The tomb of Süleyman Şah (Suleiman Shah, 1178-1227), the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman I, is located in a Turkish enclave within Syrian territory. It is the only territory that Turkey holds beyond its borders. Under the Ankara Agreement signed by the Turks and the French in 1921, Turkey has maintained its sovereignty over this anomalous site. Despite the historical importance of the tomb, its location makes it impossible for many visitors from Turkey to reach it. However, the national consciousness always considered the site an integral part of the Turkish homeland.
When ISIS forces took control of the Kobani region and established themselves in the environs of the Syrian Euphrates River, where the tomb is located, the rumors that fighters from ISIS had encircled the site and would likely launch an attack against the Turkish garrison of 36 soldiers stationed there made headlines in Turkey. The pressure on the government in Ankara grew after ISIS published the grim images of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh being burned to death in a cage. Moreover, the policy of ISIS, in both Iraq and Syria, of destroying tombs – on the grounds that pilgrimages to shrines has no place in Islam (a familiar Wahhabi concept) – began to arouse concern in Ankara. Might the Turkish soldiers posted to guard the grave meet a similar fate?
Following the ISIS raid on the Turkish consulate in Mosul on June 11, 2014 in which 49 Turkish diplomats and their families were captured, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan (now president) and then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (now prime minister) were criticized for failing to evacuate the compound before raid. The release of the diplomats in September 2014 significantly reduced this pressure, but it seems that the incident changed the perception of Turkish policy towards ISIS.
Western pressure on Turkey to act against ISIS grew after the assassination of Kasasbeh in February. Turkey, which has an interest in supporting the Syrian rebels operating against the Assad regime, signed an agreement with the United States on February 20, 2015. Under the terms of this agreement, the two countries would train and supply all forces who are fighting Assad and ISIS (who are also fighting each other). This firm stance had immediate results on the ground. Only two days after signing the agreement, possibly due to a concrete fear that ISIS would attack the tomb, Ankara decided to relocate the ancient grave to a site adjacent to the Syrian Village Eshme, which is closer to the Turkish border and controlled by Kurdish fighters from the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
In order to be certain that the Turkish public would not perceive the move as a defeat or retreat – especially before the general elections on June 7, 2015 – Davutoğlu and the government worked hard to depict the move using heroic images of a daring operation intended to protect the lives of the soldiers and the tomb itself. Both the mainstream media and social networks (SNS) disseminated pictures of the site of the new tomb, showing soldiers raising a Turkish flag in a manner reminiscent of the famous picture of the American soldiers raising the flag after the conquest of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II. As part of these efforts, they also published a picture of Davutoğlu following the operation closely from a monitor-filled war room, projecting an image that clearly invokes those of President Obama monitoring the Navy SEALs during the operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden. These images went viral among SNS users who support the government, and were captioned “The glorious army, the glorious commander” (According to the Turkish constitution, President Erdoğan is the commander-in-chief of the Turkish army).
This propaganda is consistent with the importance of the tomb in the Turkish national consciousness, as embodied by the famous Turkish saying, “The Law of Süleyman Şah is the Law of Istanbul.” However, the operation was greeted by stormy reactions on SNS. Opponents of the AKP accused Erdoğan and Davutoğlu of being unable to defend the homeland (the original tomb in Syria) from a terrorist organization. Some went even further, and speculated that the move could serve as a precedent for further withdrawals in face of Kurdish fighters. The more nationalists users among the government’s opponents were outraged by the transfer of the grave to an area under the rule of Kurdish PYD forces. They argued that the tomb and the soldiers guarding it were relocated to a locale under the auspices of Kurdish fighters whom the government in Ankara considers terrorists. Kemalist users, who are also oppose the current government, accused the Davutoğlu administration of “selling the homeland to a terrorist organization without a shot.” Another reflection of these opinions can be found in the critical caricatures mocking the government that have been shared on SNS. The most prominent cartoon depicts the government as a trucking company, “AKP Moving” (using the initials the ruling party’s name, AKP), with the slogan, “Moving all types of shrines” (pictured below).
The critical discourse on SNS following the ISIS raid on the Turkish consulate in Mosul and the relocation the tomb of Süleyman Şah indicate a change in the perception of Turkish nationalism, which shows that a large percentage of the people no longer think that “The law of Süleyman Şah is the law of Istanbul.” In other words, the Turkish people are unwilling to sacrifice the lives of soldiers for a purpose that was once considered sacred, including symbolic territory that is important in the Turkish collective memory – the tomb of Süleyman Şah. While the government refused to recognize this trend before the election, it seems that discourse on SNS reflects a process in which Turkish society is changing from a collective stance to a more individualistic one. The government in Ankara does not want to acknowledge this openly, but has internalized the new reality. Therefore, its policy is to stress nationalism while recognizing the need to evacuate Turkish territory if the situation requires. Thus, its perspective could be defined as “pragmatic nationalism,” which serves the interests of the government in any time of trouble, regardless of its nature. This is also reflected in the peace process with the Kurds. In those negotiations, AKP does not object to the Kurdish demand to change the definition of Turkish citizenship from an ethnic one to a definition that includes all citizens, including the Kurds, whose ethnic origin is not Turkish. If the Turkish constitution would allow this change, it would represent an official reversal of the traditional policy of Turkish governments that have sought to assimilate and integrate the Kurds into the Turkish secular identity. As in the case of moving tomb of Süleyman Şah, this issue can also be seen as a clear retreat by the Turkish government, even though the AKP presents it as a national accomplishment that will end the conflict with the Kurds while maintaining the territorial integrity of the homeland.