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.
LATAKIA — Displaced by months of heavy airstrikes in the country's north, Syria's Turkmen minority — who, as their name suggests, share ethnic and historical ties to the Turks — 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.
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."