Drawing a lesson from the confrontation over two small and uninhabited islets called Imia/Kardak in the Aegean Sea, which led to a quick escalation of tension between Turkey and Greece in 1996 and helped to boost then-Prime Minister Tansu Çiller's popularity amid a heightened fever of nationalism, today's embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might have planned a regional provocation to help himself recover from a sharp decline in the polls ahead of local elections that have turned into a critical referendum for his future amid an unprecedented corruption scandal.
There are worrying signs in the Turkish capital that the Erdoğan government has been working on a secret plan to create a crisis in Syria in order to distract public attention away from the corruption allegations while unleashing a nationalistic furor to pick up some points in the election. This would be a sort of false flag operation using downright lies and distortions for the purpose of saving the beleaguered Erdoğan politically. The target, according to rumors circulating in Ankara, would be Jaber Castle -- a historic castle considered a territory of Turkey within Syria's borders -- a highly sensitive location protected by a contingent of the Turkish army.
According to the Treaty of Ankara, which was signed on Oct. 20, 1921 between the colonial power, France, and the Turkish Parliament, Jaber Castle, which is situated 120 kilometers from the city of Aleppo in Syria and some 25 kilometers from the Turkish border, is considered Turkish territory. Article Nine of the treaty states: “The tomb of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of the Sultan Osman, founder of the Ottoman Dynasty (the tomb known under the name of Turk Mezarı), situated at Jaber Kalesi [Castle], shall remain, with its appurtenances, the property of Turkey, who may appoint guardians for it and may hoist the Turkish flag there.”
This agreement was renewed after Syria gained independence in 1936, and two years later, on May 30, 1938, an outpost was built at the castle for the Turkish army to guard the tomb. A Turkish flag flies over the tomb, and a small garrison of around 25 troops is permanently stationed there. Therefore, any direct or indirect attack on the castle would be viewed as an attack on Turkey's sovereign rights.
Turkey beefed up the security in and around Jaber Castle when the Syrian crisis erupted three years ago and warned the Bashar al-Assad regime not to attack the castle or suffer the consequences. Two Turkish F-16 fighter jets are on standby and ready to be scrambled at a moment's notice to protect the tomb from an attack either from forces of the Syrian regime or extremist groups. Assad, who knows the sensitivity of the location for Turkish people, has stayed away from committing any type of provocation against the castle and does not want to give Erdoğan a boost in public opinion. It does not make any sense for the Syrian government now to revisit that policy, given that the regime has gained the upper hand over the opposition militarily and politically. Neither will Assad jeopardize the international support he has picked up for a political solution to the crisis by an escalation in the tension with Turkey, a NATO member.
Therefore, the provocation must come from a third party, possibly an extremist faction acting as a contractor or triggerman. The rumor has it that Turkish intelligence, under secret orders from the prime minister, may have already contracted an armed faction within Syria to commit sabotage on Jaber Castle in order to create the pretext for a limited military operation into Syria. Last week, clashes between opposition groups the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) reportedly intensified in the region, raising the specter of such a contingency. The news that the al-Qaeda-affiliated ISIL had taken control of a town near Jaber Castle prompted immediate reactions from Turkish officials.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey had the right to take all precautions necessary to protect the tomb following clashes around the shrine. “As of now, there has been no [move on] our soldiers or our land there. But in the event of such a threat, we are ready to take all sorts of precautions,” Davutoğlu told reporters in the eastern province of Van on March 14. His remarks stand in sharp contrast to earlier comments he made during a dinner with Turkish dailies' Ankara bureau chiefs in Ankara in July 2012. I remember distinctly how he had pleaded with journalists not to bring up the issue of Jaber Castle in their reports, citing the sensitivity of the issue for the Turkish people.
Now, not only Davutoğlu but also a handful of other Cabinet ministers seem eager to raise that issue publicly, ready to come out with guns blazing. What has changed? Perhaps under the pressure of the massive corruption scandal and looming elections that may indicate a significant drop in support for the governing party, Erdoğan desperately needs a crisis. A day after Davutoğlu's remarks, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz escalated the belligerent tone, warning that the world should have no doubts about Turkey's intentions in case of such an attack. Yılmaz said Turkey would treat any attack against Jaber Castle as if the attack had targeted Turkish territory. “Those who take Turkey for an enemy will have no right to live in this region,” he vowed.
This possible plot the Erdoğan government might orchestrate involving Jaber Castle in order to distract the Turkish public has prompted concern among the opposition parties. In an interview with the Samanyolu News channel on March 19, main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called on Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel “not to embark on the adventure” of a military intervention in Syria to protect the tomb of Süleyman Şah as the March 30 local elections approach.
“He [Erdoğan] could decide to move the army into Syria before the elections. I'd like to address the chief of general staff: Don't send Turkey on an adventure. Especially when there is a suspect prime minister in charge,” Kılıçdaroğlu said. He argued that no Syrian group had attacked the tomb, but that “a provocation might happen.” He said he had received “some unconfirmed information” and warned that “everyone should be very careful.”
The warning from the main opposition leader apparently made the Turkish government uneasy. Responding to Kılıçdaroğlu, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız told reporters on March 20: “The tomb of Süleyman Şah is a special place, which is Turkish land outside of Turkey's borders. There is no difference between the tomb and Ankara or Sinop. The soil on which it is located is Turkish soil. Our armed forces are ensuring its security and protecting it.” He then asked: “Does Kılıçdaroğlu or anybody else for that matter want us to be indifferent if there is an attack there? Is he saying, 'Act as if nothing has happened?'”
Surprisingly, the Turkish energy minister elaborated on the scale of operation, saying that any operation to protect the tomb would be a limited and targeted attack. “I can say clearly that there will be no [operation] if there is not an attack there. But if it is needed to defend our own land, we will do it. An operation in that place may be in question if necessary, but it won't be a wide-scale operation,” Yıldız explained.
The increasing chatter on a possible military operation among Cabinet members indicates that the Erdoğan government is seriously contemplating such a military operation. What I hear in the Turkish capital is that the military is not enthusiastic about such an adventure and that the Erdoğan government's pulse-reading efforts have not elicited a strong response from the chief of general staff. The Turkish military's restrained military response, if it is in fact true, is good news, but that may not be enough by itself to curb the enthusiasm on the part of Erdoğan's government to engage in a “false flag” operation.
Recalling how the Imia/Kardak crisis in the Aegean quickly escalated within a 24-hour news broadcasting cycle, forcing government officials on both sides to issue harsh remarks and mobilize their forces to the brink of war, the Turkish military will find it hard to resist government and public pressure in the case of a possible provocation against Jaber Castle. As the US had to intervene to ease the crisis in the Aegean, perhaps a third interlocutor may be needed now to prevent such a provocation from happening in the first place or to stabilize it quickly if it happens.