When a Russian fighter jet was shot down by Turkey Tuesday, the aircraft was operating over the Turkmen Mountain region in Syria's Latakia province, reported the Associated Press. One of the Russian pilots involved might have been captured by local Turkmen fighters. So who are the Turkmen?
The Turkmen are Syrian citizens of Turkish ethnicity who have lived in the region of Syria, Iraq and Iran since the 11th century and were among the first groups to oppose President Bashar Assad when the Syrian civil war began in 2011, according to the BBC. Russia has backed Assad, while Turkey wants him ousted.
Since Russia began bombing Syrian rebels in September, Turkey has claimed that Russian bombers have targeted Turkmen villages. After the plane was downed, an ethnic Turkmen rebel group in northern Syria said it had recovered one of the pilots and was "looking for the other," according to the BBC. Unconfirmed videos online suggested Turkmen and Syrian rebels had two pilots, both of whom ejected from the warplane, in custody. It was reported that the pilots had been killed but more recent reports, citing a Turkish official, suggest that both pilots were alive.
Officials statistics for the Turkmen population are hard to pin down. The Associated Press reported that most estimates suggest the Turkmen minority in Syria number around 100,000. The BBC reported the best estimate of the total Turkmen population is between 1.5 and 3.5 million. Turkmen speak an old version of the Turkish language.
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When the Russian Su-24 warplane was shot down it was reportedly operating near the Turkmen Mountain range at the Syria-Turkey border, where many of the Turkmen live. Smaller numbers of Turkmen live in villages in the province of Aleppo in the north of Syria, centrally located Homs and the Quneitra region in the country's south.
In late 2012, Turkmen in Syria united under the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, which grouped together a coalition of Turkmen parties. The military arm of the assembly is called the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, which is affiliated with Syria's National Coalition opposition group, and has looked to defend Turkmen areas from Syrian government forces and the Islamic State group. The military structure is loose but the Syrian Turkmen Bridages numbers about 10,000, reports the BBC.
As the Syrian civil war has continued, Russia has jumped into the fray with airstrikes at times targeting ISIS but also reportedly targeting rebel forces fighting against Assad's government. Turkmen villages had recently been the target of a government offensive reportedly backed by the cover of Russian airstrikes. Turkey, which has backed and trained the Turkmen, had talked with Russia's ambassador over the weekend to protest bombings of the villages. Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s prime minister, said they had demanded the Russian military immediately halt military operations along the border between Syria and Turkey.
“It was stressed that the Russian side’s actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages and this could lead to serious consequences,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said, according to the Guardian.