Turkey and Syrian Turkmens
Syria is a multi-ethnic country, each ethnic group of which has its own view of possible future scenarios after the civil war. It is only natural that external actors, especially neighboring countries, perceive the war in terms of ethno-centrism, which is the basis of many conflicts.
Syrian Turkmens are a particularly sensitive element for Turkey who have linguistic, genetic, cultural, and mythological ties to their distant relatives in Turkey.
Traditionally, the Turkmens have densely inhabited Syria’s Lazkiye, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Golan regions.
Turkish authorities themselves began to support the Syrian Turkmens in 1994 when the Bayir-Bucak organization for mutual support for Turkmen was founded in Iskenderun. This period coincided with the growth of Pan-Turkist ideas according to which Turkey considers itself to be the leader of all Turkic nations.
Turkish authorities’ activities in regards to Turkmen sharply intensified following the beginning of the rebellions in Syria in 2011. At the same time, a certain person named Ali Öztürkmen who was a prosecutor in Syria fled to Turkey and, with the help of local security services, founded the Syrian Turkmen Movement. It is characteristic that the movement was created mainly over social networks and called for control over streets in Syrian cities to be seized in line with “color revolution” tactics.
In Turkey, the Syrian Turkmen Movement held a conference on “Change in Syria” which played an important role in the creation of the Syrian National Council, officially announced on June 1st, 2011. The Turkmens are certainly represented in all Syrian opposition activities in Turkey.
The Syrian Turkmen Group was almost simultaneously founded by 180 Syrian Turkmen from the Turkmen diaspora and new migrants to Turkey. It was led by Bekir Atacan with its objective being protecting the rights of Turkmens in Syria. The Syrian Turkmen Movement and the Syrian Turkmen Group merged in November 2011 to form the Syrian Turkmen Bloc. Yusuf Molla, a Syrian Turkman who has lived in Turkey for many years, stands at the head of the bloc.
The Syrian Turkmen Bloc established a network of offices along the border and in several Turkish cities, consolidating these bureaus into certain “areas of responsibility” in Syria. The Yayladağı office, for example, coordinates the activities of Turkmens in Latakia while the Gaziantep office is linked to Aleppo, and the Akçakale office operates in Al-Raqqa.
Some of the bloc’s members who left the organization founded the Syrian Democratic Turkmen Movement, a new organization headed by Abdulkerim Ağa, later replaced by Ziyad Hasan.
These two projects, the Syrian Turkmen Bloc and the Syrian Democratic Turkmen Movement, originally had different ideologies, different zones of influence, and each had their own paramilitary units. But in December 2012, the Movement and Bloc united their efforts. NGO’s operating directly on Syrian territory, such as youth branches, labor organizations, the Association for Turkmen Martyrs’ Family Solidarity, “veterans and prisoners” associations, humanitarian aid centers, and Turkmen News Agency are all under the movement’s control.
The movement plans to open a radio station, the “Voice of Syrian Turkmens”, along with magazines and newspapers. In addition, the movement has already opened two schools in Aleppo which teach in the Turkish language. Overall, the activities of Syrian Turkmen activists have been focused on “Turkizing” Northern Syria.
As for the Syrian Turkmen Bloc, this organization is mainly engaged in the creation of military organization which calls on the Syrian Turkmens to “join the fight.” Syrian Turkmen paramilitary structures were created in Latakia and Aleppo where they collaborated with rebel organizations.
In 2013, Turkmen military structures consisted of 12 groups united under the name “Brigade of Mountain Turkmen” under the leadership of Mohammed Awad who commanded the militants in Latakia province. Ali Basher led armed Turkmen troops in Aleppo.
It is necessary to emphasize that Syrian Turkmens are distributed across Syria in very different areas. Hence why the “Syria after Assad” project involving federalization (the dismemberment of Syria) was unacceptable for them. Turkmens stood for “united Syria,” a fact which Turkish security services were compelled to take into consideration in their operations on working out different projects and concepts. In 2012, the Syrian Turkmen Platform project was launched, the Constitutive Conference of which was attended by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul on December 15th, 2012. Davutoglu promised to provide support for the platform.
A portion of Turkmen businessmen who were already involved in the project aimed to participate in the political life of “future Syria.” The Platform’s objective is establishing a Syrian Turkmen Assembly composed of 350 delegates.
In addition to these structures, there are a number of youth groups who were engaged in anti-government protests, weapons smuggling, as well as recruiting militants. These include the Turkmen Youth Movement in Yayladağı, the youth movement in Latakia, the Syrian Turkmen Youth Association and Syrian Turkmen Youth.
However, following the appointment of a new prime minister and changes to Turkey’s foreign policy, and especially due to the failed coup attempt on July 15th, 2016, Ankara’s strategy towards Syrian Turkmens changed.
Agreements between Turkey, Iran, and Russia include a resolution on cooperation with Syrian Turkmens. In the region of Latakia, armed groups began to retreat, lacking the support that they previously possessed. In Aleppo, Syrian Turkmen announced a ceasefire. Obviously, other Turkmen groups in Syria will also come to find themselves without military support from Turkey.
However, since Ankara must stay firm, some support will be provided, but it will have a humanitarian nature. We should take into account the fact that Turkey exercises no strict control over all Syrian Turkmens, while part of them have become radicalized and joined terrorist organizations. The new role of Ankara will soon be revealed in monitoring the ethnic elements involved in the Syrian conflict.