Turkish troops pushed deep into Syria in an unprecedented incursion, evacuating Turkish soldiers guarding a historic tomb who had been stranded in territory controlled by Islamic State jihadists.
The Damascus government, which no longer controls the area but is at loggerheads with Ankara over the Syria conflict, lashed out at what it described as a “flagrant aggression” and said it would hold Ankara responsible for its repercussions.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference on Sunday that the soldiers had returned home safely with the remains of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the Ottoman empire’s founder, Osman I.
Suleyman Shah’s tomb is 32 kilometres south of the Turkish border, but it has been considered Turkish territory since a 1921 treaty with France, which ruled Syria under a League of Nations mandate at that time. Fighters from IS have kept the Turkish soldiers there trapped for months, although they did not attack the tomb.
A Turkish government official confirmed to Agence France-Presse that the mission was the first incursion Turkish troops had launched inside Syria since the civil war began in 2011. Mr Davutoglu said 572 troops, 39 tanks, 57 armoured vehicles and 100 other vehicles were involved.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the operation was prompted by the chaos and instability in Syria. The Turkish news channel NTV reported that the government had received warnings in recent days that clashes were likely to erupt nearby between IS militants and Kurdish troops known as peshmerga, and that the tomb could become a target.
A bulldozer belonging to the Turkish army at the site 200 metres from the Turkish-Syrian border to which Suleyman Shah’s remains were relocated. Photo: Reuters
Mr Davutoglu said that, in accordance with the 1921 treaty, a new tomb for Suleyman Shah was being established in a part of Syria that is under Kurdish control. Turkish television showed images on Sunday of the Turkish flag being raised there.
The tomb of Suleyman Shah, who died in 1236, has been relocated several times before, most recently in the 1970s to avoid being submerged by the reservoir of a new dam.
Mr Davutoglu said that when conditions in Syria permitted, the tomb would be moved back again to the site that was evacuated, near the village of Karakozak.
New position of the Suleyman Shah mausoleum is pictured from Turkish side of the border as Turkish army vehicles move inside Syria. Photo: AFP
Tensions have mounted around the tomb since March, when IS took control of the surrounding area and began threatening to destroy the tomb unless guards there lowered the Turkish flag.
Turkish tanks had earlier driven through the ruined streets of the Syrian town of Kobane – controlled by Kurdish fighters after a months long battle with jihadists – on their way to the tomb.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan congratulated the armed forces on the operation. “Our flag will continue to fly in a new place to keep alive the memory of our ancestors,” he said.
The Suleyman Shah tomb near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, from which the remains were removed by the Turkish military. Photo: Reuters
Mr Davutoglu said there were no clashes during the mission and only one casualty, a soldier who was killed in an accident.
Denouncing the incursion, the Syrian foreign ministry said it had been informed by Ankara but Turkey had not waited for their consent.
Mr Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were formerly close allies but fell out when Damascus began suppressing a nationwide uprising in 2011. Ankara now believes ousting the Syrian president is a key condition for ending Syria’s civil war.
Turkey has lobbied intensively for international military action in Syria, including no-fly zones and a presence on the ground to strengthen the more moderate Syrian rebel groups who are fighting both jihadists and the Syrian government. Turkey is also concerned about containing the flow of refugees from Syria, more than 3 million of whom have already been sheltered in Turkey.
Reuters, New York Times