By Osman Bahadır Dinçer and Gülsüm Boz
We are currently in a period when scenarios for Syria after Assad are being intensively discussed. The regime is losing a little more blood each day. From the number of soldiers who are deserting from the army, it may be established that there is only a feeble system of government even in those areas of Syria which are still under the control of the Damascus regime. Local sources make it clear that the Syrian security forces only control the ground they are standing on. If things are like that, then the regime is obliged to adopt a policy of free fire shooting, an uncontrolled reflex which causes a lot of people to lose their lives.
As far as the post-Assad period it is certain goes that the various attitudes and positions of local and international actors will be decisive. If the chaos and clashes continue to spread for a long time, as the regime and Iran would like, then the fault lines that are now coming into being in Syrian society will grow deeper. Even if al-Assad goes it will become more difficult to obtain stability and consensus. But despite these unnecessary scenarios, different actors inside the country will have to come to agreement on their situation, aims, and powers in order to be able to design robust policies, come what may.
The Turkish presence in Syria
As far as Turkey is concerned the Turks of Syria are among the important players who should not be ignored in the post-Assad period. They have recently become a controversial subject inside Turkey. They have generally sided with the Syrian opposition and consequently suffered attacks from the forces of the regime and so have set up units through which they are putting up a stiff resistance to protect their villages and regions.
It needs to be made clear at the outset that, when compared with other minority groups like the Kurds and the Nusayris, the Syrian Turks possess very limited regional and political influence. Even the suggestion that their population numbers are larger than some other minorities does not alter this fact. This is because the impact of the Kurds and Nusayris does not consist simply in their fact of their existence. They are both supported by other armed forces and have a place in various alliances and this gives them a degree of influence which goes well beyond that of the Turks.
As a result of the Arabisation policies that the regime has followed in its attempts to assimilate minorities, the exact size of the Turkish population in Syria is not known. But Turkish sources contain various statistics that would indicate that the ethnic Turkish population is between 750,000 and 3.5 million. The generally accepted figure is said to be around 1.5 million.
There are also Turks in the country who consider themselves to be members of another group such as the Kurds or the Arabs. There are those who claim that if such Turks are added in then the number of Turks in Syria is much larger, though there are also those who say that there are not as many as 1.5 million Turks and mention the figure of 750,00 to 800,000. There are also those who talk about 1 million Turks in Syria. A report on the subject prepared by the Turkish Embassy in Damascus in 1983 indicates that the Turkish population makes up only 1% of the whole country, which one must stress is wholly inconsistent with other figures.
Syrian Turks are widely scattered across Syria in cities like Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus, Quneitra, and Homs. Though they are not inclined to try and establish a majority in the places where Turks live and bring their political influence to bear, they have frequently been regarded as having links with Turkey and thus exposed to pressure. The Turks are not economically powerful and they live though agriculture, rearing livestock, and textiles.
In an area of Latakia extending to the border with Turkey and mainly inhabited by Nusayri Arabs, there are also 265 Turkish villages. This city is one of two cities where there is a substantial Turkish population. Around Aleppo, a city that along with Latakia, is where the Turks are most numerous, there are 350 Turkish villages. This was the region where most Turks lived in Ottoman times because of trading connections that then existed. There are also known to be Turks in the towns of Hama and Homs and the villages around them.
Turks living in Damascus and the surrounding area, are said to be made up of survivors from those who in 1967 were forced to leave the Golan Heights because of the Arab-Israeli War. The Golan Heights, where Circassians and Druzes also live, and the district of Quneitra are places where the Turks migrated in the Turco-Russian War of 1877-8 when they were settled here by the Ottoman authorities. However in Jazeera where there is an important Kurdish population and where tens of other ethnic aspects live, the number of Turks living is quite little.
The Syrian Turks are made up both from Turks descended from the tribes of the 11th and 12th centuries and also Turks subsequently settled here by the Ottomans. Ottoman rule in Syria followed the defeat of the Mamlukes by Sultan Selim I Yavuz at Marj Dabiq in 1516. After this battle the Turks found it easier to settle in Syria. The Ottomans are known to have planted Turkish settlements around this time at strategic points with the aim of protecting the pilgrimage route. In fact as a result of these settlements, Aleppo from 1516 to 1918 could be said to have been a Turkish province in terms of its population. The documents also indicate that after the 1877-8 Russo-Turkish War, large numbers of Turks who had been forced to abandon their places of origin in the Caucasus were directed by the Ottomans to Syria.
History also reminds us that in subsequent periods of occupation, powers who were uneasy about the presence of Turks in Syria did all they could, working with local collaborators, to eliminate their influence. In this connection one could cite documents which attempt to hold the Turks responsible for attacks on some villages in the region and for looting them.
Syria’s assimilationist policies
The Syrian state’s refusal to recognize minorities and its policy of considering everyone to be a Syrian Arab was continued both in political and social affairs for many years. The Turks shared their fate with the Kurds and were deprived of many rights affecting their ability to express their identity. During the Hafez Assad period the Turkish names of villages were replaced by Arabic names in line with the policy of Arabisation. For example İsabeyli village in the province of Latakia was renamed Isaviye and Elmalı village became Tuffahiye and Turunç Ummutuyor. The village of Kebeli became Rabia and the village of Gökdağ became el Hadra. A similar form of reasoning led to the settlement of Arabs in the Turkish villages and farmland was distributed. The Syrian regime also introduced various measures under different pretexts which had the aim of severing ties between Turkey and the Turkish Syrians. So those of them who travelled secretly to Turkey were stripped of their Syrian nationality and their lands were appropriated by the state.
The Syrian Turks, who were now being subjected to intense political and social pressures, may said to have been more assimilated than the Syrian Kurds. The single most important reason for the relative success of the assimilation policies was the scattered nature of Turkish settlements. In addition to that the Turks were not organised and they were rather feeble about defending their rights: this led to them being absorbed into Syrian society. There was also no political organisation representing them. The reason why the Syrian Turks had weak relations with Turkey made it possible for the Syrian regime to step up its pressure upon the Turks and easier for the Turks to be assimilated.
Turkey and the Turks of Syria
Turkey has generally been worried about causing the Syrian regime to step up pressure on the Turks of Syria and so has avoided making them a political issue. However one reason for the expulsion policy applied to the Turks there is thought to be that they are seen in the country as being linked to Turkey. This argument is strengthened by the fact that when in 1998, General Atilla Ateş issued statements directed against Syria, the country’s Turks had a hard time and dozens of them were killed.
Consequently the Syrian Turks were the ones who benefited most from the improvement of Turkish-Syrian relations during the last decade and relations improved their situation got relatively better. During the honeymoon period in relations, I had an interview with Mehmet Şandır, a Syrian Turk, in which he said that some Turks living in that country had forgotten their language and identity but that every should be able live without denying their kinship and he suggested that the improvement in relations between the two countries had made it possible for the Turks there to live without denying their identity and language.
What should be done?
One should not exaggerate the influence of the Turkish presence in Syria or repeat the mistakes made in Iraq. Even if the population statistics require some revision, it should also be born in mind that consciousness of being Turkish is not very great. Leaving aside those who have been completely assimilated and those who cannot be distinguished from the Arabs around them, the fact cannot be overlooked that the number of Turks who are strongly conscious of their identity put above 500,000 on the most optimistic projections. It is very important to proceed on the basis of realistic statistics. Turkey’s basic policy needs to be visibly one of helping in the establishment of a mechanism which will give every ethnic community a say in government and enable them all to live together without any infringement of their rights. Giving priority to one ethnic community could give rise to many problems. But this should not be taken to mean that a policy should not be devised on how to support the Syrian Turks. Because there is a significant Turkish presence in Syria and that represents a strategic plus for Turkish foreign policy, though it is also a responsibility as regards Turkey’s national sensitivities.
In the final analysis, both Turkey and the new Syria stand to gain in the post-Assad period from closer relations between the Syrian Turks integrated into the system and Turkey. The real issue for Syria is how its people can live without denying their ethnic origin but within the rule of law and with full respect for the public order. There are nearly 1.5 million Turks in Syria living in circumstances where it is risky to say they are Turks. Altering this situation and enabling these people to live freely on their own lands as other ethnic communities do, i.e. without fear, and with their own identity, must become one of the most important aims of the post-Assad period.
Osman Bahadır Dinçer & Gülsüm Boz, USAK