Why did the Turkish military storm into Syria?

The Turkish military crossed into war-torn Syria to secure a 13th century tomb. Why was this site so important to the Turks? 

Mursel Coban/AP
Turks work to build a new Ottoman tomb in Esme village in Aleppo province, Syria on Sunday. Turkey launched an overnight military operation into neighboring Syria to evacuate troops guarding an Ottoman tomb and to move the crypt to a new location, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Sunday. Davutoglu said they plan to build a new Ottoman tomb in Esme village, close to Turkey-Syria border.

Over 600 Turkish soldiers accompanied by 100 tanks and other military vehicles crossed the border into Syria in an operation to secure a sacred Ottoman tomb on Saturday night. 

The mission was to save some 40 Turkish soldiers who were tasked with protecting the tomb of Suleyman Shah, who was the grandfather of Ottoman founder Osman I, from Islamic State forces. The army removed artifacts and remains with the plan of bringing them to a more secure site closer to Turkey. The tomb had been surrounded by IS for nearly a year, according to Zaman. The enclave is considered by the Turkish government to be a part of Turkish territory and was protected by Turkish soldiers, according to the New York Times.

"We had given the Turkish armed forces a directive to protect our spiritual values and the safety of our armed forces personnel," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in televised remarks.

Dr. Davutoglu's opponents have seized the opportunity to decry the operation as a sign of weakness. 

“The government that bowed before terrorists and sold the homeland’s soil has showed that its first job will be running away from other threats that will be faced tomorrow,” the opposition-Peoples' Republican Party chair Kemal Kiligdcdaroglu tweeted. “Presenting the destruction of your own police station, the withdrawal of your soldiers and leaving you land as a ‘success’ is the proof of a sham fight."

One soldier was killed in what the government described as an "accident" during the operation, according to Al Jazeera America. Fox News reported that the Turkish forces did not engage in any combat. Turkish television broadcast soldiers raising a red-crescent-and-star emblazoned flag on the site of the new tomb. 

"Before the Turkish flag was lowered at [the tomb], the Turkish flag started to be waved at another location in Syria," Mr. Davutoglu said on television.

The tomb was located 22 miles from the Turkish border on the banks of the Euphrates River and the military moved through the embattled city of Kobane to reach the sacred site, according to Fox News. The Turkish government was widely criticized for not intervening to stop ISIS from besieging the city of Kobane, which the Kurdish defenders repelled the Islamic State's attack with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes.

The site is important to Turks because Shah was believed to have drowned near the area in the 13th century, before his followers continued northward to eventually settle in present-day Turkey, according to Al Jazeera. The territory the tomb lies on was originally given back to the Turks by the French, who occupied the Syrian territory in 1921 following the signing of a treaty to establish the exclave. According to Fox News, the original location of the the mausoleum was located further south but had to be moved in the 1970s out of concerns of flooding from a Syrian dam project.

According to Al Jazeera, some historians question the accuracy of the Shah's place in Turkish history and claim the lineage story may have been added after the fact to carve out an imperial identity for Turks. Prime Minister Davutoglu said that Turkish forces were destroying the site of the old tomb and a new one would be constructed some 200 yards from the Turkish border in the Syrian region of Ashima, according to Fox News.

The incursion into Syria was condemned by the Syrian government, which claimed Turkey would be held responsible for not waiting for a go-ahead from Damascus to launch the operation. In a statement, Syria also cited the low number of Turkish casualties at the tomb, "confirmed the depth of the ties between the Turkish government and this terrorist organization.”

Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said that the Turkish government had made the Syrians aware of the operation, and it was vacating the tomb temporarily, and that the Turkish military would "return" to the site when they saw fit, according to Fox News. 

"We got permission from no one, we conducted it with our own initiative," he said.

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