Over the weekend, a column of Turkish troops and armored vehicles motored about 20 miles across the border into Syria. In the dead of night, they approached an old mausoleum, held a brief prayer ceremony and removed the site's historical artifacts and relics. Then, they lowered the Turkish flag that flew over the site and demolished the complex.
Amid the horrors of the Syrian civil war, the story of the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a 12th-century warlord who was the grandfather of the first Ottoman emperor, has been a strange, whispered sideshow. The Syrian government deemed the weekend incursion an act of "flagrant aggression," but it has lost control over much of Syria's north to rebel forces and Kurdish militias.
For Turkey, which has administered the tomb for decades, the move was long overdue. WorldViews discussed the tomb's significance in September:
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.
Last year, there were rumors that the Islamic State militant group had encircled the tomb and taken its Turkish defenders hostage. The sensitivity of the situation was invoked as one of the explanations at the time for Turkey's limited role in countering the advance of the Islamic State on its borders. The other reason was Ankara's clear unwillingness to fully support Syrian Kurdish factions, which have ties to a Kurdish separatist organization that Turkey considers a "terrorist" group.
But after the Islamic State's fighters retreated from Kobane in recent weeks, it appears that Syrian Kurdish militias safeguarded routes for Turkey so that its troops could approach the tomb, relieve the 38 Turkish guards posted there and evacuate the site. The contents of the mausoleum have now been relocated much closer to the border, in territory that is controlled by the Syrian Kurdish faction known as People's Protection Units, or YPG.
The cooperation on show marks an important moment. Turkey has spent the better part of three decades locked in a struggle with Kurdish insurgents operating in the borderlands of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Coordination with the YPG would mean a real departure from the past. Last year, Turkey balked at opening a corridor to help Kurdish fighters reinforce Kobane; it was furious when the United States chose to airdrop arms to embattled YPG forces.
The move also suggests that Ankara may regard the de facto status quo in Syria's northeast — where Syrian Kurds hold sway — with a bit more pragmatism. The YPG, and its parent political organization, the Democratic Union Party, seek autonomy for Rojava, their name for the Syrian Kurdish heartland.
"This could well be a turning point that could show the role that the Kurdish Rojava canton can play in the security of the Turkish border," a prominent Kurdish politician in Turkey told al-Monitor.
Still, it's unlikely that much will change. Turkey is playing a delicate game, balancing its efforts dealing with the Islamic State against a resurgent Kurdish nationalism in the region. There are hopes, though, that the small steps seen now, as the Economist notes, "will help Turkey with the long-delayed process of making peace with its own Kurds."
At the very least, the bones of Suleyman Shah may rest easier.