November 30, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Why Turkey Shot Down a Russian Jet
• In the vital region around Latakia, Syria, ethnic Turkmen rebel groups have been the target of intense Russian airstrikes in recent weeks
• Erdogan is determined to protect and promote ethnic Turks in Syria and elsewhere
• Mirroring Putin’s stated aim of protecting ethnic Russians regardless of their geography, Erdogan espouses a pan-Turkic foreign policy
• As Russian, Syrian, and Hizballah forces strike hard against groups such as Liwa Jabal-Turkmen (The Brigade of the Turkmen Mountain), there is increasing risk of more direct conflict between Turkey, a NATO member, and Russia.
There is an ethnic Turkic thread that runs through the Syrian civil war, pulling together local and regional actors. Syrian Turkmen rebel groups are primarily fighting in the region north of Latakia. They are supported by their ethnic Turkic brethren, to include the Chinese Uighurs and others from the former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. These fighters represent a serious worry for Russia; Turkey directly and substantially supports Turkic rebel groups, both indigenous to Syria and elsewhere, mainly from Central Asia. With focus on the war’s sectarian divisions, the Turkic ethnic issue was widely overlooked until the November 24 downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter jet by Turkish F-16s along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The situation in northern Syria between Russia and Turkey is getting worse in the aftermath of the downing of the jet. Russia has deployed advanced S-400 surface-to-air-missiles (SAM) and stepped up airstrikes against rebel groups supported by Turkey. These groups are predominately ethnic Turkmen, a population of at least several hundred thousand living in northern Syria. Much is made of Russian and Iranian determination to protect not just their national interests in Syria, but their ethnic and sectarian interests as well; Turkey is just as determined to protect the Turkmen fighting the Assad regime. It is difficult to overstate how much this issue resonates with Turkey’s President Erdogan and his government.
Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, helped found the Syrian Turkmen National Bloc in Istanbul in 2012, and continues to support it as well as the group’s military wing, the Syrian Turkmen Brigades. Ankara provides military support to the rebel fighters of Liwa Jabal al-Turkman and Sukr al-Turkmen, battling in the Assad coastal stronghold of Latakia, and to groups such as the Zahir Baybars Brigade, the Nour al-Din Zenki Movement, and Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in Aleppo. Turkey’s national intelligence organization, Millî ?stihbarat Te?kilat? (MIT), provides the rebel groups with information, training, and equipment. Ankara also provides humanitarian support to Turkmen villages and refugees along Syria’s northwestern border. Turkish aid convoys have been targeted repeatedly by Russian airstrikes, increasing local suffering and prompting geopolitical moves and countermoves.
It was the targeting of these Turkmen groups, villages, and convoys that led to Turkey summoning the Russian ambassador and demanding a halt to the strikes. Less than a week after, Turkey shot down the Russian jet. At the time of the downing, Russia was bombing units of Liwa Jabal al-Turkman near the border; the group later claimed to have killed one of the Russian pilots as he parachuted from his jet. On November 29, Turkey announced it had received the remains of the pilot, likely from the Jabal al-Turkman group.
The Turkic dynamic also includes Russian concerns over ethnic Turkic fighters from several of the former Soviet republics fighting in Syria and their potential to cause problems closer to Russia upon their return. Fighters from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have formed their own rebel groups in the hills above Latakia and elsewhere. Russia has made the targeting of these groups a priority, as it both helps relieve pressure on the Assad forces and reduces the numbers of Turkic fighters who potentially could return to central Asia and strike at the Russian sphere of influence. The ease of travel for ethnic Turkic into Turkey also facilitates the group’s increasing role in the war and beyond.
The so-called Islamic State also has a predominant Turkic element in its ranks. Its former second-in-command, Fadel Ahmed Abdullah al-Hiyali AKA Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, was an ethnic Turkmen from Nineveh, Iraq. Al-Turkmani played a significant role in the group’s military successes in 2014 and earlier. He was also reportedly instrumental in negotiating the September 2014 release of hostages from the Turkish consulate in Mosul. The current number two of the group, Abu Ali al-Anbari, is also a Turkmen from Nineveh, who reportedly traveled from Syria to Libya in recent weeks.
From Uzbekistan to Latakia, the issue of Turkic ethnicity helps shape several aspects of the Syrian war and the wider regional conflict. Erdogan’s determination to create a pan-Turkic sphere of influence is matched by Russia’s determination to target Syrian Turkmen fighting the Assad regime, and Turkic ethnic militants from Central Asia that might return to target Russian interests closer to home. The border between Syria and Turkey will be increasingly dangerous in the coming weeks and months, and the Turkic issue is one of many reasons for the escalation.
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