With Turkey poised to join Islamic State fight, is Syrian tomb a flashpoint?

Islamic State forces reportedly have surrounded a Turkish exclave in Syria where the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire is entombed. Turkey's Parliament is expected Thursday to authorize the deployment of troops to confront IS forces.

Umit Bektas/REUTERS
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (l.) attends a debate marking the reconvening of the parliament after a summer recess at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara October 1, 2014. Turkey will fight against Islamic State and other "terrorist" groups in the region but will stick to its aim of seeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad removed from power, Erdogan said on Wednesday.

Turkey is creeping closer toward entering the US-led fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, as the militants' forces reportedly have surrounded a flashpoint Turkish exclave inside Syria.

The Turkish Parliament is expected Thursday to authorize the deployment of Turkish troops to Syria and Iraq to confront the IS forces that have conquered territory in both countries, reports the BBC. The proposed motion would also allow foreign forces use of Turkish military bases to launch attacks into Syria or Iraq.

Turkey has long turned a blind eye to the comings and goings of IS and other groups in Syria that had been fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fiercely opposes. But as IS has carved out territory for itself using brutal tactics, Turkey has grown increasingly concerned – as have Western nations pressuring Turkey to act.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Turkish reluctance to get involved is due in large part to the immediacy of the threat IS poses to Turkey. At present, IS is preoccupied with Syria and Iraq, but should Turkey step in, it would be vulnerable to attack along its long, porous border.

IS has sympathizers in Turkey – the group’s symbols are visible in shops and on car windshields – and jihadists still roam the border towns, adding to Turkey’s perception that it is vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

“The Turkish government still fears a backlash from the Islamic State because they have human power very close to the Turkish border,” says [Erdal Guven, editor-in-chief of the Turkish news website Dikken]. “They recruited a lot of people from Turkey as well, so they have potential militants in Turkish soil,” he adds.

But one of the major obstacles to Turkish intervention has recently been removed. A group of 49 Turks held hostage by IS for more than three months was released recently.

The Associated Press writes that the parliamentary proposal sets the legal groundwork for military action against IS, though it doesn't necessarily launch it. The Turkish Parliament had previously authorized cross-border deployment only against Syrian government or Kurdish separatist forces.

The flashpoint may turn out to be a tiny Turkish exclave within Syria where the tomb of Suleiman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, lies, reports Lebanon's Daily Star. Turkey considers the 700-year-old tomb to be sovereign territory under a 1921 treaty with France, when it ruled Syria, and have several dozen troops stationed there.

But IS forces are reported to be surrounding the tomb and its defenders, and may be set to – or already have – overrun it. Al Arabiya writes that Turkish generals dismissed reports that the Turkish forces at the tomb have been captured, but did promise to protect the soldiers there, should the situation turn violent.

“You are successfully performing this duty that was assigned to you at this critical period,” [chief of staff General Necdet Ozel] said in the message [to the tomb guards] for the upcoming Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).
“Don’t forget that you are not alone. Don’t forget that 76 million of our citizens are committed to standing behind you.
“Our eyes, our ears and our hearts are always with you. Feel confident that our armed forces will be there for you the moment we hear a single word from you,” he added.

The Daily Star notes that scholars are at odds over just how important the tomb really is to Turks generally. But Hasan Unal, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Atilim University, told the Star that the Turkish government could play its importance up or down as it saw fit. “It would depend largely on how the government presents it. If it had a serious intention to take part in the war, the tomb would look to have greater significance.... But if it didn’t, it could downgrade its significance in the public eye,” he said.

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