Syria's Turkmen joined the uprising against the Syrian regime right at the beginning, and have found a powerful ally in Turkey. But if Bashar al Assad holds onto power, they may face a bleak future in Syria.
With thousands of armed Syrian Turkmen operating in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield area — a 2,225 square kilometre zone in Syria’s northwest that Turkish forces and allied rebels have cleared from Daesh (ISIS) beginning in August 2016 — Syria’s Turkmen community has become a key ally for the government in Ankara. Faced with oppression under Bashar al Assad’s rule, the marginalized ethnic group took up arms against the government in Damascus during the early stages of Syria’s war.
Turkmen brigades received training and arms from Turkey and organized themselves politically in the so-called Syrian Turkmen Assembly that Ankara considers to be the legitimate representative of Turkmen in Syria.
In a way, both Turkish politicians and Syria’s Turkmen have benefitted from their close relationship. While the former argues that Turkey’s intervention in Syria was to protect its brothers and to guard their border from terrorist groups, the latter were in desperate need of a powerful sponsor.
Having said that, the prospects for Turkmen in Syria appear to be bleak. Many of them have fled Syria and their fate is uncertain. Regime forces are in control of the Turkmen’s main settlement areas in northwestern Syria and this situation is unlikely to change.
Under the Assads, the Turkmen had few powerful friends in Syria. Their enthusiastic participation in the uprising has only compounded their marginalization—and potential further persecution—complicating any possible reconciliation in the future. As a result, a significant number of Turkmen who have decided to stay in Syria embrace their affiliation to Turkey.
Resurgence of Turkmen identity
Before the uprising against Bashar al Assad began, an estimated three million Turkmen lived in Syria. Most of have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, leaving their property behind. Others are still under siege in Homs, Hama and south of Damascus.
Syria’s Turkmen used to live side by side with the mostly Arab population. However, Hafez al Assad’s “Arabization” led to the structural oppression of Syria’s second largest ethnic group.
“The Assad government banned the native language of the Turkmens. When Turkmens spoke Turkish, even in private, they constantly ran the risk of detention. They [the government] also changed the historic Turkmen names of villages to new Arab names“, Dr. Emin Bozoglan, Head of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly told TRT World.
Bozoglan says that after persecution escalated during the 1990s, including a wave of arrests of political activists, many Turkmen gave up political work for fear of reprisal through deportation or torture.
When protesters in Syria took the streets in early 2011, Turkmen participated peacefully. However, the Assad regime’s ensuing crackdown led many to the conclusion that armed resistance might be inevitable.
After various attempts at peaceful solutions by the Turkish government, it finally decided to support that course and encouraged a revival of Turkmen identity and traditions.
One year earlier, in 2012, the first Turkmen brigades were set up and joined several offensives. Fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, Turkmen brigades sided with groups like Nusra, and other factions like Ahrar al Sham, Jaysh al Islam etc, and ultimately entered the war against the Daesh (ISIS) in 2014.
Facing the Russian air campaign and the absorption of Iranian-led militias by the Syrian regime, Turkmen brigades today are concentrated in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield area with only three brigades still active in other parts of the country. Liwa Sultan Abdulhamid Han, whose leader Omer Abdullah maintains close relations with the ultranationalist Turkish Grey Wolves, still holds positions in the Turkmen Mountains, while the mainly Turkmen 2nd Coastal Division also operates in the nearby Kurd Mountains. As a component of the Southern Front, Liwa Muhaijddeen Turkman al Joulan is active in Quneitra and southern Damascus.
The most prominent Turkmen-led group is Firka Sultan Murad that also includes Arab fighters. Before Firka Sultan Murad relocated to the Turkish buffer zone, it was active both in Aleppo city and its northern countryside. Working closely with Turkey, the Firka Sultan Murad’s commander Fehim Issa has been appointed as the overall commander of the so called Hawar Kilis Operation Room that has effectively united three rebel blocs with a total of 27 brigades in northern Aleppo.
The constituting Turkmen blocs are namely the Sultan Murad bloc and the Jaysh al Vatani bloc. The third bloc with the name Victory bloc is entirely Arab and includes Free Syrian Army brigades that fled Deir Ezzor in face of the Daesh’s rapid advance in 2014. While the Syrian Turkmen Assembly maintains good relations with some brigades of the Jaysh al Vatani bloc, it stays out of military affairs in general.
The Sultan Murad bloc
The Sultan Murad bloc consists of sixteen further brigades. Some of them are predominantly Turkmen. Liwa Sultan Suleyman Shah is a mostly Turkmen faction that has been established in Jarabulus after Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016. The same applies to Liwa Suqour al Shimal, a partially Turkmen faction that has battled both Daesh and the YPG.
Additionally, there is Liwa Jabhat Turkmen Souriya that fought against both the Assad regime and the YPG in Aleppo’s northern districts before it joined the Euphrates Shield operation after the in 2016. Jabhat Turkmen Souriya is not officially listed as part of the Sultan Murad bloc but it is close to Firka Sultan Murat bloc that it is almost an integral component.
Named after the first Ottoman Sultan, Liwa Sultan Osman is an entirely Arab faction that has adopted an utterly pro-Turkish course. Similarly, Liwa Firka Hamza only has a limited number of Turkmen in its ranks but enjoys extensive Turkish support and has joined the Sultan Murad bloc.
The Jaysh al Vatani bloc
Following Aleppo’s evacuation agreement in late 2016, Liwa Sultan Mehmed Fatih moved their headquarters from the Bustan al Pasha district to the city of Al Rai and became a part of Operation Euphrates Shield. The brigade works closely with Liwa Muntassir Billah that was also operating in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Pasha district. Firas Pasha, the brigade’s commander, left Aleppo with the last of the notorious green buses.
Liwa Samarkand is a partially Turkmen faction that was established during Euphrates Shield. The brigade enjoys heavy Turkish support and was one of the first factions that has been trained by Turkish special forces.
The Jaysh al Vatani bloc also has some Arab factions in its ranks, namely the pro-Turkish Liwa al Vakkas that even uses the Turkish Grey Wolves’ wolf, the symbol of nationalism, for its own banner.
Even though Turkmen brigades maintain a significant presence in areas where Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation is taking place, very few Turkmen have left the refugee camps in Turkey to return to their villages.
Many raise doubts about the security situation and fear a resurgence of violence. Yet, Syria’s Turkmen claim their space in the war-torn country — whatever the future will look like. However, due to the Assad regime’s uncompromising approach, the Turkmen's demands for cultural recognition and a share in the political decision-making appear to fall on deaf ears. This is why the alliance with the Turkish government is essential for Syria’s Turkmen.
In cooperation with their powerful neighbor, Turkmen have established both an organized political structure and armed factions in northern Syria that guarantee their survival. Turkey on the other hand has found a reliable proxy that secures the government in Ankara a badly needed foot in the door in Syria’s power tussle.
It's arguable whether Turkish support will result in an improvement of the Turkmen’s situation in Syria in the long-term. But after six years of war many Turkmen are naturally keen on, and preoccupied with, focusing on the here and now.
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