Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian fighter jet over the border with Syria was a first in the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) and may yet become a pivotal moment in the unfolding of the Syrian civil war, but it did not come out of nowhere. Over the last week pressure has been building within Turkey over the assault on Syrian rebel positions by the Russian Air Force and ground forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The territory in question is doubly sensitive to anti-Assad Turks. Not only is the mountainous region west of the city of Jisr-al-Shugur a crucial strategic point connecting the rebel-controlled inland of north-central Syria to the Assad regime’s coastal and largely Alawite stronghold of Latakia. Located just across the border from the Turkish province of Hatay, the area is also home to an enclave of ethnic Turkmens, whose ethnic heritage is central to Turkey’s own national story.
Early last week pro-regime forces including Assad’s allies in Hezbollah and allied Shiite militias began bearing down on the region around that Turks call the Turkmen Mountain, which the Sunni Islamist Army of Conquest (Fetih Ordusu or Jaish-al-Fatah) had occupied the week before: according to pro-government media, to reinforce an allied Turkmen militia. With air support from the Russians, the pro-regime forces have been hammering the coalition of rebel groups comprising the Army of Conquest, and by Monday had retaken the strategic mountain position.
On the eve of the regime victory alarm spread among Turkish nationalists that the Turkmen brethren were in danger of slaughter or even ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Damascus regime and its foreign allies. For Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli, enraged and indignant speeches on Ankara’s failure to protect fellow Turkish-speakers provided a way to regain relevance at a time when Turkey’s ruling party has largely sidelined its right-wing rival by coopting its hardline posture toward the Kurds.
As always when the ultranationalists mobilize, folly marched with them. When angry young men from the Ülkü and Alperen Ocakları protested in front of the Dutch Consolate in Istanbul, mistaking it for its Russian neighbor, those not partial to the group’s ideology of “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” remembered the summer’s street attacks on Koreans whom the lads mistook for Chinese. The occasion for those attacks, which Bahçeli defended under the rationale that “they all have slanted eyes,” was anger over a Chinese security crackdown in the Turkic Muslim Uygur region.
Who is Fighting on the Turkmen Mountain?
The battles in the mountainous region just across from a southward dip in the Turkish border are the result of an intensification of the civil war in the region that has been brewing since the formation of the Army of Conquest out of several different oppositional groups in the spring. Security experts, and not just those who oppose the ruling party’s policies, date the emergence of the new umbrella group back to a meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and newly crowned Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on February 28.
According to Oytun Orhan, the ascension of a new king in Riyadh led to a review of foreign policy inspired by the need to unify Sunni militant forces to counter the growing regional influence of Iran. Differences between Sunni powers—such as Erdoğan’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the Saudis have helped Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s dictatorship suppress—had to be set aside at a time when Iranian assistance was becoming an increasingly visible component of Assad’s campaigns. The new unity brokered by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar enabled rebel forces to make impressive gains in Northern Syria by early summer, including capturing the province of İdlib near the Turkish border and bolstering the rebel defense of the western part of Aleppo.
The new coalition encompassed the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front (Jabhat Al-Nusra) as well as brigades identified with the Free Syrian Army. Another major component of the alliance is the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant (Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiyya), a group whose history exemplifies many of the complexities of the Syrian civil war. Formed in 2011 even before the war began in earnest, the group formed around a core of Islamists whom Assad had released from the Sednaya Prison in an amnesty initiative between March and May of that year. Assad’s enemies see this step as a sly move to create a Jihadist opposition that would justify his war effort in the eyes of the West.
The group never recognized the Syrian National Council, which had been the public face of western support for the uprising, because the Council would not expressly commit to the imposition of Islamic Law (Shariah) in a post-Assad Syria. Yet in an interview with Turkish Al Jazeera, former US Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford made a case for working with Ahrar ash-Sham. Such statements provide the background to some media coverage of the Turkmen Mountain battle, as when Aydınlık newspaper’s headline announced the pro-Assad offensive as “a blow to the USA.”
What exactly the Turkmen villagers make of the new balance of forces in their region is anyone’s guess. Justice and Development Party (AKP) politicians have tried to make their name synonymous with the government’s policies, but the opposition claims otherwise. Journalist İbrahim Varlı of the socialist newspaper BirGün writes that, “in spite of the AKP’s provocations the greater part of the Turkmens remains on the side of the regime.”
This was also the claim of Ali Türkmani, head of a local professional organization and a man anti-AKP media present as prominent in the Turkmen community. He told Turkish journalists that reports of regime forces targeting civilians were “lies” and that the target was not the Turkmens but rather fundamentalist militants primarily drawn from foreign countries, in particular the Caucasus and Chechnya. Turkmen lawyer Ali Öztürkmen told Aydınlık newspaper that massacres of Turkmens in rebel-held Aleppo and IS-held Raqqa did not elicit a response by those now beating the drums about a prospective massacre at the hands of the pro-Assad coalition.
Even Tarık Sulo Cevizci, head of an Istanbul-based Syrian Turkmen organization that strongly opposes the Russian offensive, told television journalists that the steadily ballooning numbers of Turkmen refugees cited by nationalist groups in Turkey were greatly exaggerated, as the greater part of the Turkmen community along the border emigrated already at the beginning of the civil war.
Wherever the Turkmens’ sympathies may lie, now that a Russian jet and two helicopters have been downed over their territory, Turkmen villagers fearing Russian retribution have again been massing at the border to seek refuge in Turkey. There can be no question that a human tragedy is unfolding in the region, even if the exact numbers will always be a matter of partisan dispute.
Who’s the Terrorist?
However people in Washington may feel about the Ahrar ash-Sham, there can be no doubt that the group enjoys the support of Erdoğan’s Turkey. İbrahim Varlı of BirGün believes that these “Free Men” were the intended recipients of two trucks full of weapons intercepted by Turkish gendarmes in January 2014. The trucks belonged to the intelligence services and the gendarmes were quickly fired and investigated for treason. Cumhuriyet newspaper’s general editor Can Dündar now faces the threat of an aggravated life sentence for pursuing the matter in print.
Another newspaper and several television stations that furthered Dündar’s investigations have been either closed down or taken over by the state, when the government invoked a law concerning commercial malpractice to seize their parent corporation from its Fethullah Gülen-affiliated owners. Gülenists are also presumed to have tipped off the gendarmes who stopped the trucks, and the case has become an occasion for the government to designate Gülen’s religious-political “community” a “terrorist organization.”
At the time Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu insisted that the weapons (which he denied were weapons) were bound for “the Turkmens.” The shipments were supposedly part of a campaign of humanitarian aid to the community, but representatives of Turkmen organizations in the region told journalists that they had not received the promised aid from the Turkish state. These denials intensified suspicions as to what a government that so zealously pursues any investigation of its actions must be hiding.
The issue of the inspected trucks has returned to the forefront for Erdoğan’s loyalists and opponents alike. The President himself now holds the “traitors” who held up the weapons shipments responsible for the Turkmen’s fate. Liberal intellectual and former Erdoğan supporter Ahmet Altan voiced the fears of many in the Turkish opposition when he wrote that his countrymen should brace themselves for the emergence of conclusive proof that the Turkish state has come to the aid of IS. Without necessarily naming that group, many have read Erdoğan’s recent statement as a “confession” of armed support for radical Islamists.
The suspicion that Erdoğan’s government supports fundamentalist militants has been gaining ground in the western media of late, and has now become a prominent feature of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric as well. While readers opposed to the Assad regime have good reason to be suspicious of Putin’s claims, we should not dismiss them on account of their speaker’s intentions. Everything from logistical support for IS militants fighting the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) to Seymour Hersh’s allegations that rebels acquired chemical weapons from Turkey have been in the Turkish media long before they made their way to Washington or Moscow. The “revelations” of Turkey’s support for jihadists including IS have attracted the high-profile attention of Columbia University researchers, but their substance has been the stuff of articles in Turkey’s oppositional media for almost two years.
Peace at Home, Peace in the World
Turkey is a country traditionally averse to foreign military intervention. Atatürk’s famous adage, “Peace at Home, Peace in the World” (Yurtta Sulh, Cihanda Sulh or Yurtta Barış, Dünyada Barış in modernized Turkish), still inscribed on signs and monuments throughout the country, traditionally means that Turkey is to defend its own borders with vigilance while abstaining from foreign adventures. This dual responsibility implies an unwritten contract between the Republic of Turkey and other nations, and solidifies the former’s jealously guarded membership in the international family of states.
In practice this principle entails the duty to ruthlessly repress internal rebellions, and colors the Turkish perception of separatist challenges to state power to this day. Not only the PKK but also non-violent elements of the Kurdish national movement are widely regarded as instruments of an imperialist plot to “divide and conquer” the region. Nationalist suspicions of foreign encirclement have intensified with every sign of US support for Kurdish forces, from the establishment of an autonomous state in Northern Iraq a decade ago to the recent US air support for YPG forces fighting IS.
As the multiple conflicts in Iraq and Syria over the last ten years spill across those country’s borders, the Kurdish conflict in Turkey has become an international affair. In the aftermath of IS bombings against Turkish Kurds and retaliatory attacks by the PKK against the Turkish police and military, the long-touted Kurdish peace process has come to a halt. Pitched battles between militants and security forces are once again raging in southeastern Turkey, this time in cities where local politicians have had the gall to declare “autonomy” from a central government they accuse of siding with IS and other fundamentalist militants.
This time, the Turkish repression of Kurdish rebellion, along with the targeting of civilians it always brings with it, has a new face, with the complexion of the conflict taking place across the border. Citizens of the besieged city of Silvan have reported that the special forces lately terrorizing their cities are “different” from the ones they’re used to seeing over the last three decades: older men with long beards, speaking Arabic and shouting Allahü Ekber in the place of the customary military chants, leaving graffiti on the walls calling themselves the Esedullah team, i.e. “the lions of God.” Many locals conclude that Turkey now has a new “deep state,” manned with fundamentalists in the place of the old MHP cadres.
Turkish bombings of northern Syria in the context of its renewed “war on terror” have by all accounts focused on YPG forces at the same time that these are fighting IS. Though anti-Assad Turkmen representatives do not support IS—their statements on social media lament the growth of the group they regard as de facto allies of the Syrian regime—they do share the Turkish government’s tendency to prioritize struggle with the YPG over struggle with IS. Tarık Sulo Cevizci’s twitter page calls on Turks to help fortify the Turkmen Mountain as the last fortress blocking the creation of a “Greater Kurdistan,” and in an interview he has spoken supportively of a joint US-Turkish plan to create a “secure zone” with the help of Ahrar-aş-Şam, and vows that Democratic Union Party (PYD) encroachment will never be permitted there. Nor are Turkmen militiamen innocent of the inter-communal violence that has swept across the region: critical sources note their involvement in massacres of local Armenians and Alawites during Al-Nusra’s first push through the region in March 2013.
Militarily and discursively, the Kurdish conflict is slowly becoming another front in the war between political Islam and its many enemies. The shrinking of Turkish political space around the defense of a unitary Sunni millet is most visible in the distinctly Islamist face and voice of many attacks on Kurdish and oppositional civilians in Turkey this year, not only those attributed to IS. With saddening frequency over the last year, city streets from Silvan to Istanbul have heard the cry Allahü Ekber issued as a call to violence rather than to prayer.
This does not mean that avowedly religious Turks are the only ones to produce noteworthy praise for Erdoğan’s policies. A self-styled “secular supporter” of Erdoğan, Ceren Kenar is a journalist and activist whose Young Civilians NGO has garnered praise from Hillary Clinton. After the jet was downed, she tweeted a photograph of her beloved president sitting in a fighter jet below the comment, “With love from Turkey.” The caption below the photo was more telling: “Yes you can, Obama!” It is tempting to read into this cheeky allusion a clue to the intentions behind the act it praises.
Was Russia’s decision to pick a fight with Turkey by breaching its air space a calculated move to force the USA to take sides vis-à-vis allegations of Turkish state support for jihadi terrorism? Or was Turkey’s decision to shoot down the jet that had flown over its territory for all of seventeen seconds a calculated move to force the USA, long distracted by the terrorist threat from IS, back into the conflict with Putin, Assad and Iran?
The Syrian civil war has reached a point at which anti-imperialism is hard to disentangle from its opposite. His army exhausted, Bashar al-Assad has come increasingly to depend on foreign allies to suppress a rebellion that is also increasingly dominated by foreigners. Ethnic and religious minorities are caught in the middle, their self-defense dependent on taking one side or the other and reproducing its necessarily distorted picture of the overall conflict. As distinct cultural groups appeal to the dominant discourse of neighboring nations for support, ethnic conflicts intensify, and become more strongly intertwined with the sectarian ones that have long defined the war.
We can expect this dynamic to continue for as long as those powers who have succeeded in turning Syria’s rebellion into a proxy war remain more focused on fighting each other than on the purportedly common struggle with IS. Which power block is more responsible for the current stagnation will continue to be hotly debated, but it must be lifted if progressives in Turkey are to have any chance to breath. One hundred years ago, war with Russia set the stage for a series of harrowing tragedies. Today, the prospect of such a war plays into the hands of the extreme Right.
Editors’ note: This is the first of two articles examining the current Russian-Turkish confrontation with an eye to its domestic political ramifications in the two countries. Ilya Budraitskis’s corresponding article on the Russian scene will appear later this week.