Turkey Vows Action to Defend Tomb in Syria From Al-Qaeda

Turkey has pledged military action to defend a tiny enclave inside Syria where a platoon of its troops guards a memorial to an Ottoman forebear who died more than 700 years ago, after reports al-Qaeda threatened an attack.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says no violation of the country’s territory will go unanswered as he seeks to win over voters and battles allegations of corruption against his government ahead of local elections on March 30.

“If a mistake is committed toward Suleyman Shah, then Turkey would do whatever is necessary,” Erdogan told Star television in an interview today. “Our territory is safeguarded under international agreements. Any attack on our territory will amount to an attack on Turkey.”

The 1 hectare (2.47 acre) site on the Euphrates River contains a shrine to Suleyman Shah, a relation of the founder of the Ottoman empire, and has been Turkish territory since a 1921 treaty signed with colonial power France and later accepted by Syria. Turkey has moved tanks to the border village of Mursitpinar, and placed missile defense units stationed nearby on alert, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

Retaliation Threat

Turkey’s government says al-Qaeda militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have surrounded the area, and the Hurriyet newspaper has reported they gave a March 24 deadline to lower Turkish flags. The paper referred to al-Qaeda fighters captured last week in Turkey after they killed three people.

A police raid on an al-Qaeda cell in Istanbul today left two policemen and two militants wounded, Hurriyet newspaper said.

“All groups in Syria including the Syrian regime should know that any wrong attitude and move against Turkish territory will bring retaliation,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday. “Everything possible will be done to ensure the security of our soldiers. Right now, the situation seems stable, no action is foreseen.”

Frictions between the former allies, whose ties frayed over the bloodshed in Syria, have been exacerbated by Turkey’s March 23 downing of a Syrian warplane it said violated its airspace. Syrian missiles locked their radars on five Turkish F-16s for more than 10 minutes yesterday, the military said today, and Hurriyet reported that Syrian warplanes dropped bombs today on rebel positions near the Turkish border.

‘Legitimate Act’

Even against this tense backdrop, the threat of military action against Islamic militants in areas outside the Syrian government’s control won’t spark a wider conflict with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, according to Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

“If Turkey takes unilateral military action to defend its territory within Syria, it would be considered a legitimate act under existing bilateral agreements,” Bagci said by phone today. Such action “would not at all” bring Turkey into a broader conflict with Syria, he said.

Turkey’s military has put its warplanes and special operations units on alert along the Syrian border to stage a counter-offensive against the militants if they target Turkish soldiers or the tomb, Milliyet newspaper reported today, citing unidentified military sources. Turkish military and government officials didn’t respond to requests for comment today.

The tomb is located on a strip of land jutting into the water near the village of Karakozak, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Turkey. In a 1973 agreement with Syria, Turkey moved the mausoleum to its current location because the old site at a castle further south was to be inundated by the waters of a new dam.

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