The War Nerd: Tomb Raiders of Kobane

By Gary Brecher , written on February 24, 2015

From The War Desk


It’s the stuff of horror movies: A convoy of military vehicles rolls over a highly militarized border, through a blasted, burnt-out war zone, to the tomb of an ancient chieftan. They dig up his remains, but one soldier dies “in an accident” while they’re doing it. Then they bump their way back north, passing through the silent, wet streets of Kobane, and deposit the remains in a new tomb, a “temporary” resting place for the old Steppe conqueror. Then they pull back over the border and let the killing resume.

This weird sideshow actually happened a few days ago, in Northern Syria. The Turkish Army, which stood and watched while the Kurds held off Islamic State’s Army of Darkness, finally decided to send Turkish troops into Syria . . . to save a corpse.

Of course, this wasn’t just any corpse. This may (or may not) be the body of Suleyman, grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman (variation or “Osman”) Empire. When Osman took over the little Sultanate of Rum, on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, in 1299, he saw a Genghiz-scale opportunity. The Mongols had massacred the dominant Seljuk Turks, smashed the Arab caliphate and killed everyone in Baghdad. The Byzantines were too weak to move into the vacuum; in fact, they were ripe for the taking themselves, hanging on to a few fortified coastal towns. Before he died, Osman put in place all the features of the Ottoman Empire, dominant power of the 16th century.

So we’re talking about the grave of a patriarch here, a shrine to the man whose DNA powered the Empire so many Turks still miss. And Turkish nationalism is like no other nationalism in the world, not even American nationalism. I once wrote an article praising Turkish successes in battle. I got a lot of flak from survivors of the many ethnic groups the Turks exterminated on their way to power—Armenians, Assyrians, Anatolian Greeks, Alevi, Kurds (the list goes on, believe me)—but the real surprise for me was the dozens of comments by Turkish nationalists. Normally, when I write in praise of a military tradition not very well known in the West, the gratitude is almost embarrassing. So many martial histories are totally lost to us because we see it all through a dumbed-down Anglo filter.

But there was no gratitude from the Turkish nationalists. Not one “thank you” in the whole comment thread. Instead it was pure rage, that I didn’t mention this or that hero or victory. A lot of these ranting freaks were convinced that every omission was a plot, some ultra-sly diss aimed at glorious Turkey, by way of praising it.

It was odd, because the Turks I’d met before were very cool people, worldly and humorous. I started to get the idea that, like a Mormon Thanksgiving, there must be two Turkeys: One urbane and tolerant, the other pure redneck rage. Sorta like another country I could name, although the urbane coastal Turks seem cooler than their US versions, not as squirmy and apologetic.

That hypothesis was pretty well confirmed by the riots in Istanbul. That was classic coastal-elite vs. redneck fundie violence, though the fundies had the luxury of getting the riot police to play their hand for them, whereas the coastal kids had to fight and get gassed and concussed on their own.

And at the moment, Turkey is controlled by the AKP, a fundamentalist/Islamist party led by a populist big man out of central casting, Reccip Erdogan. Erdgoan’s party is very popular with the kind of voter Rick Perlstein profiled in Nixonland, the bitter lower-middle class, sick of being lectured by the suave elite, even when that elite happens to be right. Or rather, especially when it happens to be right.

So Erdogan pushes everything the Turkish elite hates, above all religion in government, but a whole bunch of other hot-button red-province issues like segregation in the schools and a big hug for Islamist parties and militias in the Arab world.

Erdogan’s victory in the elections was very convenient for Syrian Sunni Arab rebels, because the long and, as they say, “porous” border between Turkey and Syria can get a lot more porous (think sieve with a big hole punched in it) if the Turkish rulers are in the mood. And Erdgoan’s Islamists, preaching Sunni unity and nursing old grudges against Assad’s Alawite sect, basically installed a JO (“Jihadis Only”) lane along all 1200km of the Syrian border. Turkish border guards’ arms got tired, waving so many Toyota pickups full of heavily bearded young men through the border crossings. Their necks got cramped from nodding like they believed it when the young men in those trucks told them there was nothing but old scrap under the tarp in the truck bed. And, no doubt, their pants pockets got frayed from the wads of cash those well-financed jihadis slipped them to make sure no inconvenient inspections were carried out. After all, ideology isn’t everything, and a border guard without a few coffee cans of cash buried in his yard isn’t really a proper border guard at all.

The Turkish government’s idea was that all these bearded young men from London and Dusseldorf and Tunis and Marseille would overthrow the Alawites, install a friendly Sunni-Islamist Syrian government, a sort of kid brother to Erdogan’s AKP, and Turkey would be the proud owner of a Syrian puppet state without losing a single soldier.

It went about as well as those proxy plans usually do. Trouble is, proxies have their own agendas. Give them a gun and they get ideas. The Sunni fighters Turkey waved into Syria refused to be reasonable Islamists, a tricky concept at the best of times. They had to justify their presence in Syria, where the majority had been Muslim for 30 generations, so they went back to the book, by the book, destroying the compromises that local cultures always make with the rigid rules of these Abrahamic rule-bound religions.

And that’s how the Tomb of Suleyman came into play. The men of Islamic State looked at the Quran, and found that it was death on anything that smelled of tomb-worship. The rules are simple: Bury the dead quickly, keep it fast and simple, no elaborate tombs. If you want to get into the details, you can go to this Facebook page, with the straightforward title, “Grave Worship Is Haram in Islam,” where the appropriate quotations are supplied and the inevitable quibble threads go on and on. Personally, I always found religious debate to be pedantry for the ignorant, a chance to show off by people who’ve only read one book. I don’t even like multi-book pedants much, with the exception of my precious self. And I’ll be damned, as the one-book pedants would say, if I’ll listen to their one-volume encyclopedia of What Is Not.

But if you’re so inclined, there are hours, years, to be spent arguing over Scripture and exactly what it allows in the way of tombs.

Naturally, the Wahaabi took the Puritan view further than anybody. So in Saudi cemeteries, you’ll see nothing but one rock marking a grave. Not a worked stone, or a boulder, just a rock about two hands big. The first time I peeked through the locked steel gates into one of these cemeteries, I thought it was a vacant lot. That’s how far Wahaabism has gone, among a people who used to love their shrines and tombs. It’s kind of sad, the way sitting in on a Roundhead church service circa 1650 would be sad. Well, sad and boring, because you haven’t experienced boredom til you’ve heard the arguments issues like grave décor can ignite. I was sitting in a grading meeting once when a religious argument broke out—I know it sounds like the joke about boxing and hockey, but that’s what happened. 45 minutes later, my three colleagues were still arguing about whether you could eat while traveling during Ramadan.

One thing about these arguments: You’ll find that in every case, the nasty extremists have the Scripture on their side. That’s true in this case as well: If you go by the book, Islam forbids any reverence for tombs:

It is not permissible for graves to be left in mosques, whether that is the grave of a wali (“saint”) or of anyone else, because the Messenger (PBUH) forbade that and warned against that, and he cursed the Jews and Christians for doing that. It was narrated that he (PBUH) said: “May Allah curse the Jews and the Christians, for they took the graves of their Prophets as places of worship.” [Bukhaari, 1330, Muslim, 529]

And you’ll find, if you ever sit in on a debate between Fundamentalist, by-the-book types, and locals who object to the destruction of some local tradition, however heretical, that your sympathies go to the locals, even if the book is against them. That’s because the localists are always more human, more decent, more complex people. They understand, even if they can’t say it out loud, that cultures swallow one scripture or another, but then begin sanding it down to fit their traditions. In a few generations, a rule that scrapes uncomfortably against the tradition is ignored or forgotten, like the New Testament on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12) is ignored in the US.

So the Turks, and the Syrians, love their tombs, like every other culture in the world. You’ll go a long way before you find a culture that really ignores the dead the way the Wahaabi by-the-book interlopers demand. It’s easy, after all, for a 20-year old lunkhead convert from Rennes or London to point to the Quran and say, “No tombs allowed, see?” After all, the Syrian tomb he and his buddies are about to blow up never meant anything to him. It meant quite a lot to the Syrians who grew up near it. Syrian Islam has been evolving for more than a thousand years, adapting a supposedly universal cult to the inevitably local way of life, and tombs were a part of that landscape. So the locals were never happy about seeing tombs destroyed—but the newcomers from Islamic State had two arguments in their favor: The book, and the guns.

So Islamic State has been going around blowing up tombs all over Syria and Iraq. They started with Shia tombs, because that was a totally non-controversial move in this bitterly sectarian war. Tombs are hugely important to Shia, because Shi’ism has a beautifully mournful, almost defeatist or Manichean aspect, suggesting that the evil will always rule this fallen world and the best men who ever lived are martyrs. Wahaabism has no such nuances; it has about as much nuance as a 2x4 to the forehead, which is why Wahaabism is such a worldwide hit with males in the 15-20 years age range.

Then they went after tombs of Sufi saints, because although Sufism is nominally Sunni, it’s almost the opposite of Wahaabism, a softening, personalizing, introspective heresy as opposed to Wahaabism’s raw, cruel jihadism.

After blowing up the Shia and Sufi tombs on their turf, Islamic State went after a tomb revered by Sunni Arabs, the tomb of Yunnus (Jonah) near Mosul.

Islamic State was doing what foreign jihadis always do, proving their right to be on somebody else’s turf by showing they knew the Book and were following it better than the mere locals. As the leader of Islamic State, Al Baghdadi, is supposed to have said, “Syria is not for the Syrians and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.”

It was a good line for a by-the-book Muslim to take, because Islam borrowed that universalizing impulse from Christianity. But even people who think they’re following a universal creed actually stick to a very localized version, as you’ll have noticed if you ever dated a Baptist. And in Muslim contexts, tombs always raise this sort of universalist vs. localist friction because grief and the urge to remember and honor the dead always comes up against the hard, flat Scriptural prohibition on prolonged or elaborate grief.

Pretty soon, the only big, fancy tomb in Islamic-State controlled North-Central Syria was…yup, the tomb of the Ottomans’ granddad, Suleyman Shah.

You’d have expected Islamic State to waste no time blowing it up, except that this tomb was Turkish territory according to a 1921 treaty, guarded by Turkish soldiers. Turkey, even in its most Islamist phase, has no trouble with elaborate tombs. They’re part of the Nationalist tradition, and that means nobody would even think of talking about dismantling them. Osman 1, for instance; his tomb in Bursa is one of the more elaborate in the world.,_Bursa.jpg

So in October 2014, as Islamic State convoys pushed toward Suleyman Shah’s tomb on the Euphrates River southwest of Kobane, we had the conditions for a lab-quality experiment: Would IS’s ferocious Wahaabist intolerance for fancy tombs triumph over its sleazy alliance with Turkey? Would ideology trump realpolitik?

Quick answer: Nah. Islamic State “threatened” to blow up the tomb, and could’ve done it easily, since the Turkish military assigned only 40 soldiers to the site. But threats are for suckers; what you watch for is whether they do it or not. And IS never touched that tomb in months of occupying the country around it.

That non-action, from a group like IS that’s pretty much non-stop mayhem everywhere else, is exhibit Z in the long list of indications that Islamic State and Turkey made a deal. They both deny it, but there’ve been too many videos of Turkish soldiers waving howdy to IS jihadis, investigative reporters killed in convenient car crashes, and outright confessions by IS vets about being smuggled back and forth across the Syrian border with full Turkish cooperation.

Turkish policy made sense, in a grim way, back in the Autumn of 2014, when everyone was looking forward to the fall of Kobane. The radical Kurds of PKK/YPG/J were a real threat to Turkish sovereignty in the East, while the Arabs and assorted war tourists of IS seemed like a joke, with no potential to cause trouble in Turkey proper.

It’s not that Turkey likes IS, or shares its attitudes. You won’t find a lot of real support for IS outside a particular demographic: Young, male, middle-class wannabe thugs. It’s the same demographic that supplied most recruits for the James brothers, Quantrill, and Anderson, and the appeal is the same: Rape, plunder, sectarian revenge, escape from the boredom of downwardly-mobile civilian existence.

Turkey’s ruling elite, obsessed with the Kurdish “threat,” just saw IS as a useful pest-control device, and made a deal with it—one that included a promise to make Suleyman Shah’s tomb the only one in IS territory that wouldn’t be touched. If Turkey had really been worried that IS might desecrate the tomb, it would have sent a convoy to recover the coffin back when IS had undisputed control, a few months ago. It didn’t. Instead, Turkey waited until YPG/J Kurdish militia, driving south after liberating Kobane, were about to take the area around Suleyman Shah’s tomb.

Only then, on February 22, 2015, did the Turkish Army decide to drive south and rescue the body of Suleyman. The timing makes their motive clear: Turkey didn’t want to be indebted to the Kurds, the socialist radicals of YPG/J, for protecting Suleyman’s body. There was no threat from the YPG/J; they make a point of respecting all religious beliefs and would never dream of desecrating a tomb. Erdogan and his bigoted hick constituency, which hates Kurds with an insane passion, just couldn’t stand the idea of owing them anything.

Most humiliating of all was the fact that the route to Suleyman’s tomb led south through…Kobane. Oooo, that had to hurt! Back in October ’14, Erdogan was “warning”—which is to say, hoping and praying—that Kobane would fall in hours.

Now the defenders of Kobane were tickling the banks of the Euphrates, after blasting IS’s demoralized amateurs out of hundreds of villages around Kobane. There hasn’t been an offensive like this from a socialist army since 1945, not that you’d know it if you asked queasy pampered first-world socialists.

Erdogan doesn’t like commies (Islamists rarely do, as Indonesia 1965 demonstrated) and he doesn’t like Kurds. And he has the same ol’ birth rate fears all old racists have—so Turkey didn’t take any chances when it sent its convoy south to get Suleyman’s bones. The convoy consisted of 39 tanks and 57 APCs, manned by 572 soldiers.

That’s got to be one of the largest armored advances since Iraq 2003. A little more than you’d need to pick up what’s left of a man who died almost 700 years ago. It’s like your friend asks you to help pick up his mom’s ashes and says, “Oh, and bring your 12-guage, and the Glock, and some friends who have carry permits.” You’d start to wonder if his mom came from the Carpathians, or her body is a prize in some gang war.

In a way, poor ol’ Suleyman Shah has become a dusty, smelly political football between Turkey and the YPG/J. Not that he cares. He’s either in Paradise, the lusty play-hard paradise that a guy like him would have liked, or he’s just nowhere, just dead. (My vote.) Either way, he’s not likely to stress much as he was craned out of his resting place on the Euphrates and trucked north, through the streets of Kobane, in the dark and rain.

Once through Kobane without incident—because the YPG/J is way too smart to start a war with Turkey right now—the giant convoy headed west, just inside Syria, to a spot called Esme, where Suleyman is now resting. With a nice M-60 tank making sure nobody wakes him.

As they say, “Funerals are for the living,” and this one definitely was. The final comment, summing up the Turkish point, was spoken by Davutoglu, Erdogan’s little mouthpiece, the Medvedev to his Putin. Davutoglu, boasting about the operation, said, “We didn’t ask anybody’s permission.” By “anybody,” he meant the people in control of the area, the YPG/J. And that was the point of the whole weird episode: Getting Suleyman’s body out of Kurdish control, avoiding an imaginary insult to the insanely sensitive traditions of Turkish nationalism.

So, weird as it sounds initially, the operation is easy to understand when you know who’s who. What I want to know is, how did that soldier die “in an accident” during the move? There’s a horror movie in that somewhere.