A tiny Turkish enclave within Syria has the potential to become a new flashpoint in the current crisis between Syria and Turkey, as it could provide a PR coup that would bolster Bashar al-Assad’s claims of the civil war being buttressed by foreign powers.
The territory was officially put under Turkish rule under the agreement that tore apart the Ottoman Empire and split its vast lands between Great Britain and France.
Currently located in the village Kara Kozak, the territory, containing a mausoleum Suleyman, is a mere 50 kilometers from the embattled city of Aleppo and about 25 kilometers from the Turkish border. It is Turkish ground permanently guarded by a garrison of 15 armed soldiers from the Turkish military, now in the heart of the ongoing battle between Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition.
For more on Turkey-Syria relations, see:
- Turkey Fires on Syria after Shells Kill 5
- Turkey Calls Syria a “Terrorist State”
- Turkey Troops Amass on Syria Border
This small piece of land has the opportunity to become the newest flashpoint in the crisis between Turkey and Syria.
Syrian officials have not made any statements regarding the critical site, but the Turkish press and peoples, extraordinarily sensitive to insults against the military, have covered the topic extensively.
Historical tensions are increasingly coming into play. Insults to the military system are not taken lightly as they are a reminder that the treaty ceding the tomb to Turkish ownership was a deeply humiliating moment in the country’s history. It formalized the defeat of its military during World War I and officially dismantled the Ottoman Empire, giving away the province of Syria.
On the other hand, it was an optimistic moment for Arabs. Although it began French rule in the area, it marked the end of centuries of Ottoman rule, or as they saw it, occupation.
The incident of the Turkish jet being shot down by the Syrian army earlier this summer is a key example of territorial disputes between the two countries. Eager to avoid a similar development with the tomb, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan reinforced the garrison guarding the monument, doubling the number of armed soldiers present to 30. He then issued a warning to Syria in August. He said, “The tomb of Suleyman Shah and the land that surrounds it are Turkish territory. Any act of aggression against it would be an attack on our territory and NATO territory.”
The provisions of the NATO charter include an article dictating that an armed attack on one member should be considered an attack against all members. Turkey’s membership to NATO implies that an attack on Turkish soil could result in NATO member-countries holding counter-attacks on Syria.
Syria realizes that directly attacking the tomb is not an option – not only does it risk NATO repercussions, but Turkey will see this as a provocation of the highest degree and will react accordingly.
However, Assad can use a crisis over Turkey’s presence inside his country as a means of drawing the collective Arab memory back to the long-held image of Turkey as an occupying power of their lands, and by implication demonstrate that Turkey’s support of the rebel forces is an outright intervention of foreign power, thereby legitimizing Assad’s claims of such.
This would be similar to the way that Saddam Hussein tried to legitimize himself, after invading his Arab neighbor Kuwait, as a modern-day Saladin opposing Western Crusaders. This PR move wound up being effective in the Arab world and still resonates today.
A similar statement by Assad would help the regime bolster its claims that the fighting within Syria is the result of foreign intervention and not a genuine popular revolt.
Assad must treat warily, however, an overt attack, even if it did not lead to direct military action by NATO, could provoke Turkey into a retaliatory response. Turkey’s military is strong enough to take on Assad’s forces, and if national pride is at stake, popular pressure could spur the government into action.
At this point, Assad’s best option is to pressure Turkey to ease its way out of the crisis. Options for this could be blockading, creating a sort of siege with the soldiers present. Alternatively, he could organize civilian uprisings similar to those at the American embassy in Cairo to protest the ongoing Turkish presence.
The tomb of Suleyman is a potential crisis point that is sure to come up in coming weeks as a new contention between the two nations