International Security

Turkmen: The Missing Piece in the Syria-Iraq Debate


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October 13, 2014 22:40 EDT

The Turkmen across Syria and Iraq are stuck between sectarian conflict and Kurdish nationalism.

Syria and Iraq are now one battleground involving local militants, governments and foreign jihadists. In this mix, ethnic Turkmen are the largest population that is seldom talked about. Yet with over 4 million people spread across the hottest areas of the conflict, Turkmen are one of the groups suffering most under the twin assaults of the Assad regime and the so-called “Islamic State” (IS), a jihadist group that has seized portions of Syria and Iraq.

Unlike the Kurds — the largest stateless ethnic group in the region —  the Turkmen are not armed and are now struggling for their survival. Their continued existence is important because, as traditional moderates and natural links to Turkey, the Turkmen could be vital in building peace after the dust settles.

Who are the Turkmen?

Though the Turkmen are culturally and linguistically similar to their kin in Turkey, their tribes first settled in the region in the 9th century. Renowned for their horsemanship and soldiering, Turkmen tribes, in one way or another, were part of the military elite up until the early 1900s. They became part of the Ottoman Empire with the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, the Ottoman’s legendary victory over the Safavid Empire. The Ottomans took care to settle Turkmen along the cities on route to the Hijaz — present-day Saudi Arabia — to secure the pilgrimage path.

As the Ottoman Empire disintegrated in the wake of World War I, the Turkmen found themselves as a minority in the two Arab-majority Kingdoms of Syria and Iraq. The past century then brought de-colonization, Arab nationalism and war. Yet Turkmen have managed to preserve their way of life. They speak a dialect of modern Turkish at home, but many are more comfortable with Arabic. Their practice of Islam remains close to the moderate Anatolian tradition.

Syria’s Turkmen

Syria’s Turkmen are located in the Levantine Latakia province and the northern regions of Aleppo and Raqqa, close to the Turkish border, as well as the central city of Homs. The Syrian regime, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, has often fudged their population numbers, leading experts to think of the Turkmen as a tiny minority. The true figure of Syrian Turkmen is likely to be much higher. Turkmen leaders claim they number 3.5 million. No reliable census exists to verify these claims, but taking a number of known Turkmen-majority villages into account, these authors estimate that there are between 2-3 million Turkmen in Syria.

The Turkmen had a good start in Syria. Two of the Arab Republic’s early presidents were Turkmen, including the two-term President Hashim al-Atassi, whose family remains influential in Homs. Starting in the 1960s, however, the pan-Arab Baathist movement sidelined non-Arabs from politics. Then-President Hafez al-Assad’s rule was devastating to the Turkmen. He banned Turkish-language education, eradicated traces of Turkmen culture and redistributed the community’s land. Squeezed out of their possessions and way of life, the Turkmen identity was pushed out of the public eye.

Syria and Iraq are now one battleground involving local militants, governments and foreign jihadists. In this mix, ethnic Turkmen are the largest population that is seldom talked about. 

The civil war in Syria of the past three years has rekindled Turkmen politics. At the beginning of the conflict in 2011, most Turkmen joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a moderate rebel group. As more Syrians took up arms, they formed their own brigades under the FSA umbrella. What is certain is there are currently more than ten armed Turkmen groups defending their positions against the Assad regime or IS. Despite being Sunni-majority, very few Turkmen seem to have joined IS ranks — certainly the least of all other Sunni groups. “They couldn’t find people among us because the Turkmen way of life is different from theirs,” Abdurrahman Mustafa, the president of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly said. “That made us ISIL’s [IS] number one target.”

The Iraqi Turkmen

Iraq’s roughly 2 million Turkmen are spread over a strip of land between the Kurds and Arabs, ranging from Mosul to Diyala province. Their recent history has not been easier than their kin in Syria. Starting in the late 1950s, the Iraqi regime massacred Turkmen elites, closed their schools, renamed their villages and, in many instances, forced them to change their names under a policy of Arabization. This was done by the communist regime, as well as the Baathists and Saddam Hussein later on. Despite the merciless campaign, however, they held onto more of their wealth and social standing than Syria’s Turkmen. Nouri al-Said, a former Iraqi prime minister and the son of a Turkish Pasha, and many of his colleagues who served before the coup in 1958 were Turkmen. More recent notables include journalists Nermin el-Mufti and Abbas Ahmet, or the poetess Munevver Molla Hassun.

In 1995, Iraq’s Turkmen founded the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) with Turkey’s assistance. The ITF served as an umbrella group for regional Turkmen political leaders, which allowed them to organize in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. That stands in contrast to Syrian Turkmen, who only formed political organizations at the onset of the civil war. By the time Iraq formed its first government in 2005, the Turkmen had a civil body of elected leaders, representatives in the Iraqi parliament and offices in foreign capitals, including Ankara, Washington DC and London. But the organization lacked one critical element to wield power in Iraq: weapons. To this day, its lightly armed militia can barely protect its leaders from assassination attempts.

This inability to take and hold territory has come at a high price to the Turkmen community during the IS surge this summer. The Turkmen suffered terrible blows in Tuz Kharmatu, Tel Afer, which is their biggest territory, and Amirli, a city between Kirkuk and Baghdad. Most affected Turkmen tribes had no choice but to flee from IS advances. Shiite Turkmen were subject to the worst massacres, but Sunni tribes have also fallen prey to IS. One Sunni Turkmen leader allegedly killed his two daughters with poison upon IS’ approach. The only group strong enough to put up a fight have been the Abbasiyun, the largest of Tel Afer’s Sunni Turkmen tribes.

Yet the sectarian division in Iraq’s Turkmen tribes has become undeniable. Sunni Turkmen, who make up roughly half of its community in Iraq, were a double minority during Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-majority rule. When IS called for Sunni tribes to rise up against Baghdad, some of them answered. Sources suggest that a number of Turkmen are now in high-ranking positions in IS. The group might also be taking advantage of its Turkmen members for its contacts with Turkey. When IS attacked the Turkish consulate in Mosul and took 46 citizens hostage, it was the jihadist group’s Turkmen members who communicated with the captives, according to some accounts.

But the ITF remains devoted to its founding principle of including both sects among its members. Ersad Salihi, the ITF’s leader, pointed out in a talk in Ankara that three of its candidates for Mosul’s elections were Sunnis and have been kidnapped by IS. The ITF, he says, has been the jihadist group’s main target in Mosul, despite the entirely Sunni makeup in the city.

Turkmen: Kurdish Relations in Iraq

One important dynamic for Iraqi Turkmen’s future is their relationship with the Kurds. Nominally, the two communities are allies. The Turkmen occupy a handful of seats in the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament, and Turkmen forces have fought alongside the Peshmerga — Kurdish armed forces — against IS. Under the surface, however, things are more complicated.

The Turkmen do not receive the protection Christian minorities get, nor do they have the institutional makeup to defend themselves the way the Kurds have. They are alone on the frontlines of the IS onslaught and their numbers are thinning by the day.

The Kurds have held up better against the IS onslaught than the Iraqi army, giving them more sway in the country’s future. When the army fled the city fearing an IS attack, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), ordered his forces to seize control of Kirkuk, which Kurds see as their historical capital. For Turkmen, this was a serious encroachment on their presence.

Kurdish and Turkmen territories overlap across several critical territories. Turkmen leaders like to point out that half a century ago, most of Erbil’s population was Turkmen. More importantly, however, the Turkmen were the majority in Kirkuk’s center before 2003. After the Saddam regime was toppled, Peshmerga troops stormed into the city’s downtown area and vandalized many Turkmen and Arab properties. They also had the foresight to burn land deeds from Kirkuk’s Land Registry Office, to prevent Turkmen from taking back their property in future lawsuits. The Turkmen who remained in Kirkuk have been struggling to hold onto their place ever since. Now that the city is entirely in Kurdish hands, the Turkmen fear they will be forced out entirely.

Yet Salihi has not abandoned hope of Turkmen-Kurdish cooperation. He wants to negotiate with the Kurdish leadership to lend Kirkuk a special status that would allow it to flourish as a pluralistic city after the war. “We shared the suffering and prison of the Saddam years with our Kurdish brothers,” he said at a meeting in Ankara, “but we wish that we had been included in the political process after 2003, just like they were.”

International Help

Part of the Turkmen’s dire situation is due to the lack of foreign aid. The US and Europe have been timid about arming rebel groups, much less identifying the Turkmen specifically as a community in need of protection.

In August, when IS laid siege to Amirli in Iraq, the only aid the Shiite Turkmen town had for nearly two months was a helicopter that carried supplies in from Baghdad twice a week. For months, the only foreign power to help them during the siege was Iran, sending its famous Gen. Kassim Suleimani to the Shiite Turkmen’s aid. Only in September did US drones provide enough air cover for the population to be evacuated. That stands in stark contrast to the sensitivity Western countries have showed for Christian and Yazidi minorities.

At least part of this is due to the assumption that Turkey stands as a natural ally to the Turkmen and will provide any aid necessary. However, that has not entirely been the case. Ankara does have good relations with the Turkmen, donning out generous educational scholarships in the past and, more recently, humanitarian assistance.

But the big brother to the north has proved timid when it comes to war. Syrian Turkmen lament that Turkey has provided little beyond a trickle of light weaponry — none more, according to Turkmen leaders, than it gave to Sunni Arab groups. “If we had received the weapons we desperately asked Turkey for,” a Turkmen commander said, “the majority-Turkmen areas would have been free of the ISIS [IS] threat.” The president of the Syria Turkmen Council, Abdurrahman Mustafa, said: “As ISIS [IS] parades around with the scud missiles and tanks it got from its Raqqa raid, we have to worry about how to save ammunition for our rifles.”

The matter has become a sore point with Turkey’s AK Party government. The Nationalist People’s Party (MHP), the country’s second-largest opposition party, has repeatedly called on the government to increase its aid to the Turkmen. Ahmet Davutoglu, then-foreign minister and the current prime minister, periodically assures them that his government has been helping the Turkmen as much as possible. Yet the MHP does not seem convinced. This summer, parliamentarians got into a fistfight when Sinan Ogan of the MHP gave a fiery speech condemning the government’s inaction. More recently, leftists such as the Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), have also accused the AK Party of neglecting the Turkmen.

That leaves the Turkmen in a precarious position. The Turkmen do not receive the protection Christian minorities get, nor do they have the institutional makeup to defend themselves the way the Kurds have. They are alone on the frontlines of the IS onslaught and their numbers are thinning by the day.

If that continues, it will significantly impoverish the region. The Turkmen have much to offer by helping to rebuild Syria and Iraq — whatever shape those territories will take. Economically, they are a natural link to the commercial centers across the border in Turkey. More importantly, the Turkmen are moderates with a tradition of local, representative government. That is why anyone with a stake in the region’s stability should be concerned about the Turkmen’s predicament between Arab sectarianism and Kurdish nationalism today.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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