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Syria’s Turkmen: who they are, and what they have to do with Russia’s downed plane

A Syrian Turkmen leader.
A Syrian Turkmen leader.
(JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

After Turkish forces shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane on the Turkey-Syria border on Tuesday morning, disturbing reports emerged that members of a Syrian rebel group claimed to have killed the Russian pilots as they descended with parachutes after ejecting from their destroyed plane.

"Both of the pilots were retrieved dead. Our comrades opened fire into the air and they died in the air," Alpaslan Celik, a rebel commander, told Reuters.

To understand why Celik's rebels would even claim to do this, you need to know a little bit about who they are. These rebels aren't part of Syria's Arab majority: They're Turkmen, an ethnically Turkish minority in Syria that plays a unique role in the Syrian conflict — one that may have had something to do with the downing of Russia's aircraft in the first place.

Who are the Turkmen?

Turkmen children Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Turkmen children at a displaced children's camp. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkmen (not to be confused with people from Turkmenistan) are spread across several Middle Eastern countries but are mostly concentrated in Syria and Iraq. Their total population is thought to range from 1.5 to 3.5 million, though reliable estimates are hard to come by. Of those, somewhere in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 likely live in Syria, mostly in the country's north near the Turkish border.

The Turkmen arrived in what's now Syria centuries ago, as various different Turkic empires — first the Seljuks, then the Ottomans — encouraged Turkish migration into the territory to counterbalance the local Arab majority. Under Bashar al-Assad's rule, the mostly Sunni Muslim Turkmen in Syria were an oppressed minority, denied even the right to teach their own children in their own language (a Turkish dialect).

However, the Turkmen didn't immediately join the anti-Assad uprising in 2011. Instead, they were goaded into it by both sides. Assad persecuted them, treating them as a potential conduit for Turkish involvement in the Syrian civil war. Turkey, a longtime enemy of Assad, encouraged the Turkmen to oppose him with force. Pushed in the same direction by two major powers, the Turkmen officially joined the armed opposition in 2012.

Since then, they've gotten deeply involved in the civil war, receiving significant amounts of military aid from Ankara. Their location has brought them into conflict with the Assad regime, ISIS, and even the Western-backed Kurdish rebels (whom Turkey sees as a threat given its longstanding struggle with its own Kurdish population). Today, the Syrian Turkmen Brigades — the dominant Turkmen military faction — boast as many as 10,000 fighters, per the BBC, though the real number could be much lower.

Russia and the Turkmen

Turkmen rebel syria (JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkmen rebel fighter in Syria. (JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

The Turkmen role in the conflict has put them directly in Russia's crosshairs. The Russians, contrary to their stated goal of fighting ISIS, have directed most of their military efforts to helping Assad's forces fight rebels. The Turkmen have clashed repeatedly with Assad and his allies in the north — which led to Russian planes targeting Turkmen militants last week.

Turkey was not happy, and called in the Russian ambassador to register its disapproval. "It was stressed that the Russian side's actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages and this could lead to serious consequences," the Turkish foreign ministry said in a description of the meeting provided to Reuters.

And indeed, something "serious" happened Tuesday morning, when Turkish fighter planes shot down the Russian warplane. Turkey claimed the attack happened because the Russian plane violated its airspace, a claim that seems quite plausible. That might well be all that's going on here.

But it's also possible that the Turkish actions were influenced by Russia's attack on the Turkmen. The Russian plane appeared to have been flying over Syrian Turkmen territory at one point. It's possible that the Turks were, at least in part, attempting to send a message about Russian aggression in Turkmen territory.

"In recent days, thousands of civilians have fled over the border, saying they feared Russian bombing raids in support of regime forces in [a Turkmen-populated] area ... the clash that led to the downing of the Russian jet today may be connected to that fighting," Telegraph Middle East correspondents Louisa Loveluck and Richard Spencer write.

This would be consistent with what we've been hearing from Turkish officials recently. "Turkish media and officials have for weeks highlighted the plight of Syria’s small ethnic Turkmen population," BuzzFeed's Borzou Daragahi writes. One Turkish official, according to a report in Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper, told Russian officials that "Turkey won’t be indifferent to attacks targeting the life security of Turkmen."

Regardless of whether that was a motivating factor behind Turkey's actions on Tuesday, one thing is for sure: The Turkmen are clearly a growing source of tension between Russia and Syria, making them yet another complication in Syria's already-complicated civil war.

Watch: Syria's war — a 5-minute history