More than 20 Turkmen villages in northern Latakia have been abandoned amid fighting the area, local officials say, sparking concern among fleeing residents that the Assad government will repopulate the area with loyalists.
Continued fighting between rebels and government forces in the Turkmen mountain region has forced the last 800 remaining residents of the Turkmen villages to flee to Turkey, leaving the once vibrant area depopulated. Turkish authorities have set up a special humanitarian crossing to handle the influx.
Abu Said, a 40-year-old Turkmen military leader in the First Division of the Free Syrian Army, fears the Syrian government may bring other ethnic groups to live in the abandoned villages, specifically Kurds, to weaken Turkey’s position in Syria.
“We come from ethnic Turkmen origins, and what Assad’s government has committed is a war crime according to all international conventions and accords,” he said. “I am afraid it [the regime] might carry out a complete demographic change and give our homes and lands to strangers.”
Home to some 50,000 people before the uprising began in 2011, the native population of Syria’s Turkmen mountain region in the northwest along the border with Turkey has been steadily dwindling.
Syria’s Turkmen minority, who are of ethnic Turkish origin, have been living in areas like Latakia, Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Qunaitera and Raqqa since the 11th century. They have strong political and cultural ties to Turkey. They have long complained of oppression by the Syrian government and a lack of any true political representation and a 40-year-old Turkmen military leader in the First Division of the Free Syrian Army
The Turkmen community joined the Syrian uprising in 2011 and formed armed factions backed by the Turkish government. Those factions include the Sultan Murat Brigade in rural Aleppo, Jabal al-Turkman Brigade in rural Latakia, and the Second Turkman Brigade, all of which fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
But as the war progressed and violence in the area increased, more Turkmen villagers have fled the northern regions, choosing to temporarily resettle in camps across the border in the Turkish city of Urfa. Some 9,000 villagers have fled in the past six months alone since Russia began its bombing campaign in September.
In November, the Turkish air force shot down a Russian fighter jet in the area, claiming it had crossed into Turkish airspace. Shortly thereafter, Turkmen rebels downed a Russian helicopter as it searched for the jet’s pilots. Immediately after and ever since, the area has been heavily hit by Russian airstrikes.
Ammar Khazna Dar, a 36-year-old from one of the wealthiest Turkmen families in the area, said that following the displacement, his family lost homes and assets. The area, he said, faces an imminent “strategic demographic change” by the Syrian government, which aims to push out the Turkmen villagers and replace them with government loyalists.
While the area’s Turkmen villagers fled to refugee camps in Turkey, Alawite families who lived in Jabal Turkman fled to the government-controlled coastal city of Latakia.
Elham, 35, left her home last week in the village of Yamadiya, which has been under heavy mortar shelling by the government forces, along with her eight children, and headed towards Turkey. Along with about 800 others, they were among the last Turkmen to leave the area.
Her husband, 40-year-old Mohamed, told Syria Deeply that even though his chances of making a decent living in Turkey were slim, it was simply too dangerous for his family to remain in the area. “I am not willing to risk my children’s lives and force them to live under constant fear and the sound of bombs,” he said.
Local officials say the villages of Beit Othman, al-Rayyane, Beit Awani, al-Meydan, Beit Fares, al-Tufahiya, al-Helwe, Beit Hmeik, Beit Belder, Beit Arab, al-Malek, the farm of Mouran, Ghamam, al-Daghmashliya, al-Zuwaik, al-Raihana, al-Sukkariya, Tourouz, Rabe’a, Beit Ablaq, Darweishan, al-Rawda, al-Kabeer, Ateera, al-Nawara, al-Durra, al-Wadi among others are now entirely empty aside from a small number of fighters.