A new potential conflict arose Tuesday between Turkey and the Islamic State when militants surrounded Turkish troops assigned to guard an ancient tomb in a small Turkish territory inside Syria.
Yeni Safak, a pro-government daily, said that as many as 1,100 fighters of the Islamic State, which now controls more one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria, had deployed around the shrine of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Two other Turkish news media had similar reports, but without such details.
Turkey maintains an honor guard and protective detachment of 36 troops at the tomb, which lies about about 15 miles inside Syria. Their encirclement raised concern that they might be taken hostage by the Islamic State, just as the Turkish Parliament is considering new military powers that could be exercised to battle the militants.
Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister, told a news conference that Islamic State fighters were advancing on the tomb and “have gotten very close.” He gave no details except to say the Turkish contingent had not been withdrawn.
Sanliurfa.com, a news portal in this southeastern Turkish city, said Islamic State troops had dug in around the tomb, which is located alongside the Euphrates River, and that the standoff is being interpreted as a hostage crisis underway.
A previous hostage crisis – the Islamic State’s capture in June of 49 Turks and Iraqi staff members of the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq – was resolved only 10 days ago in a still unexplained deal that saw all 49 released unharmed. The government said it did not pay a ransom, but it has not disputed reports that a Syrian rebel force had traded Islamic State prisoners it was holding for the Turkish hostages.
The Turkish government said the Mosul hostage crisis was the reason for its reluctance to give full support to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. Since the hostages’ release, the Turkish government has been engaged in intensive deliberations about what role it should have in the coalition.
The government has drafted on a new war powers act that would grant it the authority to use ground troops in neighboring countries and to participate in operations against the Islamic State if Turkey’s own security and stability are threatened. Parliament returns from a recess on Wednesday, and a vote is scheduled for Thursday.