The relief by Turkey of its guard of the tomb of Sulaiman Shah, and its shifting of the remains to another location inside Syria, was not only the first incursion by Turkey into Syria since its current civil war began, but also reflected the role of Turkey in the whole problem of the Caliphate to which ISIS has laid claim.
The tomb was that of the ancestor of the founder of the Osmanli dynasty, and thus of the family that held the Caliphate for over 400 years. At the same time, the family was not just one of the fiercest hammers of Christendom, and the only non-Arab holder of the Caliphate but also the one that allowed it to be abolished. Thus the site had not just a Turkish significance, but a pan-Islamic one. Since 1924, when the Caliphate’s abolition coincided with the dismemberment of the Caliphate into the Turkish Republic and a number of Arab states, Turkey had provided a guard to the tomb, which fell in Syria, which in turn came under French rule after the Ottomans, and before it was given independence. The tomb has been shifted once before, when the original site was flooded to form part of the bed of Lake Assad, and the current operation has led to its being shifted again, to a new site but still within Syria.
Sulaiman Shah was never Caliph, or even Sultan, but he was the ancestor of all the Ottoman Sultans, and of all the Caliphs from Selim I down. His tomb was guarded by the Turkish military, and the recent operation was more than anything else, about relieving the guard which had been posted there for six months, and which should have been replaced in December. However, that intervention has been the first time Turkey has taken any action against ISIS, against an entity which (at least theoretically) claims sovereignty over it. Most notably, Turkey has not taken part in the US-led campaign against ISIS, and even now, its aims have been strictly limited.
It should also be noted that Turkish President Recip Tayib Erdogan is accused of a modern ‘Ottoman-ism’ in his foreign policy. His expansionism does not replicate the Ottoman state, but is the result of Turkey’s geography. Turkey not only has a long border with Syria, but is also home to Syrian refugees displaced by the fighting there. It cannot remain indifferent to events there. Turkey also has to determine its place in Europe. It is not the old Ottoman Muslim conqueror/ occupier, from which most of the present-day Balkans liberated themselves over the course of the 19th century. Instead, it has applied for EU membership. It is within the American security-system, being a member of NATO, and earlier of CENTO.
Erdogan has also come under suspicion because of his gestures towards Central Asia, towards which Turkey has been positively inclined, as it represents the Turkish homeland. That aspect of his diplomacy was seen in his Prime Minister’s recent visit to Pakistan. Historically, Pakistan was never part of the Ottoman state, just as Central Asia never was. However, it was once ruled by a Turkish dynasty. However, that would not be the real reason for closeness. The Metro Bus in Lahore is a symbol of the ties between the two peoples, which extend to being under US tutelage, both having been members of CENTO, then of the RCD, and now of ECO. It is worth noting that ECO now includes the Central Asian Republics. The Central Asian Republics have also gained in importance because they provided the USA with an alternative route to Afghanistan, though it proved very expensive when Pakistan suspended its use after the Salala incident.
Pakistan is also linked to Turkey by the Caliphate. After the abolition of the Mughal dynasty, the Muslims of India needed a Caliph, and started mentioning the name of the Osmanli Sultan in Friday sermons. And when the Osmanli Sultan publicly asked for funds so as to buy a submarine, Indian Muslims donated. Also, they sent a medical mission to Turkey during World War I. The British were not too sure about abolishing the Caliphate after World War I, because of its Indian Muslim subjects. Before they abolished it, there was a Khilafat Movement in India, which lost steam when it was indeed abolished, and segued into the Independence Movement. This left Turks with the impression that Indian Muslims looked kindly on them. That was true, and the feeling was carried over to their new state, Pakistan. The new state also looked favourably upon Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, the first President of post-caliphal Turkey. It was also not without significance that Allama Iqbal, while arguing for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, invoked the example of the Turkish Grand National Assembly. Later, the two countries also had the commonality of having politically active militaries, which were part of the military alliances crated by the US to ring the USSR in the Cold War.
Thus the ties between Pakistan and Turkey are not just religious and cultural, but also political. The recent example of Turkey hosting talks with Afghanistan and Pakistan, show its commitment to the region. Within this context, its refusal to join the US effort against ISIS can only be explained by domestic reasons. The recent ISIS defeat in the Syrian town of Kobane can only be understood if it is remembered that modern Turkey has to deal with Kurdish separatism, along with Iran, Syria and Iraq, and both Kobane and the Suleiman Shah tomb were in Kurdish areas. If Syrian and Iraqi Kurds aspire to independence, will Turkish Kurds stay behind? Turkey also finds that it is fighting in Kurdish areas, which it finds familiar.
Pakistan cannot merely leave Turkey to work out its fate for itself. It is as the other wind of the region where Turkey is the Western edge. Together they must face a number of challenges, not least that of the ISIS Caliphate. Turkey may be more closely concerned, but the switching of various militant groups, which had joined the TTP, to ISIS, has created an ISIS presence where there was none originally. The Pakistani establishment may well be tempted to get into the affair because it knows both Turkey and the militants, but it should realize that this is a hornet’s nest it must not stir.