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Turkish military enters Syria to evacuate soldiers, relocate tomb
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Turkish tanks return to Turkey from the tomb of Suleyman Shah, Kobani, Syria, on February 21, 2015. (EPA/Mursel Coban/Depo Photos)

Turkish tanks return to Turkey from the tomb of Suleyman Shah, Kobani, Syria, on February 21, 2015. (EPA/Mursel Coban/Depo Photos)

Ankara, Reuters—Turkish forces swept into Syria overnight to rescue about 40 soldiers who had been surrounded for months by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants while guarding the tomb of a revered Turkish figure.

The operation, which involved tanks, drones, reconnaissance planes as well as several hundred ground troops, was the first such incursion by Turkish troops into Syria since the start of the conflict there nearly four years ago.

The military said no clashes took place during the operation although one soldier had been killed in an accident.

The 38 soldiers who had been guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, were brought safely home. The tomb, which is on a site within Syria that Ankara considers sovereign territory, was relocated.

Normally, the detachment is rotated every six months but the last one was trapped there for eight months by ISIS fighters.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told a news conference that Turkey had not sought permission or assistance for the mission but had informed allies in the coalition against ISIS once it began.

“This was an extremely successful operation with no loss to our rights under international law,” he said, flanked by the chief of the military and the defense minister.

A Turkish security source said the operation was conducted via the Syrian–Kurdish border town of Kobani with the support of local Kurdish authorities. Kurdish forces, backed by US-led trikes, drove ISIS from Kobani last month.

The Turkish foreign ministry said the tomb had been temporarily moved to a new site within Syria north of the village of Esmesi close to the Turkish border.

Davutoğlu said about 100 military vehicles, including 39 tanks, were involved along with 572 military personnel including special forces commandos. Turkish fighter jets were on alert during the mission but did not need to be deployed, he said.

The Syrian government said on Sunday the incursion into northern Syria was an act of “flagrant aggression” and that it would hold Ankara responsible for its repercussions.

In a statement read out on state TV, Syria said the Turkish government had informed the Syrian consulate in Istanbul about the operation, but had not awaited Syria’s agreement.

Turkey has been reluctant to take an active role in the US-led military campaign against ISIS, partly because it wants to see the military action target Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces as much as the insurgents.

But the Turkish government said late last year that ISIS militants were advancing on the mausoleum, perched on the banks of the Euphrates river and made Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when France ruled Syria.

Davutoğlu had repeatedly said that Turkey would retaliate against any attack on the tomb, which was located 37 km (23 miles) from the Syrian border before being moved overnight.

“Countries which do not look after their historic symbols cannot build their future,” he said on Sunday.

Two operations were carried out simultaneously as part of what was dubbed operation “Shah Euphrates,” Davutoğlu said, one to Suleyman Shah and the other to secure the area around Esmesi. He said the remaining buildings at the original site were destroyed to prevent their use after the remains were removed.

Photographs published by the state news agency Anadolu showed Turkish soldiers pitching a flag pole where the tomb is being relocated. Davutoğlu said it would be returned to its previous location once conditions allowed.

ISIS and other Islamist groups, whose strict Salafi interpretation of Islam deems the veneration of tombs to be idolatrous, have destroyed several tombs and mosques in Syria.

Suleyman Shah was the grandfather of Osman I who founded the Ottoman Empire in 1299. Traveling through modern-day Syria, he fell off his horse and drowned in the Euphrates near the site of the mausoleum, according to historians.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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