Ishaan Tharoor writes: 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. [Continue reading…]