Did Turkey Cut a Deal With ISIS to Save Soldiers?

The Turks’ mission to rescue an ancient Ottoman corpse and its guardians near Aleppo was not a step toward war with ISIS, but a step away.

02.24.15 10:25 AM ET

Turkish leaders have presented their weekend mission to rescue dozens of troops guarding an ancient Ottoman tomb inside Syria as a military triumph. But critics see Saturday night’s hit-and-split operation involving 600 Turkish soldiers, tanks and warplanes as more evidence of Ankara’s readiness to coordinate with the militants of the so-called Islamic State to avoid taking a major role in the fight against the jihadists.

Facing sharp criticism from opposition politicians and accusations from Damascus of “flagrant aggression” for the nighttime incursion, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu congratulated the country’s military intelligence service and the army for the mission 23 miles inside Syria. He called the operation to relieve the garrison surrounded by ISIS “extremely successful,” even though one soldier was killed, he said, by accident.

Davutoğlu, speaking at a news conference in Ankara, said the operational force had to confront “an environment of conflict bearing every kind of risk” in order to repatriate the tomb’s honor guards, as well as the remains of Süleyman Şah, the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

“I want to stress that a nation can build a future only by laying a claim to its past,” the Turkish prime minister added.

The neo-Ottoman government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has bemoaned the unraveling of the Ottoman legacy and empire, considered the tomb both hallowed ground and sovereign Turkish territory, based on a treaty dating back to 1921, and had cautioned in the past that it would defend the mausoleum if ISIS or the Syrian regime dared attack the enclave.

“The tomb of Süleyman Şah and the land surrounding it is our territory,” Erdoğan warned with ferocious determination back in August 2012. “We cannot ignore any unfavorable act against that monument, as it would be an attack on our territory.”

Domestic critics say the weekend relocation operation may have been a well-planned and executed operation in technical terms, but it amounts to a retreat, if not indeed a defeat. Süleyman Şah’s remains have now been repatriated to Turkey with a plan to move them to a few acres Turkish forces seized just 180 meters inside Syria near the town of Kobani (which the Turks refused to defend with their troops when its people were under siege).

Further alarming is what critics argue is Erdoğan’s willingness to kowtow to ISIS to avoid a confrontation with the jihadists. Ankara has refused to join the air war and has denied the use of a NATO airbase in southern Turkey for airstrikes against the terror army.

Writing in the daily Hürriyet newspaper, influential commentator Murat Yetkin said the army operation on Saturday night should be seen as “the Turkish government’s second retreat” in the face of ISIS in the last six months.

Last fall to secure the release of 49 Turks seized in the Turkish consulate in Mosul when it fell to ISIS, Ankara cut another murky deal. U.S. and European officials say the price paid for the freedom of the Turkish hostages was the release of imprisoned ISIS militants. Turkish officials deny there was any trade, and both Erdoğan and his prime minister bristle at the accusation, but the distinctions appear to be semantic rather than substantive.

Part of the deal reportedly involved Turkey persuading another group of hardcore Islamist Syrian rebels to release ISIS militants they were holding while the Turks surreptitiously freed a handful of European jihadists in Turkish jails.

The most prominent of those is believed to be a would-be assassin sought by authorities in Copenhagen. The suspected gunman, a 26-year-old Danish jihadist called Basil Hassan, wounded Danish cartoonist Lars Hedegaard, an outspoken critic of Islam in an attack in February 2013. Hassan then fled to Turkey and was arrested in 2014 by Turkish police. But when the Danish government sought his extradition last fall it was informed he was no longer in jail, prompting complaints from Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who called the Turkish silence on the “disappearance” of Hassan “unacceptable.”

For a domestic audience, Erdoğan subsequently hinted to Turkish reporters there might have been a prisoner trade, saying enigmatically, “You might have an exchange but it takes some effort to prepare for such a thing.”

Last weekend’s ostensible rescue operation came a few days after Turkish press reports suggested that  ISIS jihadists were tightening the circle around the tomb and that the Turkish guards were at risk.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu denied the claims there was any immediate threat—as well he might. The tomb has been surrounded by militants for many months, but relations between the guards and the jihadists appeared to be calm, with ISIS actually supplying the guards with food and essentials. Turkish media reports last week suggested Ankara was in negotiations with ISIS for safe passage for the honor guard in exchange for arrested jihadist militants.

So, the operation—39 tanks and 57 armored vehicles crossed the border along with support teams from Turkey’s Special Forces—may not have been as risky as the Turkish prime minister made out on Sunday. Talks with armed groups inside Syria preceded the launch of the mission, Davutoğlu admitted, and the jihadists have little incentive to incur the wrath of Ankara. They are using Turkey as their main logistical base for the flow of foreign fighters.

One Turkish official in Ankara told The Daily Beast that the Erdoğan government’s biggest fear was being drawn into a conflict in Syria if someone later attacked the tomb. That would have required the Turkish army to strike back. “They didn’t want to leave anything to chance,” he said. “They had to dress this up as some kind of martial achievement in order not to appear weak.”

But cloaking the rescue mission as a national success isn’t placating nationalist and moderate opposition politicians, who have seized on the operation as an opportunity to strip Erdoğan of his grandiose neo-Ottoman rhetoric. 

Hakan Şükür, a retired international football player and independent member of parliament, accuses Erdoğan of being responsible for the first loss of Turkish territory in the history of the Turkish Republic. And Erdoğan foes inside the president’s ruling Islamist party are not wasting the chance to lash out either. “In a nutshell, our grandfathers would be turning over in their graves,” says former culture minister Ertuğrul Günay.