649 - Tomb of Doom? How a Tiny Exclave Could Draw Turkey into Syria's War

Remember Syria? It's the war everyone was talking about before the one about to erupt over Crimea invaded our screens. Turkey hasn't forgotten, though. Syria's northern neighbour has seen a burdensome spillover, in refugees and violence, from the civil war raging on its southern flank.

But crises are also opportunities, and the Syrian conflict might be Ankara's chance to reassert its influence in a region that was part of the Ottoman Empire less than a century ago. Perhaps now is a better time than ever, with the rest of the world fixated on Russia's land grab in Ukraine (or looking for a missing passenger jet).

Syrian refugees in Turkey number well over half a million. They are a powerful, if latent incentive for Turkey to restore order in at least some part of Syria. Actual use of force would require a more active provocation by Syria's warring parties. Although there have been some cross-border incidents over time, neither the Assad regime's forces nor the various rebel factions seem prepared to take the fight into Turkey.

Sulayman Shah's Tomb: Turkey's only exclave, deep inside Syrian territory. (Image: Google Maps)

But Ankara has a geopolitical mousetrap on a wire, hidden deep inside Syrian territory, courtesy of a Turkish headman who's been dead for the better part of a millennium. Sulayman Shah (1178-1236) is buried in Syria, but his grave is in a plot of land that is forever Turkish – not just poetically, but in a very real, guaranteed-by-international-treaty kind of sense.

The Tomb of Sulayman Shah, on the left bank of the Euphrates in Aleppo Governorate, is Turkey's only exclave, with full Turkish sovereignty. The compound flies the Turkish flag, and is guarded by a dozen Turkish soldiers. Outnumbered and outgunned by all of the local rebel groups, that symbolic guard of honour would be quickly defeated by any militia deciding to take over the Tomb. Which is why Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently issued a stark warning to rebel fighters in the area: Turkey will retaliate 'in kind' to an attack on the Tomb of Sulayman Shah.

For, as far as Ankara is concerned, an attack on the Tomb is an attack on Turkey itself. Turkey will take any measures to defend its homeland without any hesitation. Turkey has the right to take any kind of measures for its security and stability,” according to Davutoglu.

To which a high-ranking Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, added: “We are prepared for any scenario, as always”. The portentous comments were made as clashes between rivalling rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) near the Tomb continued to intensify, with ISIS seizing control of a nearby town.

Although small in area, Turkey's only exclave, located about 25 miles south of the Turkish-Syrian border has a great symbolic significance for the Turks: Sulayman Shah was the grandfather of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

Geographical situation of the Turkish compound: on a Syrian peninsula sticking out into the Euphrates. (Image: Ruland Kolen)

But the monument's actual link to Sulayman Shah is tenuous at best, mainly because so little about him is historically verifiable. This headman of the Kayı, a tribe of Oghuz Turks then living across Iran, Iraq and Syria, is remembered for two things: his famous progeny, and his untimely death. Sulayman Shah drowned in the Euphrates while fleeing a sudden advance of Genghis Khan's Mongol armies.

The unfortunate headman reportedly met his watery end near Qal'at Ja'bar (in Turkish: Caber Kalesi), a hilltop castle overlooking the left bank of the river. Whether true or not, the folklore of later centuries associated the castle with the Shah, nicknaming it Mezar-i-Türk (Turkman's Grave).

Much later, when Sulayman Shah's Ottoman descendents ruled these parts, Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909) constructed a tomb at the castle to match the stories. Even after the Ottoman Empire fell and its successor state Turkey withdrew to the north, Suleyman Shah's symbolic value assured that the tomb received special treatment. Atatürk, although a secularist moderniser, insisted that it remain in Turkish hands.

So, while the Treaty of Ankara (1921) handed control of Syria over to the French, Article 9 made an exception for Caber Kalesi, which was to remain a Turkish exclave – complete with the aforementioned honour guard for the Shah's tomb. This territorial arrangement survived Syrian independence in 1946, but was threatened by the creation of Lake Assad.

In 1968, when construction started in 1968 on the Tabqa Dam, upstream from Caber Kalesi, it became clear that the river's rising waters would greatly impact, and perhaps could swallow Turkey's symbolic foothold in Syria.

Previous and present locations of the Tomb, and the Turkish exclave. White line denotes Turkish-Syrian border. (Image: Google Maps)

The Syrians and Turks worked out a unique solution. They agreed to move both the tomb and the exclave to another location on the riverbank, on the other side of the dam. To my knowledge, this is the only example ever of an exclave physically being moved to another location.

Caber Kalesi, Syrian since 1973, as it turns out has not been submerged by the rising tide of the Euphrates. But the former hillside fort has been transformed to an island, only accessible via an artifical causeway.

Turkey's new exclave is located near the town of Karakozak, 50 miles north of Caber Kalesi (and thus much closer to the Turkish border). It is roughly the same size as the previous one (just under 100,000 square feet). Also like the previous one, it sits on the left bank of the Euphrates.

Even today, the Tomb is still guarded by Turkish soldiers (although it is unclear how they make their way across the hostile territory north towards the Turkish 'mainland') and remains a bizarre geopolitical island in the raging sea of the Syrian civil war. You still need a passport to enter the compound.

Could a violation of the Tomb's exceptional geopolitical situation become a casus belli for Turkey? It could play into the Neo-Ottoman tendencies of its current government, perhaps dreaming to restore some of its ancient authority over the region. Or at the very least, it could help deflect attention away from scandals and civil unrest at home...


Turkish minister's threats first seen on this page of Friends of Syria. For a more in-depth treatment of the political background of this story (but without maps), see Dr. Erimtan Can's article on rt.com.

Scientists find a horrible new way cocaine can damage your brain

Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.

Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
  • Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
  • Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Keep reading Show less
Photo: Shutterstock / Big Think
Personal Growth
    • A recent study from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 80 percent of Americans don't exercise enough.
    • Small breaks from work add up, causing experts to recommend short doses of movement rather than waiting to do longer workouts.
    • Rethinking what exercise is can help you frame how you move throughout your day.
    Keep reading Show less
    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.

    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.