Published March 28, 2014
A man who has been dead for nearly 800 years could be the catalyst that draws Turkey into Syria’s bloody civil war.
Jihadists who poured into Syria to help the Free Syrian Army only to turn on them, have threatened to attack the sacred tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The tomb is located inside Syria, in the border city of Aleppo, but the site is considered Turkish territory under a near century-old treaty.
"There is now a threat to that shrine; there are 25 Turkish soldiers currently there and the Turkish government takes this threat seriously because it is Turkish territory," Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar for the Carnegie Europe institute, told Voice of America.
The tomb is guarded by 25 Turkish soldiers, and a Turkish flag flies above it. But with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan increasingly critical of the radical fighters who have joined the war in Syria, tensions have flared.
After the threat, from the radical group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, Erdogan said in a television interview that any attack on the tomb would be considered an attack on Turkey. But Erdogan is under fire in Turkey, after a leaked recording appeared to show him and his son engaged in corruption, and his rivals, who oppose support of the Syrian rebels, have accused the prime minister of trying to provoke a conflict with Syria in order to change the political agenda.
Jenny White, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Stockholm Institute for Turkish Studies, told FoxNews.com the Turkish government "also has an interest in a firefight to defend the tomb just before Sunday's local elections.
"It would draw attention away from corruption allegations against the ruling AKP and pull the nation together against a common enemy," she said.
"A wiretap of a conversation between high level officials was recently leaked in which they discussed the usefulness of such an attack to boost election results, causing public outrage."
White added that few people in Turkey or elsewhere were aware until recently of the existence of the tomb or that the land it sits on in Syria is considered Turkish soil.
Lehigh University Prof. Henri Barkey, a recognized expert on the region, said the Al Qaeda-linked fighters would be foolish to carry out their threat and bring down the wrath of Ankara. Absent an attack on the site, Turkey is unlikely to take action, he said.
“At this stage, any Turkish move would be seen as illegitimate [within Turkey] except after an attack on the site,” Barkey said.
Provoking Turkey could not only bring military action inside Syria, it could also prompt Ankara to clamp down more tightly on its borders, over which many of the munitions destined for the ISIS pass, Barkey said.
“They would be nuts to attack the hand that feeds them even if indirectly,” he said.
Suleyman Shah, also known as Suleyman bin Kaya Alp, died in 1236. His grandson was Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Legend says he drowned in the Euphrates River in Syria, and an Ottoman tomb for him is written into the 1921 Treaty of Ankara signed between France and Turkey.
The tomb was moved to its present, two-acre location 60 miles south of the Turkish border in 1974 when the older site was flooded to make way for a reservoir. It is considered Turkish territory.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war three years ago, Ankara has backed the Syrian rebels’ bid to oust President Bashar al-Assad. But the Islamic fighters who initially came to fight alongside the Free Syrian Army have turned on them, as well as their allies such as Turkey.