On 23 April, the Turkish military sent a large convoy of trucks, tanks, and armored personnel carriers into Syria to resupply the troops stationed at the Suleyman Shah Tomb ( 36° 38′ 19.06″ N, 38° 12′ 27.07″ E). The tomb sits on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river and is reported to have some 25 soldiers stationed on site. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described the convoy as a “routine change of duty.” The TSK has been rather opaque about the operation; describing it as “a planned activity.” Prime Minister Erdogan described it as “routine.”
It wasn’t. To start, the current situation in Syria necessitates that Ankara liaise with rebel groups before planning such an operation, rather than the central government. And, in this case, it appears that the group that Turkey worked most closely with was the PYD – the PKK offshoot that dominates certain areas along the border. However, there are also indications of communication with ISIS. (This is not to suggest in any way that Turkey cooperates with ISIS. However, the operation raises questions about how messages are passed from Ankara to the rebel group.)
The open source reports indicate that the convoy entered Syria through the Ayn al Arab (Kobane) border gate. And, this tweet below indicates that, at some point along the road, the convoy passed through a PYD controlled check point.
— Avashin (@Avashin) April 23, 2014
For reference, I used google earth the draw the most likely route for the convoy:
And, on the way out, reports indicate that the convoy passed through Jarabulus – ISIS controlled territory.
Türk askeri konvoyu biraz önce Jarablus’tan Türkiye’ye girdi IŞiD iddiası Yalanlandı
— Mehmet Kemal Firik (@mfirik) April 23, 2014
There are scattered reports that ISIS stopped the convoy at the Qara Qawzak Bridge. As far as I can tell, ISIS controls the bridge. Pro-PYD folks have tweeted that there was some sort of interaction between the Turkish convoy and ISIS at the bridge. After the interaction, the convoy is reported to have continued on to Manbij, before turning towards Jarabulus, and then re-entering Turkey through Karkamis. I find this odd.
The most straight-forward way to go about this would have been to simply turn back and return through PYD controlled territory. Why did the TSK choose to proceed over the bridge and then return through ISIS controlled territory? Here is the route:
And the full route:
The decision to make a near circle is rather odd. It lengthens the trip, which thereby exposes the soldiers to greater risks. Was this planned? I don’t know. However, it must be noted that pro-PYD folks are saying that the convoy may have been escorted by ISIS.
unconfirmed claims that ISIS took over Turkish military convoy and now they are heading towards Minbij. #TwitterKurds
— Avashin (@Avashin) April 23, 2014
I find this to be a bit far-fetched, but I think it is safe to assume that Ankara made contact with both ISIS and the PYD before entering Syria. Thus, in my mind, it was not a “routine” operation, but rather indicative of the new norm in Syria that Turkey must now have to contend with. In any case, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the operation. But I do think that there are some important take-aways:
1) There must have been contact between the Turkish military and the PYD.
2) There also must have been some contact with ISIS.
However, these key take-aways leads to more questions:
1) What happened at the bridge? Did ISIS escort the convoy when it passed through ISIS controlled territory? If not, then why did the convoy make a complete circle?
2) How does the communication work? I would assume MIT is in charge of liaising with both groups. However, we don’t know who they talk to? Is there a direct line to the PYD? If so, who is the MIT calling? Is there a direct line to ISIS? If not, how are messages passed?
3) Were any soldiers left behind? In other words, did Turkey augment its forces at the site?
4) Has there been back-channel talks with broth groups to prevent the tomb from being attacked? I would assume that there is, but I have yet to see any definitive reporting on it.
In any case, the amount of things that we don’t know continues to outweigh the things that we do know. However, it is clear that this was far from routine.