AMMAN: The majority of the ethnic Turkmen population in the north Homs and south Hama countrysides left their homes during the surrender and large-scale evacuation of opposition fighters and their supporters in mid-May, community leaders say.
Approximately 35,600 fighters and civilians left their homes in government-encircled north Homs and south Hama last month under a Russian-brokered surrender agreement that saw the region return to government control.
More than half of the evacuees—22,500 people—were of ethnic Turkmen descent, said Ibrahim al-Qasem, the head of the Turkmen High Council of the Central Area, citing assessments by the local councils in north Homs who registered evacuees last month. One north Homs local council head provided a similar figure. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the statistic.
Following the evacuation, only an estimated 15,000 Turkmen remain in north Homs and south Hama, said al-Qasem. The council he heads was founded in 2012 to represent and advocate for Turkmen interests in the formerly opposition-held pocket, as well as to promote Turkish culture and language.
Al-Qasem, who himself evacuated his home in north Homs with his family on May 16, said he and other residents who left feared both conscription and the threat of “killings and revenge” due to Turkey’s support for anti-Assad factions if they remained.
Evacuees from north Homs waiting to enter opposition-held areas in Idlib on May 14. Photo courtesy of Syrian Turkmen Youth.
Syria’s Turkmen descend from ethnic Turks whose presence in Syria dates back to the 10th century, when Ottoman rulers encouraged them to settle in the region. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, some Turkmen communities remained in the area.
Because the Syrian government does not recognize Turkmen as an ethnic minority and there are no centralized registries of the ethnicity of Syrian citizens, there are no official statistics on the number of Turkmens in Syria today, and estimates vary broadly, ranging from a few hundred thousand to more than three million.
Today, most Turkmen live in villages along the Turkish border with Latakia and Aleppo provinces, where they still speak Turkish, says researcher Fabrice Balanche, the author of the 2018 report “Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War,” published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Turkish-speaking Turkmen constitute “one percent” of the Syrian population, says Balanche, or no more than 200,000 people. That number does not include the Turkmen population in north Homs and south Hama, relatively few of whom continue to speak the language.
Ahmad Hamish, the head of the media office for the Turkey-based Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party and a researcher of Turkmen minority issues, claimed that while “only a small number of elderly people” in Homs and Hama speak Turkish, hundreds of thousands of people of Turkmen descent lived there before the war.
Turkmen were among the first Syrians to participate in early demonstrations against the government starting in 2011, Middle East Eye reported in 2015. And when the uprising became armed in 2012, Turkmen brigades sprang up under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army.
“We have taken part in the revolution since day one,” said Hamish.
Throughout the war, Turkmen militias maintained close ties with Turkey—an opponent of the Syrian government—Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst with the Silk Road Studies Programme told Middle East Eye in 2015. Throughout the war, Turkmen militias also received financial military support from and operated in direct coordination with Turkey, TRT World reported in 2017.
Long-standing support for the opposition, coupled with Turkmen’s links to Turkey, no matter how distant, left residents such as council head al-Qasem fearing “Turkmen would feel the revenge of al-Assad and his militias to a larger extent than others” if they stayed in their homes.
‘Difficult to return’
Evacuated Turkmen residents said they view the purported departure of most of the population in north Homs and Hama for rebel-held territory in northwestern Syria as the culmination of decades of politically motivated transformation of the ethnic composition of the area.
“What the regime and these mercenaries are undertaking are processes to change the demographic composition of the region,” said Ahmad Mustafa, a 33-year-old resident of the south Hama town of Talf who was evacuated to Idlib province in May.
“This is what they did years ago,” he said, “when these criminals committed ethnically motivated massacres resulting in the displacement of the Turkmen.”
Mustafa referred to a violent incident in the Turkmen-populated village of Tesnin in 2013, when a group of so-called shabiha—a group of loosely organized pro-government gangs, known in particular for brutal acts such as torture, rape and looting—killed 110 Turkmen in the south Hama town and burned their houses, according to a report by the pro-opposition news outlet Enab Baladi.
A Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party meeting in Gaziantep, Turkey in March. Photo Courtesy Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party.
What became known among locals as the “Tesnin Massacre” reportedly drove thousands of Turkmen to flee their homes in south Hama for neighboring, opposition-controlled villages in the north Homs countryside, said Hamish. Hamish, who is currently based in Turkey, was among those who fled Tesnin in 2013. Turkmen who fled their south Hama villages were later prevented from returning, he claims.
Turkmen, particularly those living along the Turkish border, have posed a potential “threat to Syria’s territorial integrity,” for decades, researcher Balanche argued in his 2018 Washington Institute report.
As a result, Syrian Turkmen, like the Kurds, were subjected to a series of “Arabization” policies beginning in the 1950s that intensified after the Baath party came to power.
Turkish and Kurdish languages were banned while areas populated by the two minorities were economically marginalized, according to the Washington Institute report, a phenomenon which then drove residents towards the cities where assimilation would occur faster.
Nationwide agrarian reforms introduced in 1963 to “destroy the big landowner class and redistribute land to the peasantry” also saw Turkmen landowners in Hama and Homs lose large areas of property there, said Balanche. At the time, many landowners in Homs and Hama were Turkmen, while the Alawites residing in the area mostly worked as sharecroppers.
Given the history of state policy and the memory of the killings in Tensin five years ago, researcher and displaced resident Hamish has little hope that Turkmen opposition supporters such as himself will be able to return to their homes.
“The regime caused our displacement years ago, and they surely won’t allow us to return to those villages now,” said Hamish.
“It will be difficult to return,” echoed displaced resident Mustafa.