Syrian Turkmen (also referred to as Syrian Turkomans or simply Syrian Turks or Turks of Syria) (Arabic: تركمان سوريا, Turkish: Suriye Türkmenleri or Suriye Türkleri), are Syrian citizens of Turkish origin who mainly trace their roots to Anatolia (i.e. modern Turkey). The majority of Syrian Turkmen are the descendants of migrants who arrived in Syria during Ottoman rule (1516–1918); however, there are also many Syrian Turkmen who are the descendants of earlier Turkish settlers that arrived during the Seljuk (1037-1194) and Mamluk (1250-1517) rule. Today, the Turkish-speaking Syrian Turkmen make up the third largest ethnic group in the country, after the Arabs and Kurds respectively; yet, some estimations indicate that if Arabized Turkmen (i.e. those who no longer speak their mother tongue) are taken into account then they form the second biggest group in the country. The majority of Syrian Turkmen are Sunni Muslims.
Flag of Syrian Turkmen (Turkoman, Turcoman) adopted at the congress of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly in Çobanbey. Blue color on the flag symbolizes Turkic origin, red - the blood of the martyrs, white - human values.
|Regions with significant populations|
|See Areas of settlement|
|Turkish · Arabic|
|Predominately Sunni Islam, minority Alevis|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Turkish people · Iraqi Turkmen · Turks in Egypt|
The Syrian Turkmen community share common genealogical and linguistic ties with Turkish people in Turkey and Iraqi Turkmen and do not identify themselves with the Turkmen of Turkmenistan and Central Asia. They reside mostly near the Syrian-Turkish border that runs from the northwestern governorates of Idlib and Aleppo to the northeastern governorate of Raqqa. Moreover, many reside in the Turkmen Mountain, with the area's local name Bayırbucak, region near Latakia, the city of Homs and its vicinity until Hama, Damascus, and the southwestern governorates of Dera’a (bordering Jordan) and Quneitra (bordering Israel).
During the Syrian Civil War (2011–Present), Syrian Turkmen have been involved in military actions against Syrian government forces and have looked to Turkey for support and protection. More recently, they united under one official governing body, the Syrian Turkmen Assembly and created the military wing of the assembly, the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, for the purpose of protecting Turkmen regions and populations. However, not all Turkmen support Turkey's offensive in Syria, which started in late-August 2016, and some have sided with the Syrian Democratic Forces, forming the Seljuk Brigade.
Turkic migration to Syria began in the 11th century during the rule of the Seljuk Empire. However, most Turkmen settled in the region after the Ottoman sultan Selim I conquered Syria in 1516. The Ottoman administration encouraged Turcoman families from Anatolia to establish villages throughout the rural hinterlands of several cities in Ottoman Syria (and later the Syria Vilayet). Migration from Anatolia to Syria was continuous for over 400 years of Ottoman rule, until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918; nonetheless, Syrian Turkmen community continued to reside in the region during the French Mandate and the formation of Syrian Republics.
Syrian Turkmen have had a presence in Syria since the 11th century. The first recorded entry of free Turkmen troops into Syria was in 1064 when the Turkmen prince Ibn Khan and 1,000 of his archers entered Aleppo. He came at the request of the Arab Mirdasid emir Atiyya ibn Salih to assist him against his own Banu Kilab tribesmen who backed a rival Mirdasid emir, Mahmud ibn Nasr. Turkmen rule in the region began with the Seljuk conquests in the Middle East. The Seljuk Turks opened the way for mass migration of Turkish nomads once they entered northern Syria in 1071, and took Damascus in 1078 and Aleppo in 1086. By the 12tn century the Turkic Zengid dynasty (a vassal of the Seljuk Empire) continued to settle Turkmes in the wilayah of Aleppo to confront attacks from the Crusaders. In return for their military service, the Turkic rulers distributed fiefs in the area to the Turkmen.
In 1260 the Mamluk Sultanate – ruled by a line of Turkish and Circassian sultans – entered Syria in response to the Mongol invasions. Whilst Cairo remained the seat of the Mamluk Sultanate, Damascus became their second capital. Hence, by the thirteenth century the Turkmen formed a part of the armies of Damascus and Aleppo, and permanently settled in these regions. After the Bahri sultan of the Mamluks, Baibars, destroyed Qara he settled Turkmen in the town in 1265. Two years later he settled more Turkmen in the Syrian coast to protect the region. The Turkmen were called on to assist in the capture of Margat by the Muslim commander of the Krak des Chevaliers in 1280. The late Mamluk-era writer Ahmad al-Qalqashandi noted that Turkmen formed contingents in the regular armies of greater Syria. By the 15th century the Muslim writer Khalil az-Zahiri recorded 180,000 Turkmen soldiers and 20,000 Kurdish soldiers in Syria. The Turkmen mainly lived in the provinces of Aleppo and were settled in suburbs such as al-Hadir al-Sulaymani; they also live near the coast and the Jawlan (i.e. Golan Heights).
Mamluk rule of Syria ended once the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered the region in 1516-17. Thereafter, the Ottoman administration encouraged Turkish nomads from Anatolia to settle in strategic areas of the region. By the sixteenth century the Ottomans continued to settle Turkmen in the rural areas around Homs and Hama to keep the Bedouin in check and serve as mütesellim.
Turkish migration from Anatolia to Ottoman Syria was continuous for almost 400 years, until Ottoman rule ended in 1918. The Turkish settlement throughout the rural hinterlands of several Syrian cities was a state-organized population transfer which was used to counter the demographic weight and influence of other ethnic groups in the region. Furthermore, the Turkmen served as the local gendarmes to help assert Ottoman authority.
By the late nineteenth century, many Turkish refugees who lost their lands to Russia in the European regions of the Ottoman Empire (particularly in the Balkans) settled in Ottoman Syria between 1878 and 1906 and were provided with new lands by the Ottoman state. According to Dawn Chatty, these Turkmen settlers (alongside Circassian and Chechen refugees) became loyal subjects to the sultan and were "driven to succeed in agriculture and ready to defend themselves against any Bedouin claims to the land on which they had built their villages".
Vilayet of Aleppo
According to the French geographer Vital Cuinet (1833–96), the Ottoman Turks (excluding Turkmen nomads) formed the second largest ethnic group, after the Syrian Arabs, in the Aleppo Sanjak. In his best known work La Turquie d'Asie, géographie administrative: statistique, descriptive et raisonnée de chaque province de l'Asie Mineure he stated that the demographic structure of the Sanjak was as follows:
|Ethnic and religious groups||Estimated population in the Aleppo Sanjak (ca.1890-95)|
|Kurdish and Turkmen nomads||103,744|
|Other Muslims (Fellah, Ansarieh, Tahtaji, Nusairi)||26,713|
|Other Catholic (Latin and Maronite)||4,447|
The Alexandretta/Hatay Question
In 1921 the Treaty of Ankara established Alexandretta (present-day Hatay) under an autonomous regime under French Mandate of Syria. The Turks were initially satisfied with this agreement because Article 7 declared that "The Turkish inhabitants of this district shall enjoy every facility for their cultural development. The Turkish language shall have official recognition." Moreover, Article 9 stated that the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the first Ottoman ruler Osman I, "shall remain, with its appurtenances, the property of Turkey."
|Population of Hatay State in 1936 according to the French census|
|Circassians, Jews, Kurds||8,800||4%|
In September 1936 France announced that it would grant full independence to Syria, which would also include Alexandretta. The President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, responded with a demand that Alexandretta be given its own independence. The issue was brought before the League of Nations, which sent a mission to the district in January 1937. The mission concluded that the Turks constituted a majority and by July 1938 elections were held in the province; the Turks formed a majority of 22 seats in a 40-seat parliament of the newly established Hatay State, which remained a joint Franco-Turkish protectorate. The Hatay State began using Turkish flags, and petitioned Ankara to unify Hatay to the Republic of Turkey. France finally agreed to the Turkish annexation on July 23, 1939. Today, the Bayırbucak region, the coastal and rural section covering the northern Latakia area, has a considerable Turkmen presence and is considered by some Turks as a "stretch of the modern Turkish Hatay Province".
Syrian Republican era
By the late 20th century, Dr. Larry Clark stated there was "more than 200,000" Turkmen in Syria whilst the German Orient-Institute stated that estimates ranged between 800,000 and 1 million. C. Heather Bleaney mentioned one estimate surmising that the Turkish-speaking population formed 1.2% of Syria's population, but stated that elsewhere estimates suggested that the minority had formed up to 3%. Indeed, Professor Daniel Pipes estimated that 3% of the population were Turkish-speakers, whilst several other scholars also claimed that Sunni Muslim Turkish-speakers formed around 3% of the population (including: Professor Itamar Rabinovich, Professor Moshe Ma'oz, Dr. Nikolaos van Dam, Dr Henry Munson, Professor Alasdair Drysdale and Professor Raymond Hinnebusch).
Syrian Civil War (2011-present)
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, large numbers of Syrian Turkmen have been displaced from their homes and many have been killed due to attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's government, as well as the terrorist attacks carried out by "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL). Whilst Turkmen villages in Hama, Homs, and Latakia have been destroyed by the Syrian government, Turkmen villages in Aleppo were occupied by ISIL.
Syrian Turkmen, with the support of the Republic of Turkey, have taken up arms against the Syrian government. Several Syrian Turkmen parties united under the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, which is affiliated with the National Coalition opposition group. A Second Coastal Division was formed in 2015 and along with another extensive Turkmen militia group Sultan Murad Division, the Turkmen brigades are closely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Another Syrian Turkmen unit - the Seljuk Brigade and the Manbij Turkmen Brigade - have sided with the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) and joined the US-backed Kurdish-led opposition coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war many Syrian refugees (including Syrian Turkmen) have sought asylum in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Northern Iraq, as well as several Western European countries and Australia. Moreover, many Syrian Turkmen have also been internally displaced from their homes, forcing them to settle in other parts of Syria.
An article published by Reuters in 2015, reporting the Russian raids hitting Syrian Turkmen areas (after a Russian plane was shot down on the Turkey-Syria border), said that "Officials estimate 300,000 Turkmen used to live in northern Latakia" before the Russians "heavily targeted ethnic Turkmen areas." Al Jazeera English has also reported that the "Russian escalation of attacks on Turkmen areas" displaced "300,000 Turkmen from northern Latakia alone."
By the Syrian Government
The Syrian Government of president Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia since 2015, have targeted several areas populated by Syrian Turkmen, as they were largely involved in anti-government attacks. On February 2, 2016, at least seven women and children were killed by Russian air strikes in a Syrian Turkmen village in the northern countryside of Homs. In the same month Russian warplanes had staged 600 strikes on Syrian Turkmen villages, displacing approximately 10,000 people.
By the YPG
There have also been reports that there had been forced displacement of Arabs, Syrian Turkmen and Kurdish civilians at the hands of the YPG from their homes in areas in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. In June 2015 there was concern expressed by the UN Human Rights Council regarding displacement of Syrian Turkmen from their homes in villages south of Hasakah and Tal Abyad during fighting with ISIL. Approximately 200 Syrian Turkmen refugees fled to Urfa, in southern Turkey, while 700 more fled to the eastern areas of Tal Abyad, once the YPG seized the town of Tell Hammam al-Turkman from ISIL, and there were claims that the YPG had accused the locals of collaborating with ISIL.
There are no reliable estimates on the total number of ethnic minorities living in Syria because official censuses have only asked citizens about their religion, therefore, citizens have not been allowed to declare their ethnic origin or mother tongue. Dr Abdelwahed Mekki-Berrada, et al., in a report published by the UNHCR, points out that the majority of Syrians are considered "Arab", however, this is a term based on spoken language (Arabic) not ethnic affiliation. Consequently, this has created difficulties in estimating the total Syrian Turkmen population.
According to Professor Taef El-Azhari the Syrian Turkmen have "always been the forgotten minority in the area despite their large population". Dr Abdelwahed Mekki-Berrada, et al., as well as Professor Pierre Beckouche, Professor John Shoup, Professor Pierre Piccinin, and Dr Peter Behnstedt, have all placed Syrian Turkmen as the third largest ethnic group in the country (after Arabs and Kurds respectively).
Estimates since the Syrian Civil War
Assistant Professor Sebastian Maisel claimed that Syrian Turkmen numbered 250,000 (or approx 1% of the population). However, Professor Pierre Beckouche stated that Sunni Muslim Turkmen alone formed 4% of the country's population before 2011. Professor John Shoup has said that in 2018 the Turkish-speaking Syrian Turkmen formed around 4-5% of the population. Professor Taef El-Azhari, Dr. Sebastien Peyrouse, and Dr. Paul Antonopoulos have all stated that there is around 1 million Syrian Turkmen. In addition, Dr. Eldad J. Pardo and Maya Jacobi have cited an estimate of 750,000 to 1.5 million Turkmen. Dr. Jonathan Spyer, as well as a report published in cooperation between the Norwegian Church Aid and the World Council of Churches (compiled by various academics), stated that the Turkmen number anywhere from 500,000 to 3 million. Professor Pierre Piccinin claims that whilst 1.5 million Syrian Turkmen are Turkish-speaking, the total population of the minority is between 3.5 and 6 million (or 15% to 20% of the population), including those who have adopted Arabic as their mother tongue.
In October, 2015, the Syrian independent newspaper Zaman Al Wasl reported that 120,000 to 150,000 Syrian Turkmen refugees arrived in Lebanon, and hence they now outnumber the Turkish minority of Lebanon.
Moreover, in May 2016, the Russian government-controlled news agency Sputnik claimed that there was 300,000 Syrian Turkmen refugees in Turkey. By December 2016 the Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ümit Yalçın stated that Turkey opened its borders to 500,000 Syrian Turkmen. Approximately 300,000 Syrian Turkmen refugees live in Istanbul, 50,000 in Gaziantep, 50,000 in Osmaniye, 30,000-40,000 in Hatay, 20,000 in Izmir, 20,000 in Malatya, and 15,000 in Konya.
A substantial number of Syrian Turkmen refugees also fled to Jordan.
Areas of settlement
Most Syrian Turkmen live in the area around the northern Euphrates, near the Syrian-Turkish border; however, they are also scattered throughout several governorates, stretching towards central Syria and the southern region near the Golan Heights. In particular, the Turkmen are concentrated in the urban centers and countryside of six governorates of Syria: in the Aleppo Governorate, the Damascus Governorate, the Homs Governorate, the Hama Governorate, the Latakia Governorate and the Quneitra Governorate. There are also smaller Turkmen communities living in the Daraa Governorate as well as in Tartous, Raqqa, and Idlib governorates.
In the Aleppo governorate, the main locales in which the Turkmen live include the city of Aleppo (with Bustan al-Basha (Bostanpaşa), Haydariyah (Haydariye), Holluk (Bağrıyanık), Sheikh Hizir (Şeyh Hızır), Sheikh Feriz (Şeyh Firuz), Saladdin (Selattin), Owaijah (Uveyce) being neighborhoods with ethnic Turkmen populations) and the countryside in the northern part of the governorate. They also live in the villages next to the cities of Azaz, Al-Bab, and Jarabulus. Çobanbey (Al-Rai) is also a Turkmen-dominated town.
In the Latakia governorate the Turkmen live mostly in the Turkmen Mountains (Jabal al-Turkman), Al-Badrusiyah, Umm al-Tuyour, Asobah, and in various villages near the Syrian-Turkish border. There is also a number of Turkmen districts, including Bayırbucak and Jimmel Harresi where there are many Turkmen villages.
In the Damascus governorate the Turkmen live in the city of Damascus, and Harret Al Turkman is a Turkmen district where Turkish is predominantly spoken. In the Homs governorate the Turkmen mostly live in the city of Homs and the surrounding villages, such as Kara Avshar, Inallu, and Kapushak. They also live in Gharnatah, Al-Krad, Burj Qa'i, al-Sam’lil, and in villages in the Houla plain. In the Hama governorate the Turkmen live in the city of Hama and are also scattered in numerous villages around the district. For example, Baba Amir Haras is a prominent Turkmen district. There are also Turkmen living in Aqrab and Talaf. In the Quneitra governorate the Turkmen are scattered in numerous villages in the districts of Quneitra. They predominantly reside in the villages of Dababiye, Rezaniye, Sindiyane, Aynul Kara, Aynul Simsim, Ulayka, Aynul Alak, Ahmediye, Kafer Nafah, Mugir, Hafir, Hüseyniye, and Ayn Ayse.
According to The Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, the Turkish language is the third most widely used language in Syria (after Arabic and Kurdish). It is spoken by the Turkmen minority mostly in villages east of the Euphrates, north of Aleppo, and on the northern coast of the country, along the Syrian-Turkish border. In addition, there are Turkish language islands in the Qalamun area and the Homs area. Moreover, Syrian Arabic dialects have also borrowed many loanwords from Turkish. Mustafa Khalifa claims that, Turkmen are divided into two groups: Rural Turkish-speaking Turkmen, constituting 30% of Syrian Turkmen, and Urban Arabic-speaking Turkmen.
Various dialects of Turkish are spoken throughout Syria: in Aleppo they speak a Kilis and Antep dialect; in Tell Abyad and Raqqa they speak an Urfa dialect; and in Bayırbucak they speak a Hatay/Yayladağı dialect of the Turkish language. Some Syrian Turkmen living far from the Turkish border, such as in Homs, have managed to preserve their national identity but are more competent in speaking the Arabic language. In Damascus Syrian Turkmen speak the Turkish language with a Yörük dialect.
The majority of Syrian Turkmen are Sunni Muslims, but there is also a small minority of Turkmen who are Shia Muslims (particularly Alevis and Bektashis). Ali Öztürkmen claims that the Turkmen community is 99% Sunni whilst the remainder (1%) practice Shia Islam.
There are also some Syrian "Nawar people" (a derogatory term for people who live a mobile lifestyle – often described as "gypsies") who speak Turkish, some of whom self-identify as Turkmen; those practicing Islam belong to the Sunni, Shiite, and Alevi/Bektashi religious groups. There are also some who practice Christianity.
Syrian Turkmen occupied a low rung on the societal ladder, as reported by Al Bawaba, it was stated that Assad always sought to benefit his politically dominant Shiite religious minority. The report quoted Bayırbucak Turkmen as highlighting, "They would take Alawites first no matter what, even if they had degrees, Turkmen couldn't find jobs".
Several Turkish families, such as the al-Atassi's (Atasi's), Al-Azm, Qawuqji's, Quwwatli's (Kuvvetli's) and Shishakli's (Çiçekçi's), continued to rule Syria as Prime Ministers or Presidents. However, by the 1960s the pan-Arab Baathist movement of the Al-Assad family sidelined non-Arabs from politics.
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