Syria’s Turkmen bearing brunt of Ankara’s policies

Friday 11/12/2015
Armed Syrian Turkmen villagers near northern Syrian village of Yamad

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.