The Turkmen: their heart in Syria, their mind in Turkey

Hafez el-Assad never considered this minority as an entity in itself and they were prohibited from publishing in the Turkish language.

Armed villagers in Jabal Turkman in november 2015. Archives Reuters

In the midst of a pine forest in Jabal al-Turkman, northeast of Latakia, heavily armed fighters stood proud of their victory. It was November 24, 2015, and a few hours ago, the Turkish air force had shot down a Sukhoi 24 (SU-24) on its way back from a combat mission. One of the two helicopters dispatched by Moscow to rescue the pilots was then caught by rebel fire. "Our comrades opened fire, we all did. The pilots died in the air”, said a deputy commander of the Turkmen forces who spoke to the camera in Turkish. By then, the war in Syria had been going on for four years, but it was the first time that the spotlight was shone on this Turkish-speaking minority that had sided with the revolution and whose importance grew as Turkey became more invested in Syria.

In 2016, Ankara launched operation Euphrates Shield in Syria with the stated objective of ousting the Islamic State from the city of Jarablos. Turkey's main aim, however, was to reduce the size of the territory conquered by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which it considers a terrorist group. To achieve its goals, Ankara had to rely on local fighters, and who could better serve its cause than Syrians, fluent in Turkish, who were ready to swear allegiance to Turkey? Even beyond the Syrian borders, Turkmen have been known to cooperate with Turkey, notably in Libya, where Ankara has deployed thousands of Syrian mercenaries in recent weeks, the majority of whom are Turkmen, to help the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which is supported by the UN, in its war against the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who in turn is supported by the Emirati-Egyptian-Saudi axis.

However, the involvement of the Turkmen is still a taboo subject. Fighters on the ground or those returning from Libya, their relatives, and spokesmen for Syrian Turkmen groups refused to answer our questions. Speaking to L’Orient Le jour, Abu el-Ez, a Turkmen spokesperson in the Turkish backed Syrian national army, denied sending soldiers to Libya, reiterating Ankara’s official position. However, Nawar Oliver, a researcher and analyst at the Omran Center, a think tank based in Istanbul, said “most of the Syrian fighters who left for Libya come from the Sultan Mourad and Sultan Mehmet groups, affiliated to the Syrian Turkmen brigades”, nevertheless he explained that that there is no direct agreement between these groups and Ankara, but rather agreements are made through individual contracts.

Jamil, a Turkmen from a small town near Jarablos, knows some of the men who were deployed in Libya’s Tripoli as "security guards," not as "fighters," he said. Their contracts allowed them to earn more than ten times their monthly salary and perhaps even obtain Turkish nationality as recognition for their effort, according to some reports. "They have salaries that range between $ 2,000 and $ 2,500 for contracts ranging from three to six months. But when it comes to obtaining Turkish nationality upon their return, this is completely untrue," said Jamil. "The Turks trust the Turkmens and prefer to deal with them," confirms Majd *, a journalist from the Syrian opposition. This trust has its origins in old ties between the two peoples. Regarded as Turkish agents by Baathist Syria, the Turkmens saw in the 2011 revolution a historic opportunity to assert their rights and finally gain recognition. They have been Syrian for several generations, and do not disown their country or necessarily dream of living in Turkey. But throughout the Syrian conflict, they have relied on Turkey for protection.

The Turkmens are the descendants of a nomadic people from Central Asia who arrived in Anatolia following the military campaigns of the great Mamluk conquerors and later on, they served the Ottomans. When Turkish troops left Syria at the beginning of the 20th century, many families stayed along the borders, mainly in the provinces of Latakia and Aleppo. "We have been in Syria since the Ottoman era. We consider ourselves Syrians, but we still have a fondness for the Turkish motherland”, explains Jamil, a fifth year pharmacy student. “We cannot dissociate the Turkmens from the Turkish nation, given the ties that unite us such as history, language, blood ties and a common destiny. We consider Turkey as a friend, a sister,” said Tarek Sulo Cevizci, president of the Federation of Syrian Turkmen Associations, while acknowledging that he was a fully-fledged Syrian.

The size of the Turkmen population in Syrian is another controversial issue, with the lowest estimates suggesting 800,000 and the highest several million. The Syrian government has never conducted an official denominational or ethnic census since the assimilation policy started under the French mandate has done everything possible to “Arabize” the minorities in the region. "In the absence of statistics from the Assad regime, we estimate the number of Syrian Turkmens at more than 3.5 million, because a large number of our people are still afraid to recognize their Turkmen origin due to a policy of marginalization adopted by the regime," explains Mohammad Vecih Cuma, President of the Turkmen Assembly, when interviewed by OLJ. Hafez el-Assad never considered the Turkmens as an ethnic minority, and notably they were prohibited from publishing in the Turkish language. Jamil, 32, studied the official curriculum in Arabic at school, but after the Syrian uprising, it was replaced by Turkish.

"In college, we had the choice between English and French, but Turkish was completely prohibited. At home, most of our TV channels were Turkish. We felt like any Syrian citizen, except in the eyes of the regime," he lamented. "The Turkmens have been prevented from accessing important positions in power and have been excluded from political life. The Baathist regime has considered the Turkmen constituency an enemy,” said Tarik Sulo Cevizci.

The perception that they were second-class citizens provided fertile ground for the early anti-regime demonstrations in 2011. "The Turkmens were already rebels in spirit before the revolution even started," said Mohammad Vecih Cuma. The regions with large Turkmen populations had been used to counting on themselves long before the uprising, as services in Turkmen towns were neglected by the state. Turkey, which has never hidden its Pan-Turkism ambitions, was only able to concretely support the Turkmens at the start of the revolution, in particular by funding predominantly Turkmen brigades to defend areas traditionally considered to be Turkmen, and to fight the Syrian regime. Among them, Sultan Mourad is considered the most influential group in the region, especially due to its active involvement in the various Turkish offensives against the Kurdish YPG.

Assembly in al-Rai

In October 2019, Ankara launched operation “Peace Spring” that aimed to expel the SDF from its borders. During the offensive Turkmen forces participated as part of the Syrian National Army.

"Four battalions have been dispatched to liberate the region from the YPG terrorist forces, and our participation has borne fruit," said Abou el-Ez, a military spokesperson. The Syrian Turkmen, like many of their Arab compatriots, rejected the Kurds’ aspirations for self-rule in northern Syria from the start. “We lived in communion before the revolution. But when some of them joined terrorist groups linked to the PKK, the situation naturally became tense. For us, they are on the same level as Daesh,” says Jamil. The two groups are almost viscerally hostile to one another. Last October, militiamen from Sultan Mourad brutally murdered Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician, as well as eight other civilians.

The Syrian North has since become a vast arena of Turkish influence. “There are Turkish teachers, police, and hospitals. We cannot say that this is a Turkish region, but they are very present, and it is clearly better than before," said Jamil. "The fighters of the Turkmen factions are deployed in all the liberated areas and get on well with the militant groups and the Arab population," said Abu el-Ez. Last summer, the Syrian Turkmen Assembly relocated its offices from Istanbul to al-Rai, a border town under the control of the Free Syrian Army. "The natural place of our Assembly is in Syria in order to participate actively in the real revolutionary political movement and to be as close as possible to our people," explains Mohammad Vecih Cuma.

Nearly 400,000 Syrian Turkmen are currently in Turkey. "The Turkish state treats Turkmen people, whether in Syria or Turkey, like all other Syrians," said Tarik Sulo Cevizci, head of a federation of nine cultural, charitable and educational associations. Only 5,000 Syrian Turkmen out of a total of 110,000 Syrians of all backgrounds are said to have obtained Turkish citizenship. Jamil was naturalized 9 months ago after seven years of residence. "It is more difficult for a Syrian Turkmen to obtain Turkish citizenship than an Arab Syrian because Turkey wants us to stay in Syria. The authorities’ message is clear: you must stay there so that we can take advantage of your presence in Syria and we can protect you", said Jamil.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 14th of February)

In the midst of a pine forest in Jabal al-Turkman, northeast of Latakia, heavily armed fighters stood proud of their victory. It was November 24, 2015, and a few hours ago, the Turkish air force had shot down a Sukhoi 24 (SU-24) on its way back from a combat mission. One of the two helicopters dispatched by Moscow to rescue the pilots was then caught by rebel fire. "Our comrades opened fire, we...