Operation Shah Euphrates: PR stunt or a necessary measure?

Operation Shah Euphrates: PR stunt or a necessary measure?
Feature: Could centuries-old tomb be Turkey's weakest spot in Syria or the AKP's Achilles heel?
5 min read
01 March, 2015
Critics say the military operation was a treated as a photo-opportunity [Anadolu]

A small enclave in Syria, Turkey's last land left from the Ottomans' imperial legacy, is now in ruins.

On a late-night operation that took place as harsh new domestic security measures were being discussed in Turkey's parliament last Saturday, the Turkish military carried out an operation to move the remnants of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, founder of Ottomans, and destroy what was left of the tomb.

Though the Syrian government called the operation an act of "flagrant aggression", Turkey claims sovereignty on this tiny territory, according to the Ankara treaty of 1921 between Mustafa Kemal's government and France, which then governed Syria.

The swiftness of the operation was countered with rapid reactions both in Turkey and internationally, as a cloud of confusion and conspiracy theories flooded the media. For some, abandoning and razing the last symbolic bastion of the Ottoman Empire was a clear surrender to the warring factions in Syria.


Gursel Tekin, an MP from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), was quick to criticise the AKP government's action.

"For the first time in our 90-year history as a republic, we have surrendered our own soil without a fight," Tekin said in the aftermath of the operation.

For the government, however, it was a necessity given the dire circumstances in Syria. Troops who should have been rotated five months ago could neither be reassigned, nor provided with fresh supplies.

Trapped somewhere between the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party - Turkey has long had a problem in keeping a presence in the enclave.

     For the first time in our 90-year history as a republic, we have surrendered our own soil without a fight
- Gursal Tekin, opposition MP

At Sunday's press briefing, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu emphasised the pressing nature of the issue.

"In the light of recent rise in clashes in the region and due to the military necessities considered by the Turkish Armed Forces, the government ordered necessary measures to be taken," the PM said.

While there is a consensus on the necessity of protecting Turkish soldiers, the operation was in fact a late measure against IS demands to evacuate the tomb. In March 2014, when IS group fighters advanced in the vast flatlands of northern Syria, they threatened Turkey, saying they would attack the tomb unless Turkish troops withdrew. Such an attack never took place.

Consulate attack

Turkey's hands were tied after IS raided its Mosul consulate in June 2014, taking 49 diplomatic personnel hostage. They were released only in September, allegedly in return for dozens of IS fighters who had been languishing in Turkish prisons.

The details of the deal have never been never publicly disclosed.

On the same night as the operation, Turkish soldiers carried out another task - to build the new tomb site, some 200 metres away from the Turkish border, near the Syrian village of Eshme. The new location is controlled by the Syrian Kurdish authority.

According to Soli Ozel, international relations professor at Kadir Has University, considering all the fuss about the land loss in the aftermath of the operation, the government's choice to keep the tomb beyond the Turkish border is an attempt to subdue the public reaction.

"They would not be able to construct the new tomb site within Turkey's borders," Ozel told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Furthermore, there is more to it than the domestic impact of the relocation, say analysts.

Can Acun, a foreign policy researcher at Ankara based think-tank SETA, says Turkey's decision to keep the new tomb site in Syria is a message to Syria's Democratic Union Party (PYD).

"Turkey does not recognise PYD's unilaterally declared cantons and defines the new tomb site its own land," Acun told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Ozel, meanwhile, points to an ironic symbolism, much more important than the debates of land loss or sending messages to warring factions in Syria.

"[With this operation,] Turkey, in fact, retreated from Arabian Syria; this also signifies that Turkey has withdrawn from the Arabian Middle East and accepted the decay of its influence," he argued.

Nationalism as populism

It appears that the government could not afford to deal with another hostage crisis in the wake of upcoming general elections in June. The Mosul consulate attack has taken its toll, and the unpredictable behaviour of the IS militants worry Turks about scenes similar to those aired showing the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive.

     Whenever the government performs poorly, the PR works are taking over
- Soli Ozil, analyst

Considering the polarised political atmosphere of Turkey, it is not surprising that critical observers raised an eyebrow when government-leaning media was flooded with stories of heroism and photographs of national pride.

While the Anadolu Agency's photo gallery presented the construction efforts of the new tomb at Eshme, the imagery was a direct reference to the world famous flag rising of US troops in Iwo Jima during the World War II.

"Whenever the government performs poorly, the PR works are taking over. The Iwo Jima image is just a 'nice' reminder of that policy," Soli Ozel noted.

For Acun, the pressing nature of the issue should not be mixed with the dynamics of domestic politics. "It is natural that the government is rightfully taking the credit for carrying out such a complex and risky operation with great success," he said.

"But we should not forget that in recent weeks the fighting between the PYD, IS and Free Syrian Army was getting closer to the tomb. The urgency of the situation forced Turkey to conduct this operation."

Just one day before the operation, Turkey and the US agreed on a deal for training and arming the rebels against the IS group.

Perhaps the Turkish government just wanted to secure its military personnel first, and while doing so, take the credit for a long-planned - but now urgent - operation.