Turkmens, A Scapegoat In Russia-Turkey Feud Over Syria

The Turkmen minority of Syria have been forced from their homes after Moscow airstrikes. With ethnic links to Turkey, Ankara wants to help, though the border remains sealed shut.

Refugee children on the Turkey-Syria border.
Refugee children on the Turkey-Syria border.
Saleem al-Omar

LATAKIA â€" Displaced by months of heavy airstrikes in the country's north, Syria's Turkmen minority â€" who, as their name suggests, share ethnic and historical ties to the Turks â€" are stuck between a war zone and the now sealed Turkish border.

Some 20,000 Turkmen villagers in northern Syria have fled their homes since November, when Russian war planes began heavily targeting the area. Now, as winter sets in and Russian airstrikes continue unabated, displaced villagers in shoddy tents across the country's north are waiting for a solution.

"I am not used to such a life. The cold is piercing into my bones," says Abu Muhammad, 54, who left the Turkmen village of Ateira with his family in early December. "We fled the Russian bombing, but now our village is controlled by the regime. Who knows how long we will have to stay here."

On Nov. 24, Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian plane along the Turkey-Syria border, claiming the plane had violated Turkish airspace. Shortly thereafter, Turkmen militants shot down a Russian helicopter that had come to rescue the downed plane's flight crew.

Russian jets pummeled the area for the next month, conducting more than 130 air raids on villages and towns around Mount Turkmen, forcing residents in the area to flee their homes and find shelter in tents in the village of al-Yamdiya on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Blocked borders

Turkmen villages in rural Latakia were among the first to rise up against the Syrian regime, and many Turkmen militias are still actively fighting in Syria's civil war, including the Second Turkmen Division, which follows the Free Syrian Army, and the Sheikh Battalion (Mamdouh Joulha).

They have been charged by the Assad government as being pro-opposition, militantly pro-Turkey, and in favor of the reestablishment of Turkish dominance in Syria.

But while many Syrian Turkmen recognize Turkey as their cultural "father," since the beginning of the uprising, Turkmen political leaders have consistently recognized their commitment to a unified, pluralistic Syria with a central state apparatus that represents all of its sectarian and ethnic groups.

Some 200,000 ethnic Turkmen were believed to have lived in Syria before the uprising began, although members of the Syrian-Turkmen Assembly (a coalition of political parties and groups representing the Turkmen) believe the number to be much higher.

While Turkey has provided some aid to the displaced Turkmen minority, it has barred most individuals from crossing into its territory. According to Gerry Simpson at Human Rights Watch, "All eight of Turkey's border crossings with Syria remain closed." He says the border has largely remained closed since October except for a brief period in December, during which Turkish authorities allowed women, children and the elderly entrance due to heavy Russian bombardments.

"I have tried many times to enter Turkey through the al-Yamdiya border point, but I was sent back each time," says Ahmad, 22, from the village of Rabi’a. "My only choice now is to cross the border illegally on foot to the Turkish village of Yayaldagi."

Caught in camps

Over the past month, Turkish charities have sent truckloads of heaters, blankets and tents to the al-Yamdiya border crossing. The aid is part of a preemptive campaign to provide for the basic needs of the displaced before the expected winter snow cripples the region’s transportation. Still, the displaced Turkmen have no idea when they'll be able to return home.

Abu Saeed, 40, who fled his home in Beit Ewan to escape the Russian bombardment, now lives in a tent along the border in the al-Yamdiya camp. He says Russia's targeting of Turkmen villages in Syria was an attempt to hit back at Turkey. "Yes, we’ve become a scapegoat. And Turkey is trying to make amends by providing food and aid, but this is not a solution," he says. "We need to go back home. Turkey should understand this. A tent is never a home."

Umm Khalid, in a neighboring tent, agrees. "All I dream of is that we go back to our peaceful lives," she says. "We are tired of seeing our young men killed. As for our lives here, I prefer hunger to living in a tent away from home."

Khaled, a 32-year-old father of two, also voices his concerns. "The number of displaced people in the area is constantly growing," he says. "I worry deeply about the kids who live in the camp, and about my own kids as well."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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