It’s difficult to headline or even strapline the story of these events, but Turkey has extracted sarcophagi and other artefacts from a Turkish exclave that is surrounded by Islamic State-held Syrian territory, and apparently deliberately destroyed the mausoleum that housed the tombs. What, you might justifiably ask, the fuck is going on?
A couple of days ago, confusing and (understandably) confused reports started flowing back and forth amongst the people I follow via both @samarkeolog (for regional, political and social matters) and @conflictantiq (for information on illicit trade and political violence). Inevitably, the further I waded into the web, the worse it got. Realistically, genuine information is still being withheld and false information is still being spread.
But I believe that there is enough information to outline what has happened (or what is happening) to the tomb of Suleyman Shah (the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire) and the accompanying tombs of two soldiers. (The governing AKP has published photos of three containers of rescued remains.) It’s a very long post, so I’ve put an asterisk – * – at the start of key paragraphs, so readers can CTRL+F to the key points.
Turkey cooperated with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and could not have done this without it
The day before the operation, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu insisted that it was ‘definitely not true‘ that the tomb’s guards were ‘besieged’ by the Islamic State that surrounded them. Even more unbelievably, after the operation, as contrary photographs spread across the web, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu claimed that Turkey had ‘not sought permission or assistance from anyone for the mission’. And a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, İbrahim Kalın, “stressed” that the YPG were ‘terrorist[s]’ [update (24th February 2015].
When the Syrian Kurdish paramilitary People’s Protection Unit YPG announced that Turkey had asked them to assist in the evacuation of the tomb’s guards (on the day that Turkey denied that they were besieged), YPG spokesperson Polat Can’s Twitter account was promptly hacked and the announcement was deleted.
It failed, of course. There are countless observations, both by frustrated nationalist Turks and self-reliant Kurds, that “Kobane didn’t fall, but Suleyman Shah did” (“Kobane değil, Süleman Şah düştü“, “Kobani düşmedi, Süleman Şah düştü“, etc.).
Journalist Amed Dicle tweeted that, ‘within the framework of international understandings, the YPG [had] give[n] permission to Turkey to dispatch and evacuate its soldiers at the tomb [YPG, uluslararasi anlasmalar cercevesinde Turkiye’ye Suleyman Sah turbesindeki askerlerini sevk ve tahliye etme iznini veriyor]’. (It has since emerged that, days ahead of the operation, Kobani canton head Anwar Muslim went to Ankara to agree the arrangements, which included the suspension of the YPG’s operations during the Turkish army’s.)
* The YPG have reasserted that they supported and informed the operation and ‘actively participated‘ and there is a wealth of photographic evidence to prove it. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) manoeuvred with PKK and YPG/YPJ approval and assistance – through their checkpoints, on the road, through Kobane/Kobani. Since there was no prisoner exchange, as Reşo bluntly explained, ‘if it hadn’t been for YPG, Turkey would have had to watch 40 soldiers be burned to death in an ISIS video‘.
Apparently, Turkey informed (but did not ask for permission from) the Assad regime (before the launch) and
the United States ‘allies in the coalition against Islamic State’, but (allegedly) not the United States (after the launch) [update (24th February 2015]. The Assad regime has defined the invasion and annexation as ‘flagrant aggression‘ [update (24th February 2015)].
Breaking the siege, rescuing the tomb, destroying the mausoleum
The 38 soldiers had been left at the site for months longer than their three- or six-month tour of duty, despite the fact that the government protested that they were not besieged, and therefore that they could and should have been rotated out of the exclave months earlier.(1)
Operation Şah Fırat (the Shah of the Euphrates) involved 572 Turkish soldiers, 39 tanks and 57 armored personnel carriers (2), as well as Turkish photojournalists, who somehow failed to photograph the 300 Kurdish fighters anywhere along their security corridor. Throughout, there was public discussion over whether Turkey was going to enter open combat, reinforce its guard, rotate the soldiers on duty, or evacuate the guard. Making matters more difficult, the Turk Telecom-run northern Syrian internet connection went down and realistically was taken down. Still, information started to come to light.
* It was initially believed that the human remains and historic artefacts had been transferred to the Turkish-territory twin village of Eşme. Then, the Republic of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the Tomb of Süleyman Şah (which had already undergone ‘several processes of demolition, relocation, and reconstruction’) and its Memorial Outpost had been ‘temporarily moved to a new site within Syria, corresponding to the acreage of the previous one’. [Clarification (25th February 2015)]
* Turkey has annexed land in the Syrian Kurdish twin village of Ashma/Ashme, which is in the YPG/YPJ-controlled canton of Kobanê. Apparently, however, the human remains are currently in Turkey – in the nearby city of Şanlıurfa (Urfa). It should also be noted that, though much discussion refers to the tomb, there were three and all three sarcophagi were exhumed and removed. [Clarification (25th February 2015)]
[Update (25th February 2015)] The owner of the annexed land, Bozan Osman, has stated:
The land where Suleyman Shah’s mausoleum will be built belongs to me. I did not sell my land. I did not make any deal. I didn’t [even] hear [about it] beforehand. That evening, I saw Turkish soldiers go right into our village – as a matter of fact, at a distance of two hundred metres. On looking in the morning, I saw soldiers there.
That morning, I went over to mukhtar Suphi Yavuz and asked if Turkish soldiers had really gone to our land. The mukhtar said that nothing would happen to me. That land is a hundred decares [10 hectares or 100,000 square metres]. All of it’s mine. No notification was given beforehand.
We went and talked with the soldiers. “Nothing will happen, we know your assets”, they said to me. Being a family of twelve, at the time of ISIL’s attack on Kobani, we came to Turkey, to lower Eşme, and installed ourselves next to our mother’s brother. It’s a difficult situation, though. While in Syria, on the land where the mausoleum is going to be built now, we were farming. We were planting wheat, barley, etc. We’re requesting help from the Turkish state. In Syria, land is very expensive, too. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
[Süleyman Şah türbesinin yapılacağı arazi bana ait. Ben araziyi satmadım. Herhangi bir anlaşma da yapmadım. Zaten duymadım. Gece Türk askerlerinin bizim köye doğru gittiğini gördüm. Zaten 200 metre mesafede. Sabah bakınca oraya askerleri gördük.
Sabah da, ben muhtar Suphi Yavuz’un yanına gidip Türk askeri bizim toprağa mı gitti diye sordum. Muhtar da bana bir şey olmaz dedi. Arazi 100 dönüm. Tamamı benim. Önceden de haber veren olmadı.
Gidip konuştuk askerlerle. Bir şey olmaz, biz sizin kıymetinizi biliyoruz dediler bana. Biz 12 kişilik bir aile olarak IŞİD, Kobani’ye saldırdığı esnada Türkiye’ye Aşağı Eşme köyüne gelip dayımızın yanına yerleştik. Zaten zor durumdayız. Suriye’deyken, şu anda türbenin yapılacağı arazi üzerinde tarımla uğraşıyorduk. Buğday, arpa falan ekiyorduk. Türk devletinden yardım talep ediyoruz. Suriye’de toprak da çok pahalıdır. Ne olacak bilmiyoruz.]
[PKK comment update (24th February 2015)] PKK Executive Committee Member Murat Karayılan said that ‘the YPG rescued the ridge/hillside [in mid-February] by fighting and spilling blood [YPG o sırtı çatışarak, kan dökerek kurtardı.]’
With one eye on international strategy and on eye on domestic politics, Turkey has been keen to emphasise that the ‘temporary relocation… does not constitute any change on the status of the Tomb and its annex stated by the agreements’ that establish it as a legal exclave of Turkish territory. In its English-language statements, at least, it has been less keen to advertise that it destroyed the mausoleum (and guard post). Translated and paraphrased, PM Davutoğlu told Turkish media, though, that the Turkish military destroyed the site ‘to prevent it from being used by ISIL militants’.
Wait, what did you just say?
* Worst of all, someone died in the operation. Turkey says that the casualty, Sergeant Major Halit Avcı, was killed ‘by accident’, ‘in a traffic accident [trafik kazasında]’ where, ‘in the course of a sudden tank manoeuvre, he was violently struck in the head and seriously [fatally] wounded [tanktaki ani manevra sırasında başını şiddetli şekilde çarpınca ağır yaralandı]’; ‘a heavy tank lid’ hit his head ‘while he attempted to film the operation‘.
Turkey denies that there were any clashes during the antiquities rescue operation. As far as I can tell, neither the People’s Defense Units nor YPG News (nor any immediately identifiable officials elsewhere) have made any official statements that acknowledge an attack at the mausoleum. There has been official(ish) acknowledgement of clashes between YPG and ISIL, [in the area, days before the operation, near to the bridge, immediately before the operation, and] six hundred metres away from the tomb, since the operation, but not at or around the mausoleum during the operation. Surely, Turkey would have to be offering a lot to get the YPG to enter, clear and hold a swathe of that territory on its behalf. Or is the YPG willing to do anything just to prevent Turkey’s entry into the war?
[Presidential comment update (24th February 2015)] President Erdoğan has claimed that the rescue operation ‘spoiled “plots against Turkey by those who were using the tomb and the Turkish soldiers who guarded the territory to blackmail us”‘, which would imply an imminent threat from the Islamic State.
[PKK comment update (24th February 2015)] PKK Executive Committee Member Murat Karayılan has explained how the nature of events can be “understood (anlaşılıyor)” from the course of events.
Da’ish forces, who were on this road, were not in any conflict with [Turkish] soldiers, withdrawing themselves for the duration of the procedure…. From this, it is understood that the Turkish state did not only reach an agreement on a joint operation with the YPG; at the same time, it also reached an agreement with Da’ish. I mean, it was necessary to make contact and have dialogue with Da’ish in order for the soldiers and tomb[s] to be taken [without conflict]…. Da’ish too was informed and they too opened the road and did not fight in order for this operation to be done.
[Bu gidiş esnasında yol üstünde bulunan DAİŞ güçleri kendilerini geri çekerek askerlere herhangi bir müdahalede bulunmuyorlar…. Buradan Türk devletinin sadece YPG’yle ortak bir operasyon için anlaşma yapmadığını, aynı zamanda DAİŞ’le de bir anlaşma yaptığı anlaşılıyor. Yani [çatışmasız bir şekilde] buradaki askerlerin ve türbenin alınması için DAİŞ’le de gerekli temas ve diyaloglar yapılmıştır…. DAİŞ’in de bilgisi vardır ve bu operasyonun yapılması için onlar da yol açıyorlar ve müdahale etmiyorlar.]
Yet local journalist Jack Shahine reported that ‘Turkish military removed Suleiman[‘s] Tomb while the bridge of Qer-Quzack was still under #ISIS control‘; former Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer produced a situation report (SITREP) map that recorded ‘heavy fighting‘ around the exclave; Taxim News relayed unconfirmed information that ‘1 #Turkish soldier [was] dead after [an] #ISIS mortar strike hit… Suleyman Shah tomb‘; and, according to the official(ish) Turkish narrative, there were no YPG operations with which reports of clashes could be confused.
Furthermore, citizen Dumuzi shared difficult-to-trace news that ‘a soldier [had been] martyred with a mortar [Havan topu ile bir askerin şehit olduğu]’. Newspaper journalist Mücahit Türe quoted television reporter Ercan Gün: ‘There was no hot contact at [the tomb of] Süleyman Şah. However, there was an attack on the soldiers with mortar bombs. It is estimated that 1 soldier fell a martyr [was killed]… [Süleyman Şah’ta sıcak temas yok. Ancak havan topları ile Mehmetçiğe saldırı oldu. 1 askerin şehit düştüğü değerlendiriliyor…]’ Gregor Peter shared more information from Gün: ‘One Turkish soldier dead after ISIS mortar strike hits Suleyman Shah tomb.’
Gün appears to have deleted those tweets himself, though it is not clear why. And researcher Levent Kemal has questioned the report, because a military source would not have said that a mortar attack did not constitute “hot contact” (direct confrontation). Still, journalist Hasan Sivri said that “local sources (yerel kaynaklar)” had shared news of the mortar attack; and citizen Düş_Ülke said that ‘it [was] being reported on the basis of information from the YPG that ISIL organised an attack on the Turkish soldiers and one soldier died [YPG’den gelen bilgiler doğrultusunda Işid’in türk askerine havan saldırısı düzenlediği ve bir askerin öldüğü bildiriliyor]’.
* So, there appear to be independent Turkish(?), Kurdish civilian and Kurdish paramilitary sources for the claim that there was a clash at the exclave. There is not enough evidence to decide one way or the other, but it seems possible that there was an attack, that a Turkish soldier was a casualty of an attack and that the mausoleum was struck in an attack.
Since Turkey apparently conducted the operation in order to remove a trigger for engagement in the war, it would have an incentive to suppress news of events that would themselves pull the trigger (such as an Islamic State killing of a Turkish soldier who was guarding a national monument).
Since the Turkish military convoy had to pass through Islamic State territory to get to the site, there may be bigger questions to answer if Turkey managed to conduct the operation without any clashes. Then again, if the Islamic State did hold back instead of attack, that would suggest that there was no immediate threat to the tomb in the first place.
* At the same time as saying that countries that ‘do not look after their historic symbols cannot build their future’, Turkey stated that it had ‘rendered [the mausoleum] “unusable” to keep it from possible ISIS capture‘. Less euphemistically, Al Rai’s chief correspondent Elijah J. Magnier explained that the ‘entire ex-location of Suleyman Shah[‘s] tomb was destroyed by the Turkish Special forces using explosives before pulling out’.
Evidently, recently, there have been increasing clashes between YPG and IS, which have been increasingly close to the site. And Turkey has repeatedly warned that “any kind of attack” would “bring retaliation”, so it had already committed itself to doing something. Yet it feared (directly) joining the conflict and triggering terrorist attacks at home. By removing the tomb and its guard from the firing line, Turkey managed to protect them without risking (direct) engagement in the war.
Alongside nationalist sentiment and broader strategising, the guards may have been left at the site as a ‘security deposit for IS’, when Turkey exchanged up to 180 jihadists for 46 Mosul Consulate personnel last year. Theoretically, the tomb and its guards could have been evacuated back then.
However, if the guards had been evacuated, the government would have lost an instrument to distract nationalists from other problems and rally the electorate to its cause; and it would also have had a political as well as moral obligation to allow or assist the defence of Kobane, which would have offended its Islamist and Turkish nationalist constituencies as well as made it a greater target for Islamic State jihadists.
* On the night of the operation, Jack Shahine also posed a ‘Big Question’: ‘ISIS destroyed all [sorts of] Tombs, Shrines and all [sorts of] religious sites except [the] Tomb of #Turkish [pre-]Ottoman-Sultan Suleiman in Qera-Quzack area?’ In a mirror image of Turkey’s view, the Islamic State feared opening another front against a large, professional, assymetrical warfare-trained army (that could also, at least theoretically, draw NATO into battle).
Already last year, ancient historian Christopher Jones observed that the Islamic State was sometimes reduced to destroying ‘obscure‘ cultural heritage sites to drive its ethnic-religious cleansing and propaganda. If the Islamic State is on the back foot, strategically as well as militarily, Suleyman Shah’s tomb would be a prize target.
In a review of the implications of the evacuation of the tomb, policy analysts Aaron Stein and Michael Stephens observed that the Islamic State might have attacked the tomb out of ‘retribution, spite or simple petulance for the losses in the Kobane area’, though that would seem a little wrong-headed, considering Turkey’s contribution to Kobani’s weakness and its own retribution for any attack.
Stein and Stephens also suggest that Turkey may have acted partly in order to evacuate the site before the area fell to ‘FSA and YPG led groups who the Turks cannot trust to maintain previously existing no-targeting agreements‘. Even with the ability to threaten violence within Turkey, it would seem reckless for the YPG to undermine the legitimacy that it hopes and needs to get recognised internationally, and to provide a justification for Turkish intervention in its territory. Then again, the risk might have provided the YPG with the leverage to demand an end to Turkey’s obstruction of its self-defence, so it might have been part of the reason.
Historical authenticity and political strategy
Put simply, Turkey summarily annexed territory in Syria.
Since the sarcophagi had been exhumed again and relocated again, and since the reconstructed mausoleum had been deconstructed again (albeit in a less orderly manner), was there any meaningful cultural or historical justification for temporarily re-interring the human remains in another exclave?
After all, since they were buried in a Turkish exclave, they would not be being displaced into a foreign state by being buried in “mainland” Turkish territory. And they were not reburied close to their original burial place, but far from their reburial place.
If they are going to be exhumed yet again and relocated yet again near their most recent reburial place at some point in the (distant) future, and if they are going to be on Turkish land all the time anyway, they could have been more securely guarded within the “mainland”.
The insistence on the maintenance of an exclave, and the insistence on the reacquisition of the historically-irrelevant reburial place (which may be strategically useful when it is not strategically catastrophic), appear to be political land grabs (both as policy for the state and appeasement of nationalist sentiment).
* After all, Turkey is not using the exclave to preserve the cultural property, which would be far safer and no less historically appropriate immediately the other side of the border, in the other half of the twin village; it is using the cultural property to preserve the exclave.
Davutoğlu stated, ‘our saintly flag will forever continue to fly in Syrian soil [Suriye topraklarının içinde sonsuza kadar aziz bayrağımız dalgalanmaya devam edecektir]’. Even if Syria disintegrates, Turkey will not relinquish its adjacent exclave – practically or formally, it will incorporate it.
International law and untranslatable politics
* Fear of embarrassment is no excuse. As I tweeted yesterday, there was no imperative military necessity for the destruction of Süleyman Şah’s mausoleum, so – even if Turkey did it – its destruction would appear to constitute a violation of 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. If Turkey is not defined as a party to the conflict and its exclave is not defined as a zone of armed conflict, that law might not apply. But it would surely only then be a question of which particular law did apply. Either way, that is one of the most inexplicable aspects of this episode.
* It makes sense that, as Fakir Bey commented, ‘if ISIL destroyed it, there would be video. If they go to the toilet, they video it. [Eğer Işid yıktıysa kesin videosu vardır. Adamlar tuvalete gitse videoya çekiyorlar.]’ But did Turkey really destroy the mausoleum to deny the Islamic State a propaganda victory? Would its destruction of the mausoleum of one of its own national forefathers even achieve that aim? Is it going to pre-emptively destroy other monuments that the Islamic State might or might not target at some point in the future?
* In what kind of political atmosphere would a society be less aggrieved that its own government had demolished its own cultural property? Surely, if the destruction of the mausoleum would have incited the citizenry uncontrollably, and Turkey did it, Turkey pulled the trigger on itself. It’s absurd.
* Is it possible, instead, that the attack was not a publication-worthy display by the Islamic State? Is it possible that Turkey wanted, first and foremost, to destroy the military installation? Or is this proof, if proof were needed, that Turkish religious and nationalist politics are utterly untranslatable to the outside world?
1: journalist Metehan Demir believed that the tomb’s guards were being given food and water by Islamic State forces, but they may have been supported with a ‘6-month secret supply [6 ay gizli ikmal]’ by the Turkish state through local villagers.