Turkey says Russia is 'ethnically cleansing' Turkmen. Who are they?

Turkey has accused Russia of targeting ethnic Turkmen in Syria under the guise of anti-Islamic State bombings. The attacks, both verbal and violent, highlight ethnic conflicts guiding two countries' policies as they vie for regional control. 

Armed Syrian Turkmen villagers near the Turkish-Syrian border in northern Syria are photographed on November 24, 2015. That day, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border, claiming it had violated Turkish air space.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told foreign reporters that Russia's supposedly anti-Islamic State (IS) bombings in northern Syria amount to "ethnic cleansing" of the Syrian Turkmen minority, alleging that the Russians sought to flush out Sunni Muslims from the northwestern regions where it has military bases. 

"Their fight is not with Daesh [Islamic State]," Mr. Davutoglu said Wednesday, accusing Russian bombers not only of targeting moderate anti-government rebels rather than IS, but of endangering civilian populations, as well.

The claim that Russia is targeting Turkmen, who migrated to Syria centuries ago as an Ottoman buffer against Arab influence, predates Turkey's downing of a Russian jet on November 23, which set off the worst crisis in Turkish-Russian relations in decades.

In remarks about the downed plane, which Turkey says had repeatedly violated its airspace, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that there was no IS presence in the area, only Turkmen forces, part of the "moderate rebel" group fighting both Assad's regime and IS. Mr. Erdogan called Turkmen "our brothers and sisters," referring to their Turkic heritage.

"Only Allah knows why they did it. And Allah apparently wanted to punish Turkey’s ruling clique by taking away its reason and consciousness," Russian President Vladimir Putin fumed in his December 3 State of the Nation speech. To avenge the death of its two pilots, Russia quickly implemented economic sanctions against Turkey, projected to cost the country $9 billion in the coming year. 

But the plight of Syria's Turkmen, whose militias may have worked with Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, highlights the much wider rift between Russian and Turkish aims in the Syrian conflict, now approaching its sixth year, as both vie for influence in a changing region.

Turkmen fighters claimed to have shot the Russian bomber's two pilots as they tried to parachute to safety. But Turkey maintains that Russia's attacks on Turkmen villages leading up to the jet incident – and intensifying since then – belie Putin's argument that Russia's planes are attacking IS strongholds. According to Reuters, more than 80 percent of Russia's Syrian targets have not been IS groups

Of the 200,000 to 300,000 Turkmen estimated to have lived in Syria before the war, only a few tens of thousands remain. Roughly 5,000 have been displaced by Russian attacks, seeking refuge at the Turkish border.

"We couldn't even fire up our ovens," one young woman told the BBC after leaving her village. "At night we had to make sure all the lights were switched off because as soon as they see a light, they bomb it."

"We don't know who is fighting who anymore and for what," she said. 

Many Turkmen communities joined revolts against the Assad regime because of the government's longstanding repression of Turkmen culture and language. Although the pre-war population made up only 1 percent of Syrians, some Turkmen leaders maintain that the actual number is far higher: "Arabization" policies may have successfully assimilated three million more. Thousands have now joined the Syrian Turkmen Brigades coalition, which opposes both Assad and IS.

"We want to overthrow Assad's regime and set up a democracy in Syria, where all ethnic and religious groups can live together in peace," rebel chief Mahmoud Suleiman told Agence France-Presse in 2013.

Part of Russia's involvement in Syria stems from concern that instability, and the spread of IS ideology, could one day become a threat at home, particularly in primarily Muslim Chechnya. However, Muslim leaders in Russia have so far supported the country's bombing in Syria, hoping to stem the tide of extremism. 

"The vast common neighborhood of the two former empires, which even a year ago looked a promising area for their interest-based cooperation, is turning into an area of contention," Al Jazeera's Dmitri Trenin notes. "And as Syria’s conflict remains unresolved, the gulf between the two countries seems only to be widening."

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