war on the rocks

A Cause For All Turks: Turkey and Syria’s Turkmen Rebels

January 21, 2016

For better and for worse, people all over the world have recently been paying attention to Syria’s Turkmen minority.

It was over a Turkmen area in northwest Syria that the Turkish military downed a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M in November, sparking a genuine geopolitical crisis. Turkey had pointedly warned Russia against bombing Turkmen villages, even summoning Russia’s ambassador in Ankara to drive the point home.

The Turkmen are now central to Turkish political discourse about Syria, particularly since Russia launched its intervention on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And just as the Turkish government has emphasized its solidarity with the Turkmen, Turkish organizations across the country’s political spectrum — from pan-Islamists to hard-right Turkish nationalists — have likewise taken up the cause of the Turkmen.

Now, according to Syrian rebels and Turkish relief workers and experts with whom we spoke, these Turkish fundraising drives and relief efforts are playing an important part in supporting those in need in rebel-held northern Syria. But the well-publicized advocacy by Turkish organizations on behalf of the Turkmen has also boosted the profiles of these groups — in some cases, helping to bring into the mainstream groups once on the outer bounds of Turkish politics, or even on the militant fringe. The result may be a shift in Turkish politics that outlasts the current uproar over Syria’s Turkmen.

Syria’s Turkmen and their Turkish neighbor

The Turkmen are an ethnically Turkic and Turkish-speaking minority inside Syria, primarily clustered in the eastern Aleppo countryside and a section of coastal Latakia province called Jabal al-Turkman (Turkmen Mountain), both of which abut the Turkish border.

“Turkmen have been driven from their homes in two waves,” Firas Pasa, commander of the largely Turkmen Aleppo-area brigade Liwa al-Mu’tasem Billah, told us in an interview conducted over Facebook. “First, when these Da’esh [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL] gangs stormed Turkmen villages [in east Aleppo], and second because of this Russian bombing.”

ISIL drove many Turkmen from east Aleppo when it seized the area in January 2014. Now the Syrian regime’s forces are fighting to take the rebel-held Latakia countryside, including Jabal al-Turkman, as the Russians provide close air support and bomb Arab and Turkmen areas across Syria’s north.

Support for Syria’s Turkmen has been a central piece of the Turkish government’s strategy to sell its Turkish Syria policy domestically. For example, after trucks headed for Syria carrying weapons and accompanied by Turkish intelligence officials were searched and seized by Turkish gendarmerie in late 2013 and early 2014, then Prime Minister (and now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the trucks had been carrying supplies to Syrian Turkmen.

Turkmen members of the Syrian opposition have reciprocated by building relationships with the Turkish government and Turkish non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Syrian Turkmen are represented politically by the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, whose 2013 founding conference was attended by then Foreign Minister (and now Prime Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu. President Erdogan met with Assembly head Abdurrahman Mustafa this month.

The Russian air campaign has only increased Turkish alarm over the situation of the Turkmen, who some Turkish press have warned are threatened with a mini-genocide. Turkish leaders have expressed their solidarity in terms of Turkish patriotism, comparing the fight of Turkmen rebels against the regime to a modern-day battle of Gallipoli. “Relief increased because the Turkish people cared more after they saw how their Turkmen brothers were being exterminated,” Pasa told us.

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A Turkish meme that reads, “Today Jabal al-Turkman is Canakkale (Gallipoli)” over an image of the Turkmen brigade Liwa al-Sultan Abdulhamid.

The Turkish political mainstream has responded by taking up the Turkmen cause. The ruling AK Party has organized relief shipments to Jabal al-Turkman, for example, and the CHP, Turkey’s main center-left opposition party, has also done some fundraising for Jabal al-Turkman . In some instances, CHP officials have pointed to the Turkmen as victims of an AK Party Syria policy that they argue has destabilized the country. Only the HDP and other Turkish leftists seem not to have publicly embraced the Turkmen cause.

Yet the welling of Turkish support for the Turkmen has spurred action not just from the Turkish mainstream, but also from organizations farther from the Turkish center.

Turkish religious organizations

The Turkish religious relief organization IHH (Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief) has played a leading role in providing relief for Syrians generally, and the Turkmen specifically. IHH frequently coordinates its efforts with the Turkish Red Crescent and Yeryuzu Doktarlari, a non-partisan Turkish Islamic organization similar to Doctors Without Borders. Russian airstrikes reportedly hit IHH depots in Jabal al-Turkman on January 10.

IHH is active in Turkish Islamist politics and has itself provoked political controversy, as when its 2010 attempt to deliver relief to the Gaza Strip through Israel’s blockade led to a diplomatic row between Turkey and Israel. (IHH did not respond to requests for comment for this article.) But smaller Turkish religious organizations, some with more extreme politics than IHH, have also supported Syrians and the Turkmen.

Imkander is just one of these smaller, more peripheral groups. Imkander sent 300,000 TL ($99,734) of relief to the Turkmen of Jabal al-Turkman and Aleppo in November, as well as more shipments of aid in December and January.

Imkander was founded in 2009 to provide assistance to the widows and children of fighters from the north Caucasus resident in Turkey and neighboring countries. It turned its focus to the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Syria after the start of the civil war.

Possibly as a result of Imkander’s Caucasus activism, the organization has links with some at the jihadist end of Syria’s rebel spectrum. Imkander head Murat Ozer led the February 2014 funeral for Seifullah al-Shishani (Ruslan Machalikashvili), the Chechen fighter who founded a jihadist faction that later joined Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah. In his eulogy for the commander, Ozer said that Seifullah had participated in Imkander activities before joining the Syrian jihad and that Ozer had encountered him in Syria during the early days of the conflict.

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Imkander-organized February 2014 memorial for Seifullah al-Shishani at Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque.

When we contacted the organization to ask about Imkander’s work and relationships, Sait Gokdere, head of their Gaziantep office, emphasized Imkander’s independence and humanitarian focus. “We’re a civil charitable association,” said Gokdere through an interpreter. “We have limited means, just some donations from well-off or sort of well-off people and some medical supplies and food for those now living in tents in the cold. We have no relationship with Islamists, with nationalists, or with the state.”

Imkander’s advocacy on Syria and the Turkmen specifically has brought it into the mainstream of Turkish debate. In November, for example, Imkander head Ozer appeared on popular Turkish television channel Akit TV for a segment titled “There’s a Massacre Happening on Jabal al-Turkman.” In December, Imkander participated in a conference entitled “What’s Happening on Jabal al-Turkman?” held at Eskisehir Osmangazi University to fundraise for the Turkmen.

Other groups even further on the edges of Turkish Islamist politics have also joined the defense of the Turkmen, including the Islamist-nationalist Islami Buyukdogu Akincilar Cephesi (Great Eastern Islamic Raiders–Front, IBDA-C), which has been named a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. In the 1990s, it was responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks on civilian targets, including a 1993 attack on a Turkish Alevi cultural event in Sivas. IBDA-C leader Salih Mirzabeyoglu, arrested in 1998, famously claimed his actions were caused by “mind control.”

Yet by 2014 the IBDA-C had been partially rehabilitated politically, and Mirzabeyoglu was released from prison and even met with President Erdogan. Members of a group connected to IBDA-C, the Musluman Anadolu Gencligi (Muslim Anatolian Youth, MAG), have since reportedly joined Turkmen rebels in Lattakia, and the group has mourned members killed in fighting for Jabal al-Turkman.

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Halil Aydin Sari (left), a member of IBDA-C-linked MAG killed in battle in Syria in November 2015, poses alongside a comrade making the nationalist “wolf” hand signal.

Turkish nationalists

Turkish nationalist organizations such as Ulku Ocaklari and Alperen Ocaklari have also mobilized to assist Syria’s Turkmen. “Turkish nationalist groups started helping aid organizations after the Turkish public learned about the hardship Turkmen faced after the war started in Syria,” said Huseyin Rasit Yilmaz over e-mail. Yilmaz is an expert known for his work on Turkish nationalists at Turkey’s TEPAV think tank.

Ulku Ocaklari (Idealist Hearths) — also known as the Grey Wolves — is a nationalist youth organization affiliated with Turkey’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Ulku Ocaklari has been active providing relief to the Turkmen since the beginning of Syrian war and recently delivered 35 trucks of relief to Turkmen in northern Syria. The organization typically coordinates its provision of relief with the Syrian Turkmen Assembly.

For some of these organizations, trips inside Turkmen areas of Syria have been important means of demonstrating their nationalist bona fides. Ulku Ocaklari is big enough that it hardly needs the exposure, but smaller organizations like Alperen Ocaklari, the youth wing of the far-right Islamist-nationalist Buyuk Birlik Partisi (Great Unity Party), have been keen to use their relief to the Turkmen to market themselves. In November, Alperen Ocaklari announced with great fanfare that it would send 250 men to fight with the Turkmen in Jabal al-Turkman, but the trip into Syria may have been more of a photo op — its members who posed with Turkmen fighters inside Syria were back in Istanbul days later. The group continues to use the trip into Syria to fundraise. Even sitting MHP politicians have publicized their trips into Syria to visit Turkmen fighters.

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Alperen Ocaklari uses a photo from their trip to Jabal al-Turkman to solicit donations.

Other Turkish nationalists have actually joined the fight against the Assad regime and even died for the cause. In one of the best-known instances, Ulku Ocaklari member Selami Aynur was killed while fighting alongside Turkmen rebels against the Assad regime in Aleppo in March 2014.

“The death of Selami Aynur in Aleppo had a huge impact on the opinion of nationalists,” said Yilmaz. “Today among Turkish nationalists and Syrian Turkmen, the name Selami Aynur is the name of a hero. As soon as his coffin crossed the border into Turkey, nationalists stopped and paid tribute all the way to Giresun, and his funeral in Giresun was enormous.”

Among the most prominent Turkish nationalists now fighting inside Syria is Alparslan Celik, son of a former MHP official. Celik was part of the rebel brigade that reportedly shot and killed the Russian pilot who parachuted from his downed jet in November. According to one Turkish source who recently visited the border between Turkey and Jabal al-Turkman, nationalist recruits from different groups for Turkmen units have multiplied since Russia’s intervention, though they did not think the uptick in fighters was enough to make a real impact.

The evolving Turkish “mainstream”

That Turkish nationalists and Islamists would both rally around the Turkmen is not unprecedented. China’s oppression of its Uighur minority has likewise joined the two trends in outrage — for the nationalists, the Uighur are Turkic, and for the Islamists, they are Muslims. These two trends are not wholly exclusive, ideologically speaking. It is not unusual, for example, for Islamist rhetoric to also be framed in terms of Turkey’s Ottoman history. Likewise, the nationalist MHP has long had a religiously conservative wing.

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Turkish Islamist organization Oncu Nesil advertises its Jabal al-Turkman relief. The photos are part of a press release invoking both pan-Islamic solidarity and Ottoman sultans Mehmed II and Selim I.

The Turkmen issue has also come to the fore just as a broader rapprochement is taking place between Islamists and right-wing nationalists who no longer have to be outraged at the AK Party’s project of normalization with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK).

As for both Islamist and nationalist groups that had been on Turkey’s political fringe, the radicalizing effect of the Syrian war has shifted the bounds of what is considered “mainstream” and what is “fringe.” Many groups that would have previously been beyond the pale remain controversial but are now otherwise semi-normalized.

The view from the ground

Inside Syria, Liwa al-Mu’tasem Billah commander Firas Pasa said that people in his area had received assistance from Ulku Ocaklari and Imkander, as well as other Turkish organizations including Turkmen Der and the Turkish Red Crescent. Relief from Turkish organizations is vitally important in his area.

But Pasa and other interviewees inside northern Syria said the distinction between Arabs and Turkmen is not a particularly significant one. Pasa said that in practice most relief is distributed to locals in need, whether or not they are Turkmen.

“Honestly, we’ve never seen the Turkmen as set apart from Syrians generally,” said Ward Furati, a political officer in the Aleppo brigade Tajammu’ Fastaqim Kama Umirt, a mostly Sunni Arab group. He continued, “You can’t even distinguish them from Arabs.”

While Pasa was somewhat aware of the politics of some organizations now providing relief to Syrian Turkmen, he said that he and his fellow Syrians were mostly just concerned with getting urgently needed relief. “We don’t know about politics or political parties or trends in Turkey,” said Pasa. “In terms of what goes on inside Turkey, we don’t interfere. And honestly, we don’t have the right to interfere.”

Political differences between Turkish organizations that are stark in a domestic Turkish context seem less relevant inside Syria and among Syrian Turkmen themselves.

Still, the Turkmen are to some extent hostage to Turkish politics. Russian intervention has produced a welling of Turkish support for their Turkmen brothers. But will Turks from across the political spectrum still be invested in the Turkmen in half a year, when politicians and activists may not be able to use trips to Jabal al-Turkman to position themselves domestically?

After five years of crushing war, the Turkmen are in desperate need of assistance, no matter the agenda behind it.

“We, the Syrian people and Syrian Turkmen, are in need,” said Pasa. “It doesn’t matter to us if some [organization] is nationalist or Islamic. What matters to us is that we receive support, from whoever.”

 

Sam Heller is a freelance writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem. S.G. Grimaldi is the pen name of a Washington-based analyst focused on Turkey and the Caucasus. Follow S.G. on Twitter: @Ncaucasuscaucus.

CORRECTION: This article originally used an incorrect exchange rate for the Turkish Lira. That error has been corrected. Thank you to someone in the comments section for pointing this out. 

Photo credit: Alperen Ocakları İstanbul İl Başkanlığı