February 23, 2015 / 7:39 PM / in 3 years

In soldiers' rescue, Turkey plays off warring sides in Syria

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - By extracting dozens of its soldiers surrounded by Islamist fighters in Syria, Turkey has warded off a potential crisis and shown its ability to maneuver between rival warring parties, including Islamic State.

Several hundred Turkish ground troops, backed by tanks and drones, mounted an eight-hour operation on Saturday night to evacuate the 38 soldiers guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

The fact there were no clashes appeared to suggest that Islamic State fighters surrounding the site were either warned or coerced by Turkey not to try to disrupt the incursion, the first it has mounted since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011.

“The game of those who tried to use the tomb and our soldiers to blackmail Turkey has been disrupted,” President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday, without making clear whether he was referring to Islamic State, Kurdish militants or the Syrian army.

Despite the tough rhetoric, the operation - facilitated by gains by PYD Kurdish forces inside Syria - looks more like a one-off tactical move than a permanent hardening of Turkey’s line against Islamic State.

The soldiers at the tomb had been encircled for eight months - a situation which, if left unresolved, could have damaged the government in the run-up to a parliamentary election in June.

“This was a pragmatic way to eliminate a residual vulnerability,” said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.

“It doesn’t really signal a shift against Islamic State, and I don’t think the tacit cooperation with the PYD signals a shift in Turkey’s relations with the Syrian Kurds.”

“EFFECTIVE CHANNELS”

In a sign of Syria’s anger, Tourism Minister Bisher Yazagi told Reuters the weekend operation pointed to “the complete coordination” between Turkey and Islamic State, saying that all foreign hostages other than Turks had been “slaughtered” by the militants.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin dismissed the Syrian reaction, saying President Bashar al-Assad’s government had lost all legitimacy.

But a Western diplomat based in Ankara said it was likely that Ankara had communicated with the militants in advance.

“They’ve clearly got very effective and open channels (with IS), there’s not much doubt about that,” the diplomat said. “There must have been some discussion with them to avoid any misunderstanding, though I imagine it would have been more the stick than the concession.”

Turkey has negotiated with Islamic State before. Last September it won the release of 46 hostages held by the militants for three months in northern Iraq, in what Erdogan described at the time as a covert rescue operation. [ID:nL6N0RM0DX]

In contrast to the weekend events, Turkey refrained from using military force during Islamic State’s long siege of the Kurdish border town of Kobani, when its tanks looked on from surrounding hills but held back from direct intervention, even as a U.S.-led coalition carried out air strikes against IS.

Turkey has been a reluctant member of the coalition, at times to the frustration of Washington, arguing that Assad needs to be forced from power and that even if Islamic State is pushed back, his forces or Kurdish militants will fill the void.

Kalin made clear that despite plans to relocate the tomb of Suleyman Shah in Syrian territory notionally controlled by the PYD, a group close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey, Ankara still considered it a “terrorist organization”.

“Turkey has proven yet again that its role in the Syrian conflict must not be overlooked,” Aaron Stein and Michael Stephens of the London-based Royal United Services Institute said in a joint blog post.

“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.”

Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Ankara, Seyhmus Cakan in Mursitpinar, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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