What follows is a joint article with Michael Stephens, the Research Fellow for Middle East studies and Head of RUSI Qatar.
Just days after finalizing an agreement to train a new rebel force inside Turkey to attack the Islamic State, Turkish forces moved into Syria to evacuate some 40 soldiers protecting the Suleyman Shah Tomb: a small Turkish enclave on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river, 30 kilometers from the Turkish border town of Karkamis. The operation included 39 tanks, 57 armored vehicles, and an estimated 572 military personnel. The soldiers removed the body of Suleyman Shah and transported his remains to an area just opposite the Turkish town of Esmeler.
— CNN Türk ENG (@CNNTURK_ENG) February 22, 2015
The tomb lies on the M4 highway that runs West-East from the coastal city of Latakia across northern Syria to the Yaroubia border crossing with Iraq, via Aleppo. The highway serves as a main artery across the northern central part of Syria, and is a key supply route for anybody wishing to move supplies and personnel quickly back and forward across the country. In this instance between ISIS’ nominal capital Raqqa and the outskirts of Aleppo. The road was frequently in use by ISIS particularly for those units travelling between the town of Manbij and Raqqa. Indeed the rationale for the string of ISIS offensives launched against the Kurdish city of Kobane in 2014 (quite apart from their hatred of the PYD/YPG’s socialist ideology) was to protect this particular highway and afford ISIS logistical resilience and strategic depth for the main arteries running between its major population centres.
But it begs the question, if ISIS was able to pass by the Tomb on a daily basis, why did the Turks not consider the site to be under such threat that it needed to be forcibly evacuated? These points of interest should be considered:
- Something has changed: Since the rise of the Islamic State, Ankara has sought to tie the group’s defeat to that of regime change in Damascus. Ankara argues that the Islamic State is a symptom of Assad’s brutality, and should be dealt with as part of a broader military campaign to force the Syrian dictator from power. Ankara’s efforts to convince the coalition to widen its current air offensive have failed and Turkey recently reached an agreement with the United States to train a small group of rebels to fight ISIS. The introduction of these forces risks embroiling Turkey in a direct offensive against the ISIS: a policy it had hitherto avoided.
- Given the intensity of the fighting in Kobane, the security environment around the tomb was simply too hostile for the Turks to attempt a rescue. The Turkish soldiers were in effect trapped inside the tomb complex for months, with the resupply by air complicated by MANPADS concerns, and the overland route blocked by ISIS forces. ISIS just chose not to fight with them out of desire to avoid opening up another front, this time against a nation state which it knew it could not defeat.
- Similarly, ISIS feared that any engagement with Turkish forces could prompt Ankara to take further steps to impede the flow of fighters and cross border trade: both of which ISIS relies on to sustain its war in northern Syria and throughout Iraq.
- The collapse of the ISIS offensive against Kobane and the subsequent advances made by the YPG and allied FSA groups towards the towns of Tel Abyad and Jarablus have been the major catalyst in bringing about a strategic shift for both ISIS and Turkey. In the absence of any strategic depth for its main supply corridor ISIS is likely to act in a less calculated fashion. No longer on the offensive, the Turks have calculated that ISIS may have little to lose. Either out of retribution, spite or simple petulance for the losses in the Kobane area the tomb becomes a legitimate target for withdrawing ISIS forces.
- The Suleyman Shah Tomb was a soft target liable to fall into the hands of either ISIS or the YPG, offering a point of leverage to blackmail Ankara, and so the Turks moved to evacuate it. Ankara has fears that Kurdish control of the area would strengthen the YPG’s hand and by extension the PKK. ISIS strength in the area appears to be on the decline, and a possible withdrawal from Manbij would be filled most likely by a coalition of FSA and YPG led groups who the Turks cannot trust to maintain previously existing no-targeting agreements.
- Relatedly, ISIS has a presence in Turkey. Its operatives continue to work with local Turks to facilitate the movement of fighters through the country and to sell oil and antiquities plundered. The coalition’s air attacks have decreased ISIS’ oil profits, thus increasing the group’s reliance on alternative means for financing. Turkey remains the main conduit for the group’s illicit trade. Consequently, the group has a number of cells operating inside Turkey, which could be used to carry out suicide attacks, should the tacit agreement with Ankara break down. Increasingly, there are signs that this is exactly what ISIS is planning.
First, the PYD (Democratic Union Party) have emerged as a powerful actor from this episode. That the Turks had to work with them to secure safe passage to the tomb shows a de facto recognition on Ankara’s part of the YPGs growing strength in North Central Syria. This does not indicate an alliance of any sort between the two sides. Mutual mistrust after perceived Turkish inaction in Kobane is high, and growing social unrest in the Turkish Kurdish towns of Cizre and Amed (Diyarbakir) demonstrates that cooperation over the Suleyman Shah withdrawal is nothing more than a moment of mutual agreement in an otherwise deeply hostile relationship. Against this backdrop, Qandil had expressed misgivings about the AKP led negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, thus complicating the on-going efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Turkish state and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Second, the PYD have chips to play. It was politically smart for the group to guarantee safe passage to the Turkish military. The PYD have sought to convince the Turkish state for some time now that they are not a threat to Ankara. Turkey has quietly acquiesced to this approach, albeit after working for months to marginalize the group via its preferred Kurdish interlocutor, Massoud Barzani. Turkey’s actions would not have been possible without the Kurdish and coalition’s advance. All the fuss about the rise of the PYD whom Ankara repeatedly calls a terrorist organisation seems to have been conveniently forgotten for the time being. Expediency trumps ideology it would seem.
Third, the operation shows just how far IS has been pushed back, after nearly over running the YPG in Kobane in early October. The PYD and FSA allied elements have intermittently shelled the IS stronghold of Jarabulus for the past week; signalling that it is indeed now the Kurds and the coalition that is on the offensive, rather than IS. Quite whether this has an effect on ISIS’ growing presence in Eastern Aleppo remains to be seen, but as with the Iraqi city of Mosul the weaknesses in ISIS’ overstretched supply lines are beginning to become apparent.
Fourth, the rift between Turkey and ISIS has grown to the point where Turkey feels its territory is directly threatened by the group. Turkey has been taking steps to stem the flow of illicit trade and human trafficking since February/March 2014. To be clear, these efforts could be augmented further. But long gone are the days of Turkey actively facilitating the movement of weapons and fighters to all areas of Syria carte blanche.
Turkey is polarized. The opposition has already criticized the action, saying things along the lines of “Erdogan will go down in history, Kobane stood, while Suleyman Shah fell.”
Beyond this headline, the issue will have resonance for Turkey’s nationalist right, which has long prioritized the maintenance of the tomb in Syria.
Indeed, this political dynamic explains why Turkey moved the tomb to a location inside Syria (albeit just inside the officially demarcated border). The AKP is eager to protect its right wing flank from any encroachment from the MHP: a political party with which the AKP shares a small percentage of its political base. Far from fearing any encroachment from the political left (represented imperfectly by the CHP), the AKP has always feared the loss of small numbers to the MHP on its right.
Even a small loss of votes could have a large impact on the AKP’s overarching political goal: winning over 330 seats in the parliamentary election to allow for the rewriting of the constitution. The political signalling thus far indicates that the AKP is targeting the far right with its imagery and rhetoric.
— CNN Türk ENG (@CNNTURK_ENG) February 22, 2015
In short, the action may lead to criticism of the AKP, but much of that should be dismissed, in favor of a more pronounced focus on upcoming poll data indicating the popularity of the MHP. With that said, the Kurds remains the kingmaker in Turkey and their decisions may well determine the AKP’s constitutional future. This requires watching closely how the Kurdish political movement responds to this incident and indeed whether it remains a politically salient issue after the media coverage subsides.
It is important to put this operation into perspective: Ankara launched a limited incursion to evacuate a tomb that had come under threat. The coalition, the Kurds, and the FSA did much of the heavy lifting. Turkey, however, has proven yet again that its role in the Syrian conflict must not be overlooked. It has links to all the main actors operating in northern Syria and is able to generally get its way with most of them, albeit with the occasional disagreement.
The biggest change appears to be Ankara’s approach to ISIS. Since 2013, Turkey had treated ISIS as an irritant, rather than a major security threat, but the Suleyman Shah operation is the clearest sign to date that this approach is changing. However, it is far too early to determine whether this will result in Turkey changing its approach to the coalition’s military operations. All signs indicate that Turkey will not agree to increase its role in the coalition by opening up Incirlik Air Force base for armed strikes, or by allowing its planes to bomb ISIS directly.
Turkey’s role will remain limited to the train and equip, intelligence sharing, and border enforcement, rather than engaging ISIS from the air. In fact one must consider that now that the potential embarrassment of an ISIS takeover of the Tomb has been avoided, Turkey will take a more relaxed stance to events south of its border, and it is unlikely that another Turkish military incursion will be repeated. It is more likely that Turkey will continue with the policy it has pursued thus far: border defense at airports, increased military deployments along certain areas of the border, and the training of the new rebel brigade with US assistance. This signals one key change: Turkey is now attacking ISIS through the use of proxies, which Ankara had previously rejected, in favor of focusing on Assad.