Russian planes have been bombing ethnic Turkmen in Syria, escalating tensions between Moscow and Ankara.
The Turkish government has promised protection to these groups, while Russia tends to regard them as dangerous insurgents who threaten both the Syrian government supported by Moscow and Russia itself.
After Russia’s Su-24 plane was shot down over an area with Turkmen camps, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared, “No one can legitimize attacks on Turkmens in Syria using the pretext of fighting Daesh.” Daesh is another name for ISIS. The Russians have insisted their primary objective in Syria is fighting the Islamic State.
Russia’s actual choice of bombing targets runs contrary to its official narrative. In the early days of its Syrian bombing campaign, Russia had a preference for bombing the sort of “moderate” rebel groups supported by the U.S. and other Western powers. On Friday, a Reuters data analysis showed Russian air strikes in northern Syria have “heavily targeted ethnic Turkmen areas.”
“Russian Defence Ministry data, collated by Reuters, shows the bombing raids have struck at least 17 named locations in Turkmen areas since President Vladimir Putin ordered them to begin on Sept. 30,” says the report.
“Russian missiles have destroyed ammunition bunkers, command points and a suicide bomb factory in towns including Salma, Ghmam and Kesladshuq to the west of Syria’s Alawite mountains, according to the data, an area humanitarian groups say is ethnically Turkmen,” Reuters continues. “Salma, which has a majority Turkmen population, has been bombed on at least eight occasions and has found itself at the center of some of the most geographically concentrated strikes.”
Samir Alo, head of the Higher Council of Turkmen in Syria, claimed the Russians were “heavily bombing Turkmen villages” before Turkish fighters shot down their Su-24 warplane. Alo said “thousands of Turkmen families have been driven to the border.”
The Turkish government insists there is no significant ISIS presence in the Latakia area where the Turkmen dwell. For their part, the Russians have been stressing the security risks posed by Turkmen insurgents. On Friday, Russia’s RT.com reported that one of the Syrian rebel commanders who boasted of having a hand in the Su-24 pilot’s death was Alparslan Celik, son of a mayor in Turkey’s Elazig province, and a member of a dangerous Turkish ultra-nationalist group called the Grey Wolves.
The Syrian civil war has been hard on the Turkmen, as with many other ethnic and religious minority groups in that fractious nation. Of the 300,000 Turkmen who have lived in Syria for generations, stretching back to a migration in the Middle Ages, Reuters estimates that as few as 25,000 remain in the area.