Turkey May Attack Syria To Protect Shrine, Opposition Politician Says

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Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara.

Turkey’s government may be considering a military incursion into Syria to protect a historical site important to Turks -- and it may try to use the strike to rally the nation around embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic AKP party, ahead of the March 30 municipal elections.

According to a prominent member of Erdogan's opposition, the prime minister needs a victory in that election because he and his moderate Islamist party are embroiled in one of the country's biggest corruption scandals. In December, police arrested the sons of three Cabinet ministers as well as dozens of other people on corruption charges. 

“Erdogan has made threats [against Syria] to distract people in Turkey from the corruption scandal,” Aykut Erdogdu, a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told IBTimes by telephone.

The Turkish government is debating whether or not to use military force in Syria to protect the tomb of an early Turkish ruler, after Islamic extremist groups fighting the Assad government took control of a nearby town.

The tomb of Suleyman Shah, the founder of the Seljuk Empire, the first great Turkish state in the Middle East, who died in 1086, is located in the governorate of Aleppo, Syria, about 15 miles (25 km) from the Turkish border. It's located on land that has been under Turkish legal control since a 1921 treaty with France, the colonial power that controlled Syria at the time. After gaining independence in 1936, Syria renewed the agreement with Turkey. Today there is a small contingent of Turkish forces protecting the shrine.

“If the Erdogan government thinks that it can do a surgical strike, to which Syria won’t respond, that could really be a victory and [make him a] hero at home,” Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, said in reference to the municipal elections.

Last summer’s harsh crackdown on protesters and new restrictive laws on freedom of speech have undermined the popularity Erdogan has enjoyed since taking office in November 2002. In the six election cycles since, his party has only done better and better, but March 30 could end that streak, Cagaptay said.

The outcome of this election is crucial because it will set the tone for the subsequent presidential (August 2014) and parliamentary (2015) elections.

The elections next week could indicate whether or not the opposition has a chance to rebound.

“Erdogan feels cornered,” said Burak Deste, an adviser to Erdogdu. He added that Erdogan would do anything, “even enter Syria with the army, or shutting the Internet down, to distract the public from elections in March.” 

On Friday, Turkey blocked access to the social media platform Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR), just a week before Turks go to the polls.

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