Turkish soldiers launched an overnight raid into Syria and evacuated dozens of besieged troops guarding an Ottoman-era tomb. They moved the crypt to Turkey on Sunday after ceremonially planting Turkey's crescent-and-star flag on Syrian soil.
In a one-line report on the incident, Syria’s state news agency denounced what it called “blatant aggression” by Turkey.
The mission rescued Turkish soldiers reportedly stuck for months at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Hundreds of troops backed by tanks crossed the border near Kobane, the ethnic-Kurdish Syrian town besieged until recently by the Islamic State.
Turkey was widely criticized for not intervening in the Kobane battle, which finally saw Kurdish fighters backed by US-led airstrikes push out IS.
“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.
Nearly 600 Turkish soldiers on some 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers crossed into Syria on Saturday night, as drones and airplanes flew reconnaissance missions overhead, Davutoglu said.
One group traveled some 22 miles from Turkey to the tomb in Syria’s embattled Aleppo province, Davutoglu said. Another group seized an area only 200 yards from the Turkish border in Syria’s Ashma region, according to a statement from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office.
One soldier was killed in an “accident” during the operation, Turkey’s military said.
Turkish media later showed images of three Turkish soldiers raising the country’s flag at the new site. “Before the Turkish flag was lowered at (the tomb), the Turkish flag started to be waved at another location in Syria,” Davutoglu said. He said troops destroyed the complex once housing the tomb.
The US-led coalition forces were informed of the Turkish operation after its launch, Davutoglu said. US officials offered no immediate comment.
There had been rumors for months that the soldiers stationed at the tomb had been besieged by militants from the Islamic State, which holds substantial territory in Syria and Iraq. Some 40 Turkish soldiers once guarded the tomb, making them a target for IS and other militants in Syria’s long-running civil war, though the overnight operation apparently saw no fighting.
The tomb contained the remains of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. The site along the Euphrates River is revered by Turkey, which has maintained it has the right to control the site based on a 1921 treaty with France, then the colonial power in Syria. The Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I.
In the 1970s, Turkey moved the mausoleum to its last location because the old site at a castle further south in Syria was to be inundated by the waters of a new dam.
Shah is believed to have drowned in the Euphrates in the 13th century. His followers headed north into what is today Turkey, where they eventually founded the Ottoman Empire. Some historians question official claims about the Shah’s tomb, saying they might have been retrospectively concocted to enrich an imperial identity for Turks.
Turkey has wanted Syrian President Bashar Assad overthrown and has backed some rebels fighting against him. Earlier this week, Turkey signed an agreement with the U.S. to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group.
With its 750-mile border with Syria, Turkey could be a major player in the fight against the Islamic State group. But negotiations with the US over what to do about the Islamic militants have been fraught with disagreement — with Turkey insisting that the coalition needs to also target the Assad government.
Turkey also has had concerns over some of the Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State group in Kobane. It views the Kurds fighting in Syria as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.