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Turkey Launches Operation Across Syria's Border


Several hundred Turkish troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles crossed into northern Syria overnight. Turkey's prime minister says they successfully evacuated dozens of Turkish soldiers who had been guarding a tomb near Aleppo. Though the tomb is inside Syria, the sacred site flies a Turkish flag. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been following the story from Geneva. He reports that the operation may signal a more active Turkish role in the Syrian conflict.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Syria's civil war has been so fierce and chaotic that foreign nations have refused to send in troops. The one exception has been some three dozen Turkish soldiers who have been guarding a tomb in northern Syria where Suleyman Shah is buried. Suleyman Shah was the grandfather of the first Ottoman Sultan, and Turkey considers his tomb sovereign Turkish territory.

As the violence there among fighters from the self-described Islamic State, the Syrian government and opposition rebels grew more intense, the Turkish soldiers at the tomb were increasingly exposed to kidnapping or worse. They were regularly described in the Turkish media as besieged by ISIS fighters. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara today that a two-pronged operation involving more than 500 troops and dozens of tanks moved across into Syria Saturday night at two different border points. He's heard through an interpreter.

PRIME MINISTER AHMET DAVUTOGLU: (Through interpreter) Troops entered Syria and carried the necessary work to reach the Suleyman Shah tomb. At the same time, another unit entered Syrian soil. They prepared new ground for Suleyman Shah to move to. They then started flying our flag on that new location.

KENYON: The Turkish military says one soldier died in an accident, but no clashes occurred during operation, which was deemed a success. Analysts have long speculated that Turkey's fears for the safety of its soldiers guarding the tomb was one reason for Ankara's approach to the violence that's raging just across the border, especially in the wake of increasingly bloody videos from ISIS showing captives being beheaded or burned to death. Whether this operation will free Turkey to take a more active role remains an open question.

Ankara and Washington remain at odds over how to respond to the conflict. Turkey wants a no-fly zone near the border. It also wants the U.S. to openly declare that its goal is toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Pentagon has been cool to the idea of a no-fly zone citing risks and uncertainties in defending it. The White House, meanwhile, has downplayed it's opposition to the Assad regime, focusing instead on the urgent threat posed by ISIS. Turkey's incursion will also refocus attention on its long and hard-to-defend land border with Syria. Efforts have been stepped up to crack down on fighters and sympathizers trying to join the conflict across the border. But this sizable military operation will no doubt renew concerns about possible retaliation by ISIS on Turkish soil. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Geneva. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.