Syria’s Turkmen bearing brunt of Ankara’s policies
GAZIANTEP (Turkey) - Russian air strikes have extensively targeted Syria’s minority Turkmen community in obvious retaliation for the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey near the Syrian-Turkish border.
Heavy bombardment hit Turkmen villages in north-western Latakia province, where Turkmen rebels claimed to have killed one of the pilots of the Russian jet as he parachuted out of the flaming wreckage.
Within days, more than 10,000 Turkmen were displaced by Russian air strikes and assaults by regime forces, with many seeking shelter in southern Turkey.
Ankara has traditionally expressed solidarity with the Syrian Turkmen, who are Syrians of Turkish descent. For many Turks, they are considered an indivisible part of the Turkish people.
Since the outbreak of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime almost five years ago, Turkmen have received the biggest Turkish support of all Syrian opposition groups — political, military and financial. Turkish politicians consider support for Turkmen in Syria and Iraq a “national duty” at a time when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to create a “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, mainly to protect Turkmen.
Ankara has used its political influence to ensure that Turkmen had leading positions in the Syrian opposition. Khaled Khoja became president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in January and Wajih Jomaa’, another Turkmen, was appointed health minister in the Syrian government in exile.
However, the president of the Syrian Turkmen Council, Abdel Rahman Mohamad, denied Ankara’s bias towards the Turkmen community. “Our relationship with the Turks is similar to other groups in the opposition. Turkey is supporting all components of the moderate opposition both morally and financially,” Mohamad said.
He stressed that the creation of the “safe zone” for which Ankara is trying to win Western support is a common demand of all Syrians. “The zone is useful from a humanitarian aspect and had it been there from the start, there would not have been any Daesh or YPG, and not even refugee camps,” he said in reference to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
Jomaa’ underlined that the Turkmen rebels in rural Latakia “are defending their ancestral land against Russia’s ballistic missiles and cluster bombs”.
“A big world power (Russia) has been attacking the rightful owners of the land, targeting field hospitals, markets and other civilian places and killing some 34 children,” Jomaa’ said.
Jabal al-Turkmen, or the Turkmen Mountain, in north-western Latakia was seized by opposition groups more than two years ago. The area was thrust into the news after Turkey shot down the Russian jet, triggering a harsh retaliation by Moscow’s air force that caused the flight of more than 10,000 Syrian Turkmen to the Turkish border.
A commander in the Turkmen Brigade of Sultan Abdel Hamid said Turkmen fighters would be using “all kinds of weapons in their possession” to defend their region against Russian and regime attacks. The commander, who asked for anonymity, refused to say what type of weapons they possessed and whether they included anti-aircraft missiles.
He played down the possibility of an intervention by the Turkish Army in Syria, noting, however, that “hundreds of Turkish volunteers are fighting alongside the Turkmen in several parts of Syria”.
The commander appeared confident that the “safe zone” that Erdogan has been marketing to the West “is coming and will be set up within the coming three months to the latest… We have received US and Turkish promises,” he said.
The bombardments on Jabal al- Turkmen prompted Turkish opposition parties to call on the government to intervene in support of their “Turkmen kin”.
The leader of the far-right Turkish Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahceli, said in recent declarations to the media that “Turkey should defend its borders, its sovereignty and its kin in Syria till the end”. Bahceli said on this issue his party stands on the side of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), despite political differences, “because it is a national matter that rises above parties and politics”.
While Turkmen in rural Latakia apparently have Ankara’s full support, their counterparts in Raqqa province feel abandoned, despite their persecution at the hands of Kurdish YPG fighters who have reportedly displaced residents of several Turkmen villages. Ibrahim al-Turkmani from the village of Hammam al-Turkmen charged that Ankara was using the Turkmen of Latakia province “as a card to achieve political objectives”.
“Had it (Ankara) been really motivated by nationalistic considerations, it should have treated all members of the community equally, as Iran did with the (Syrian) Shias. More than 20,000 Turkmen in the area of Tal Abyad have been forced to leave their farms and villages and all what the Turks did is to let them into Turkey… We all know the alliance existing between them and the YPG,” Turkmani said.
There are no clear estimates on the number of Turkmen in Syria, although Turkish sources estimate they total more than 2 million.
Under the Assad regimes in Syria, Turkmen were banned from publishing or writing in Turkish. The Turkmen have formed numerous Turkish-trained rebel groups, including the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, reported to be 2,000-10,000 strong, in 2012, and units named after Ottoman rulers, including the Brigade of Sultan Abdel Hamid and the Brigade of Sultan Murad in Aleppo.