Turkey vows to back its soldiers in Syria exclave
Turkish army tanks take up position on the Turkish-Syrian border - REUTERS/Murad Sezer

ISTANBUL: Turkey’s top general Thursday issued an unusual message of support for Turkish troops stationed at an exclave inside Syria at a “critical” period, saying the army would act if ever they needed help.

The small patch of land inside Syria around the tomb of Suleyman Shah—the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman dynasty Osman I—is considered Turkish territory under a 1920s treaty signed between the Turkish authorities and France, who at that time had a mandate on Syria.

Some press reports said this week that the exclave had been surrounded by Islamic State (IS) jihadists, who have taken swathes of northern Syria, and the few dozen, lightly-armed Turkish troops stationed there had been taken hostage.

Turkey’s leaders have categorically dismissed the reports. But the message to the troops from chief of staff General Necdet Ozel indicated the army was taking the situation very seriously.

“You are successfully performing this duty that was assigned to you at this critical period,” Ozel said in the message for the upcoming Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).

“Don’t forget that you are not alone. Don’t forget that 76 million of our citizens are committed to standing behind you.”

“Our eyes, our ears and our hearts are always with you. Feel confident that our armed forces will be there for you the moment we hear a single word from you,” he added.

Addressing the “heroic” troops on duty at Turkey’s sole overseas territory, he added: “My valued and heroic comrades who are on duty on our only sovereign land abroad—I firmly believe that you will continue to fulfill your duty in a manner that will make our ancestors proud.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc had Tuesday insisted that the Turkish troops were still in control of the tomb but acknowledged that it was true the IS jihadists had been advancing on the territory.

The tomb was for years guarded largely by inexperienced conscripts but in March this year Turkey reportedly sent a special mission of 60 elite special forces members who remain there on duty to this day.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed the reports that the mission was surrounded as “made-up” but warned that Turkey’s answer would be “clear” if it was attacked.

The situation surrounding the Suleyman Shah tomb is coming under increasing scrutiny as the Turkish parliament Thursday prepares to approve a government request to allow military intervention in Syria and Iraq to fight the rise of IS.

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