The Turkish-backed ethnic Turkmen minority are probably the least well-known of all the groups fighting against the Assad regime in Syria. Reports that Turkmen may have killed the pilots who ejected from the Russian warplane Turkey shot down on Tuesday has put the spotlight on them, their relationship with Turkey, and their role in the Syrian civil war. To help better understand all of this, I called up Henri Barkey, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an expert on Turkey. He explained how the Turks use the Turkmen as a political tool and offered his predictions about the likely reaction from the Russians.
What follows is a transcript of our discussion, lightly edited for clarity.
Jennifer R. Williams: What is the role of the Turkmen in the Syrian conflict?
Henri Barkey: Information about the Turkmen minority in Syria is very murky, and nobody really knows what their numbers are. The Turks have been using them as another boot fighting Assad. In the context of today's incident, the problem is that it's dicey for Turkey if the Turkmen killed the Russian pilots, as media reports are suggesting, because according to international law you're not supposed to fire at parachuters. I think the Russians will be much angrier at the killing of the pilots than the downing of plane. It will be a very emotional issue. It will be interesting to see how the Russians deal with it, whether Putin makes a big deal over the funerals, whether he'll play it up domestically. He may decide not to make a big fuss.
Jennifer R. Williams: What has been the relationship between Turkey and the Turkmen minority in the past?
Henri Barkey: The Turks have always used the Turkmen not just in Syria but also in Iraq. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Turks played the Turkmen card and used them as leverage against the Kurds in Iraq. It backfired on them in two ways: 1) They discovered that the Turkmen were not really loyal to Turkey and were more loyal to their Shia identity; in the first elections after the 2003 invasion, the Turkmen party received an embarrassingly low number of votes. And 2) Turkmen militias were involved in plot to kill the governor of Kirkuk [in Iraq]. So it has always backfired for them.
If the Turks play this card again now, it will be slightly different because the Turkmen in Syria are Sunni, not Shia, so it's a somewhat different situation. But the point is that when you have groups like that, they don't necessarily obey your rules, and they create problems for you down the road.
The Turks have always used the Turkmen, especially against the Kurds. They talk about Turkmen rights as a way of denigrating Kurdish rights, even though the Kurds are more numerous. In fact, yesterday I believe the Turks filed a complaint with the UN Security Council saying that the Russians were committing atrocities and genocide against the Turkmen in these exact areas. So there was already tension between Turkey and Russia even before this.
Jennifer R. Williams: How do you think this incident will affect Turkish-Russian relations?
Henri Barkey: Until recently, the Turks and the Russians had succeeded in compartmentalizing their differences over Syria. Because they're on opposite sides: Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Turks have tried to do everything they could to overthrow Assad, and Russia has done everything they could to keep Assad in power. But it didn't affect the relationship between [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Putin until recently, with the major Russia intervention in Syria. Now we're seeing increasing escalations. We're seeing now a major change in Turkish-Russian relations.
This also undermines the efforts of [French President François] Hollande, who is coming to talk to Obama about creating a grand coalition to counter ISIS that would include Russia. Hollande was supposed to go to Moscow after. This undermines that. And of course, there's also the issue that a NATO member country shot down a Russian warplane, and all the potential ramifications that could have. We'll have to see.