Turkmen rebels: The ethnic Turkish minority fighting long suffered persecution in Syria

A man wearing a camouflage uniform holds aims a gun

The Turkmen are an ethnic Turkish minority who have lived throughout the Middle East for centuries, but are today mostly concentrated in areas of Syria and Iraq.

Syrian Turkmen first migrated from Turkey as early as the 11th century — before the Ottoman Empire, when the Turkic Seljuk dynasty held power across the wider region.

Today, most live in provinces and towns across Syria’s north, including Latakia, Aleppo and Idlib, as well as the Turkmen Mountain area near the Turkish border which was the site of the shooting down of a Russian plane this week.

Statistics on the Syrian Turkmen population vary widely, but many estimates suggest the Turkmens number around 100,000.

Many still speak the Turkmen language — similar to Turkish — and have tried to maintain their language and culture inside Syria.

But living alongside Arabs and Kurds, the mostly Sunni Turkmen have long suffered discrimination and persecution in a country ruled by a minority Alawite government.

The Syrian regime — under President Bashar al-Assad, and before him his father Hafez al-Assad — has traditionally tried to assimilate the Turkmen people into the wider community, renaming their villages with Arab names, confiscating their lands and redistributing them to Arab owners, and denying them their cultural and linguistic rights.

Since the civil war began, Syrian government distrust of the Turkmen community has increased amid suspicions that Turkmen militants have been actively siding with Turkey against the Assad regime.

Many Turkmen did not immediately join the rebel opposition when the civil war first broke out in 2011. But increasing hostility from Assad’s forces gave them little choice.

By late 2012 a range of Turkmen opposition groups formed the Syrian Turkmen Assembly — a coalition of opposition groups, complete with several military brigades.

While relations between Turkey and the Turkmen have their own history of trouble, the current Turkish government does indeed see the Syrian Turkmen as natural allies in the campaign to oust Assad from power.

Turkey had vowed to protect Turkmens

Syrian Turkmen are among the estimated 2 million refugees who have fled Syria and are now living in camps in Turkey.

Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian warplane should be seen in this context.

Just two days ago Turkey called for a UN Security Council meeting to discuss Russian attacks on Turkmen villages.

Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned Russia his government would “not hesitate” to take all steps necessary on Syrian soil to protect the Turkmen people.

A few days earlier the Turkish government summoned the Russian ambassador to protest against the bombing of Turkmen villages.

Turkey and Russia have long been at odds over the crisis in Syria.

Since the beginning Turkey has openly supported the removal of Bashar al-Assad, whereas Russia is arguably Syria’s strongest ally.

But despite claims Russian airstrikes in Syria were targeting Islamic State militants, the reality on the ground has been very different.

Turkey and many Western governments have repeatedly accused Russia of targeting US-backed rebel groups fighting to oust Mr Assad.

The Su-24M Russian bomber shot down yesterday was — even by Russia’s own admission — in an area of Syria where Islamic State is not present.

“Daesh [Islamic State] is not present in the area where Syrian Turkmen are living,” said Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Only Bayirbucak Turkmen — our relatives, our brothers, live there. They say that they are targeting Daesh. But instead they are targeting Bayirbucak Turkmen.”

source

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