The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How an ancient tomb is a fault line in Syria’s brutal civil war

An image from the 1920s of the tomb of Suleyman Shah. (Wikimedia Commons)

At some point in 1236, the Turkic warlord Suleyman Shah perished by the banks of the Euphrates river. Some say he drowned in its waters. At the time, he was one of an array of notables warring over parts of Anatolia and what's now Syria. And his legacy has less to do with his own achievements than that of his progeny: His grandson, Osman, gave his name to the Ottoman dynasty, a line that ruled one of the greatest empires the Middle East and Europe would ever see.

A shrine associated with Suleyman Shah has sat by the Euphrates for centuries since, within what's now modern-day Syria, but less than 20 miles from the border with Turkey. Moreover, it remains technically Turkish territory: So potent was the symbolism of this Ottoman ancestor's tomb that the new Turkish republic concluded an agreement in 1921 with France, then Syria's colonial ruler, guaranteeing Ankara's ownership over the site. Since at least the 1970s, when the tomb was relocated following the damming of the Euphrates, a Turkish guard has been posted there to protect it.

The arrangement over the tomb, in most circumstances, would be a curious footnote of history. But it now may be at the heart of a battle in one of the more intense fronts of the brutal, three-year-long Syrian civil war. The site is not far from the border city of Kobane, where the extremist fighters of the Islamic State have been advancing on Syrian Kurdish militias. The battles of the past few weeks prompted the single most dramatic refugee exodus of the whole war: a conspicuous moment, given that the conflict has displaced roughly a quarter of all Syrians.

As Syrian Kurdish militias struggle to resist the Islamic State, it's believed that the tomb has been encircled by Islamic State forces and that the Turkish soldiers guarding it have been taken hostage. Details are a bit murky. But the position of the Turkish exclave could not be more geopolitically fraught.

Turkey has been conspicuous in its absence during the ongoing U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State, which involves a coalition of European and Arab partners. That was initially tied to the presence of some 49 Turkish hostages, captured this year by the Islamic State in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Those captives were recently released, so speculation has now moved to the site of the tomb.

In the earlier stages of the Syrian war, the Turkish government of then-Prime Minister — now President — Recep Tayyip Erdogan was vociferous in its calls for international intervention and the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2012, Erdogan indicated that any regime military action that impacted the tomb would constitute "an attack on our territory, as well as an attack on NATO land."

But with Syria's continued disintegration and the rise of the Islamic State, the situation has grown far more complicated. As WorldViews discussed earlier, a whole hodgepodge of Kurdish militias have been on the frontlines of the battle against the Islamic State, which is taking place over a vast stretch near Turkey's border with both Iraq and Syria. Ankara is not well disposed to many of these outfits, particularly the PKK, which has waged a separatist Kurdish insurgency in Turkey for decades and which both the U.S. and Turkey deem a terrorist group despite its invaluable contributions this year in challenging the jihadists of the Islamic State. The People's Protection Units, the main Syrian Kurdish militia fighting the Islamic State at Kobane, have a strong connection to the PKK.

Turkey's antipathy for these Kurdish factions is so pronounced that many Kurds even accuse Erdogan's government of tacitly backing the Islamic State in its advances in the region. Some ask how the tomb of Suleyman Shah is still even standing, given the Islamic State's proclivity to demolish shrines and mausoleums to saints considered heretical in its fundamentalist form of Islam. Members of the Turkish opposition point to evidence that Ankara even accommodated wounded Islamic State fighters in Turkish hospitals across the border.

This week, a senior PKK commander told the news site Al-Monitor that the Turkish soldiers garrisoned by the tomb had advance knowledge of the coming Islamic State offensive against Kobane. Cemil Bayik, the PKK's top military commander in the field, claimed that Turkey wanted to weaken the Syrian Kurds' hold over Syria's northeast. "By emptying Kobane and provoking a mass exodus of people, Turkey can then claim before the international community that its own security is at stake and set about establishing a buffer zone," said Bayik, which would ostensibly secure Turkish interests over those of the Kurds.

Turkish officials, including Erdogan, totally reject the allegations of their complicity with the Islamic State and also remain clear that they will not consider any sort of detente with the PKK. A tenuous ceasefire already looks on the point of collapse.

While for Washington, the Islamic State is the greatest strategic threat to emerge out of the Syrian war, the same is not true for Turkey. In New York this week, Erdogan reiterated calls for the imposition of a no-fly zone that would impair the Assad regime's ability to use its air power, and also create a "secure area" on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey to properly manage the flow of refugees.

The fate of a whole region — and Suleyman Shah's riverside resting place — hangs in the balance.