ISTANBUL—Hundreds of Turkish ground forces backed by tanks and armored vehicles entered Syria and retrieved an Ottoman tomb and 38 Turkish soldiers guarding it, fearing they were at risk from Islamic State militants.
[ad id=”1838″]The nine-hour incursion overnight between Saturday and Sunday was Turkey’s largest ground operation inside Syria since the country’s conflict began four years ago. The tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Ottoman Empire founder Osman I, was located about 20 miles south of Kobani, the Syrian city on the Turkish border recently recaptured by Kurdish fighters with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
Syrian Kurds have since been advancing outward from the city and battling to push Islamic State from hundreds of small villages surrounding Kobani. Turkish authorities feared the soldiers guarding the tomb were at risk of getting caught up in the fighting or being taken prisoner by Islamic State.
Turkish media reported that the guards had been effectively trapped by nearby Islamic State fighters for months. Turkish and Kurdish officials in Syria said the tomb had recently been caught in crossfire between Islamic State and Kurdish fighters who were advancing after forcing Islamic State out of Kobani.
The Turkish forces retrieved Suleyman Shah’s remains and three sarcophagi and brought them home temporarily to Turkey, officials said. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said all the guards were evacuated safely. The troops raised a Turkish flag at a new site inside Syrian territory a couple hundred yards from the Turkish border, where a new mausoleum will be erected.
Some 600 Turkish ground forces backed by 100 military vehicles and 39 tanks were involved in the operation, entering the country through Kobani and traveling about 20 miles deep into Syrian territory. Before departing, they used explosives to blow up the stone mausoleum and a small military outpost on the site to prevent Islamic State from using the facilities.
One Turkish soldier was killed in an accident during the operation, the government said. But there were no clashes, according to Turkish officials.
“Not a single bullet was fired,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday, without elaborating.
The spectacle of a column of Turkish heavy armor crossing the frontier was a dramatic reflection of how the border in this region has melted away during four years of conflict.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said it had notified Syria’s consulate in Istanbul of the operation, but didn’t wait for the regime’s consent.
The Syrian government responded angrily, calling the operation an act of “flagrant aggression” and saying Turkey would bear responsibility for any reprisals. Turkey remains one of the strongest advocates of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
The tomb surrounded by palm trees sat on the banks of the Euphrates River, where Suleyman Shah is believed to have drowned. The land was given to Turkey in a 1921 agreement with France while Syria was still under colonial control. It is a unique site that is symbolically important for Turkey as the only territory in Syria that marks a time when the country was under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
It was reinforced by Turkish special forces in March after alleged Islamic State threats to attack the tomb, then emerged as a potential flash point in recent days, with Turkish media reporting that an Islamic State attack on it could be imminent.
The extraordinary efforts and risks expended to safeguard the tomb reflect glorification of Turkey’s Ottoman past by the ruling party and other Turkish nationalists. The Islamist-rooted ruling party has sought to recast the Ottoman era—seen by some westernized Turks as backward—as a golden age of religious coexistence and Turkish pride.
The operation didn’t appear to signal of a shift toward great Turkish military intervention in the Syrian war. Turkey’s policy toward Syria is rooted in balancing commitment to the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition with avoiding reprisals from Islamic State, which has active cells in several Turkish cities.
Since 2012, Turkey’s government has had parliamentary authority to launch cross-border operations into Syria. That emergency legislation was passed after Syrian antiaircraft guns downed a Turkish jet in the same year. In October, parliament expanded those powers, allowing pre-emptive operations in addition to retaliatory ones and making it easier for foreign military forces to launch operations from Turkish territory.
But the expansion of powers wasn’t followed by Turkish military action and the government has irked Western allies with its hesitance to send in ground forces or launch airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria without a U.S.-backed no-fly zone in northern Syria. Turkey has also refused to allow coalition jets to bomb Islamic State from Incirlik, the U.S. air base in southern Turkey less than 300 miles from the radical Islamist group’s self-styled capital in Raqqa, Syria.
In past cross-border flare-ups, Syrian army shells have killed Turkish citizens in their border villages and small groups of Turkish special forces have entered Syria to rescue kidnapped Turkish citizens. But no ground operation has approached the scale of the latest one.
The U.S. said it was aware of Turkey’s successful operation at the tomb in Syria. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Turkey is a key ally and partner in the battle against Islamic State and Washington continues to consult with the country on the campaign, including intelligence sharing.
Turkish President Erdogan said he personally monitored the operation, which began at 9 p.m. local time and lasted all night.
A leaked report from Turkey’s intelligence agency warned that the jihadists were planning imminent attacks on Turkish targets and embassies on Turkish territory, according to Turkish media reports last week.
“The ongoing conflict and state of chaos in Syria posed serious risks to the safety and security of the tomb and of the Turkish Armed Forces personnel valiantly guarding it,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said.
“We had planned the evacuation for a very long time, but the recent clashes between the Islamic State and the Kurds confirmed the tomb wasn’t safe,” said a senior Turkish official.
Mr. Davutoglu said Ankara had informed its partners, the anti-Islamic State coalition and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebel group before the operation. Turkey and the U.S. on Thursday signed a deal to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.
The Turkish operation also appeared to have required rare cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, which led the monthslong fight to oust Islamic State from Kobani.
Turkey had been reluctant to work with the militia, which it considers an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK—a group that Ankara, the U.S. and the European Union all list as a terrorist organization.
“We didn’t ask for the permission from the Kurds. We just informed the Free Syrian Army, who in turn informed the Kurds,” one Turkish official said Sunday.
Syrian Kurdish officials in Kobani said they had actively participated in the Turkish operation, calling it a milestone collaboration after decades of hostile relations.
During the early days of the battle over Kobani between the Islamic State and the Syrian Kurds, Turkey sat on the fence while President Erdogan said his country viewed both groups as “terrorists”. But the tide turned in October, when Turkey allowed Iraqi Kurdish forces to cross into Kobani via Turkey, with much-needed heavy weaponry to aid the Syrian Kurds.
Syrian Kurdish officials said they have taken back the majority of almost 400 Kurdish villages surrounding Kobani from Islamic State.