— Conflict News (@rConflictNews) February 21, 2015
Aaron Stein and Michael Stephens write: Just days after finalizing an agreement to train a new rebel force inside Turkey to attack the Islamic State, Turkish forces moved into Syria to evacuate some 40 soldiers protecting the Suleyman Shah Tomb: a small Turkish enclave on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river, 30 kilometers from the Turkish border town of Karkamis. The operation included 39 tanks, 57 armored vehicles, and an estimated 572 military personnel. The soldiers removed the body of Suleyman Shah and transported his remains to an area just opposite the Turkish town of Esmeler.
In their analysis of the operation, Stein and Stephens come to these conclusions:
It is important to put this operation into perspective: Ankara launched a limited incursion to evacuate a tomb that had come under threat. The coalition, the Kurds, and the FSA did much of the heavy lifting. Turkey, however, has proven yet again that its role in the Syrian conflict must not be overlooked. It has links to all the main actors operating in northern Syria and is able to generally get its way with most of them, albeit with the occasional disagreement.
The biggest change appears to be Ankara’s approach to ISIS. Since 2013, Turkey had treated ISIS as an irritant, rather than a major security threat, but the Suleyman Shah operation is the clearest sign to date that this approach is changing. However, it is far too early to determine whether this will result in Turkey changing its approach to the coalition’s military operations. All signs indicate that Turkey will not agree to increase its role in the coalition by opening up Incirlik Air Force base for armed strikes, or by allowing its planes to bomb ISIS directly.
Turkey’s role will remain limited to the train and equip, intelligence sharing, and border enforcement, rather than engaging ISIS from the air. In fact one must consider that now that the potential embarrassment of an ISIS takeover of the Tomb has been avoided, Turkey will take a more relaxed stance to events south of its border, and it is unlikely that another Turkish military incursion will be repeated. It is more likely that Turkey will continue with the policy it has pursued thus far: border defense at airports, increased military deployments along certain areas of the border, and the training of the new rebel brigade with US assistance. This signals one key change: Turkey is now attacking ISIS through the use of proxies, which Ankara had previously rejected, in favor of focusing on Assad.