Al Jazeera World

Syrian Turkmen: Fighting to Survive

The story of Syria’s Turkmen minority, their persecution under the Assad regime and struggle to survive the ongoing war.

Filmmaker: Mehmet Akif Aksoy

The Turkmen are an ethnic minority in Syria whose ancestors were Turkic peoples who fanned out across Central and East Asia in the 11th century. The Ottomans encouraged them to migrate south, so when the Ottoman Empire was divided after World War I, their descendants found themselves in the very north of Syria, close to the Turkish border.

President Bashar al-Assad‘s Syria is a secular, socialist republic and in pursuing a policy of “Arab unity”, it doesn’t recognise many, if any, ethnic minorities. As such, the Turkmen suffered institutional discrimination over religion, employment and education for many years and were forbidden from writing and publishing in their native Turkish dialect.


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When they took part in the March 2011 uprising against the Syrian government, they suffered harassment, attacks, arrests and torture.

“The [government’s] prisons are two levels below ground,” says Adil Orli, commander of Camp 1071, a training facility in the Turkmen Mountain region near the Turkish border.

“There’s no sunlight. And nothing to do. You sit and wait for your turn. Whenever you hear footsteps, you understand. This one beats really badly. Oh no, he’s here again. You start praying. He comes by the door as you are praying. He takes two more steps. Okay, it’s not my turn … it’s my friend’s. Then you start praying for your friend. But whenever he stops by the door and opens it, your life ends there. You can hardly stand up. You’re going to get a beating. If they question you, you know you’re in for a beating,” he says.

The Syrian Turkmen are not often in the news – but they did briefly hit the headlines in 2015 when a Russian plane was shot down on the Turkey-Syria border.

Initial reports were that Turkmen fighters had shot down the plane and killed the pilot. The Turkish air force later claimed responsibility.

But the result was a Russian escalation of attacks on Turkmen areas, displacing 300,000 Turkmen from northern Latakia alone. Since then, Syrian government forces have taken control of many villages and hilltops on the Turkmen Mountain.

Many of the families and villagers featured in the film have had to flee to Turkey, although a few have determinedly remained behind. Camp 1071 has now closed and its fighters spread across opposition armed groups.

In July 2017, the latest round of Syrian peace talks in Astana designated four de-escalation zones aimed at reducing the violence in those areas. One of these included parts of Latakia Province which covers the Turkmen Mountain. But the word from the Turkmen in this film is that the Astana talks and de-escalation zones have made very little difference on the ground – that the Turkmen struggle continues and that their outlook remains bleak.