April 9th, 2012
11:30 AM ET

A piece of Turkey lies in the middle of the Syrian desert

Editor's Note: Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a GPS contributor. You can find all his blog posts here. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Soner Cagaptay.

By Soner Cagaptay - Special to CNN

Turkish-Syrian ties are slowly unraveling. Each day, thousands of Syrian refugees cross into Turkey, fleeing persecution. Ankara has been hinting that it will take action against Bashar al-Assad by setting up a safe haven across its border with Syria to protect civilians. On April 1, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the international community has to defend Syrian people's “right to self-defense.”

With Syrian soldier firing across the border, wounding Syrian refugees as well as Turks, all eyes are on the Turkish-Syrian border for a potential confrontation between the two countries. Yet there is another area where Turkey and Syria meet: A little-known Turkish exclave, Caber Kalesi (Qal’at Ja’bar in Arabic), a sliver of sovereign Turkish territory that is smack in the middle of Syria. On April 4, Turkish daily Today’s Zaman wrote about Caber Kalesi, drawing attention to its unique character as Turkey’s only exclave.

Exclaves - territories belonging to one country but completely surrounded by another - are often the result of historical oddities. Caber Kalesi is a prime example of an exclave and a historically symbolic one, as well. This Turkish exclave, which I visited, lies on the east bank of the Euphrates River and is miles from Turkey proper. It serves as the burial site for the legendary Suleyman Sah (grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire).

Entering this exclave is a surreal experience. This is sovereign Turkish territory, and you need a passport to visit it even though it is smaller than a city block. The exclave is guarded by eleven Turkish troops, who stand at attention under a Turkish flag. Caber Kalesi lies in the middle of the Syrian Desert and has no permanent inhabitants.

This exclave came into being during the medieval period. The Turkic tribes, which originated from Central Asia, lived in what became Iran, Iraq and Syria for nearly five hundred years before deciding to settle in Turkey, between Europe and Asia.

Enter Suleyman Sah, leader of Turkish Oguz tribes in medieval Syria. When Suleyman Sah passed away in 1236, he was buried near his tribe’s original territory, along the Euphrates River in Syria. However, Suleyman Sah’s tribe soon left the area and continued their journey, crossing into Turkey, where they settled down. Suleyman Sah’s grandson, Osman, set up a small principality in northwestern Turkey near Istanbul. This statelet soon grew into the Ottoman Empire (named after the House of Osman), eventually becoming a world power.

So it all started with Suleyman Sah. During the nineteenth century, Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II decided to honor this fact by building a tomb around Suleyman Sah’s grave to honor the Ottoman ancestor.

With the outbreak of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, losing all its Middle East holdings, including Syria, which was conquered by the French. A modern Turkey emerged under Kemal Ataturk, who wanted the Turks to abandon their Ottoman heritage, but the lure of Suleyman Sah proved too powerful for even Ataturk to resist. He chose to embrace the Ottoman past in this unique case, insisting on keeping Suleyman Sah’s grave in Turkish hands. The French acquiesced, and a 1921 treaty designated Caber Kalesi as sovereign Turkish territory and an exclave.

Syria gained its independence from the French in 1946, though Caber Kalesi remained as Turkish territory inside Syria. When the construction of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River in 1973 risked the flooding of the exclave, Ankara and Damascus agreed to relocate Suleyman Sah’s burial site to a higher elevation. Accordingly, in an incident that is rare even for exclaves, this piece of Turkish territory was moved from its original location upland to where it stands now, becoming the latest incarnation of Caber Kalesi, still surrounded by the Euphrates River and the Syrian Desert.

The exclave honoring the Turks’ mythical ancestor was nearly forgotten by history until the Syrian uprising pitted Ankara and Damascus against one another.

Now, the presence of this unique Turkish exclave in the middle of Syria begs the following questions: Is Caber Kalesi Turkey’s “Achilles’ heel”? The exclave, guarded by only a few Turkish troops, can be easily overwhelmed by al-Assad’s forces.

Or could that exclave become al-Assad’s Achilles’ heel? With nerves being so raw between Ankara and Damascus, a Syrian violation of the exclave’s sovereignty could dent the Turks’ imperial pride, leading them to call for action against al-Assad. Even Ataturk, who wanted to have nothing to do with the Ottomans, could not resist Caber Kalesi’s call from a distant past.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Soner Cagaptay.

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Topics: History • Syria • Turkey

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Wally Gilliam

    On the April 8 GPS broadcast, a paper by Eric Channing was mentioned, concerning areas conquered by Muslim armies. Where might I see or download the paper?

    –WG

    April 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  2. ...syria bashar al kalb , nori al haleki al jaban ,AND IRAN ARE EVIL

    الدولة الكردية

    البارزاني يهدد المالكي بسحب الثقة

    البارزاني حذر من أن العراق يتجه إلى "كارثة وعودة الدكتاتورية" (الأوروبية- أرشيف)
    جدد رئيس إقليم كردستان العراق مسعود البارزاني هجومه على رئيس الوزراء العراقي نوري المالكي متهما إياه بالدكتاتورية، وملمحا إلى إمكانية طرح مسألة سحب الثقة من حكومته. كما هدد الزعيم الكردي أثناء زيارة للولايات المتحدة باللجوء إلى استفتاء بشأن إنشاء دولة كردية.

    وقال البارزاني في تصريحات صحفية الأحد إن "العراق يتجه إلى كارثة، إلى عودة الدكتاتورية، والاستئثار بالسلطة في كل مرافق الدولة"، في إشارة إلى المالكي من دون أن يسميه. ورأى أنه يجري حاليا "تهميش الجميع، وكأنه تم إسقاط النظام الجديد في العراق على يد شخص، فيما الباقون يعيشون على مكرمات القائد الجديد".
    وأعلن البارزاني -الذي يقوم حاليا بزيارة إلى الولايات المتحدة- أنه "عندما أعود إلى كردستان، سأدعو إلى اجتماع كل القادة العراقيين لدراسة الوضع بمسؤولية، وليس للمجاملة أو إيجاد حلول وقتية أو مسكنات للأزمة". وتابع "إما حلول جذرية، وإما كل واحد يعرف طريقه ويجب أن يكون اللقاء جديا وحاسما، وإذا لم يستجيبوا، فثمة حديث آخر".

    وهدد رئيس إقليم كردستان العراق باللجوء إلى استفتاء بشأن إنشاء دولة كردية في حال رفض نوري المالكي حضور اجتماع عام للقيادات العراقية في أربيل لإيجاد حلول لمشاكل الإقليم مع بغداد. كما شدد على إمكانية سحب الثقة من الحكومة العراقية في بغداد.

    المالكي والبارزاني دخلا في شراكة سياسية منذ انتخابات 2010 (الأوروبية-أرشيف)
    رفض المالكي
    وفي جوابه عن سؤال بشأن احتمال رفض المالكي حضور الاجتماع إذا تم وضع شروط، قال البارزاني "نريد اجتماعا لتفكيك الأزمة، لإصلاح الوضع، الاجتماع ليس لمجرد الاجتماع، إذا رفض المالكي حضور الاجتماع لحل المشكلة، فنحن نرفض بقاءه في الحكم".

    وأوضح الزعيم الكردي أنه يجب "إما معالجة الوضع وإما مواجهة وضع لا يمكن القبول به وفيه شخص واحد يستحوذ على كل مرافق الدولة ويتصرف وفق إرادته ويهمش الآخرين ثم يبقى رئيسا للوزراء، هذا غير مقبول على الإطلاق".

    من جانبه قال القيادي البارز في الحزب الديمقراطي الكردستاني علي حسين إن تصريحات البارزاني تتفق مع الدستور وليست لإثارة الرأي العام.

    وأوضح "نشعر أن السيد المالكي يتصرف منفردا بعيدا عن بنود الدستور والديمقراطية، نحن ندعو إلى الالتزام بالدستور، لأن بقاءنا مع العراق مرهون بالالتزام بالدستور، وهذا ما يشير إليه الرئيس مسعود البارزاني عندما يلوح بالرجوع للشعب ليتخذ قراره، ديباجة الدستور العراقي يجعل بقاءنا مرهونا بتطبيقه".
    ".

    إن بارزاني يعي ما يقول وإن المالكي وأصحابه الذين أتو من على الدبابات الأمريكية أصبحو طغاة ويحاولون بناء الديكتاتوريات في زمن انتهى زمن الظلم وإن البرزاني تأخر كثير على هذا الموقف وكان يتوجب منه منذ زم أن يعلن الاستفتاء على إقامة الواة الكردية فالعيش مع المالكي واعوانه كارثة لكل الأكراد وجريمة بحق الانسانية

    April 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Turkey is facing a dilemma. Erdogan and his cabinet have do their cost-benefit analysis more carefully than Assad, who has basically nothing more to lose. He has ingratiated himself with the Kurdish PKK, which had taken refuge in Syria. So in recent days despite regime violence spills over into Turkey. Ankara is wary of any retaliation, knowing Assad could no doubt endorse the PKK to laucnch attacks on Turkey, which would have to fight on two fronts.

    April 9, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  4. Bezboz

    I have been to قلعة جعبر before and there were no Turkish soldiers, flags or passports checked.

    Also, does Turkey really expect the Syrians to watch as they are fired on by rebels on the Turkish side of the border? Really, now?

    April 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      You must have been there a while ago.
      I was just there and noone can go across the border, with or without proper paperwork.

      April 13, 2012 at 9:18 am | Reply
  5. desert voice (troubledgoodangel or Nathanael or Bohdan or Voiceinthedesert)

    The article hints at a latent danger. The Turks might use the enclave as a pretext to establish a safe zone around it. I just see it in the cards, lest al Assad steps down. A safe zone would have to be legitimized by the UN. Otherwise, it might trigger foreign intervention. This said, the Sunni population, now being martyred by al Assad does need a safe zone and should ask the UN for it.

    April 11, 2012 at 8:08 am | Reply
  6. patio bench

    I do agree with all the concepts you've introduced in your post. They are really convincing and can definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for newbies. May just you please lengthen them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

    June 9, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  7. claremontcomputerz

    Syrians are on a great danger in this case. Thanks for sharing this great news.

    June 12, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Reply

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