The already high tensions in the Middle East escalated dramatically on Tuesday after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the country’s southern border with Syria. Turkey said the Sukhoi Su-24 fighter had violated its airspace, and released a map showing the apparent path of the jet over a chunk of Turkish territory bordering Syria. Russia denies the violation, and President Vladimir Putin denounced the downing of the plane as a “stab in the back.”
The incident underscores the risk of a greater conflagration between Russia, Turkey, and the Western states that are engaged in Syria, often on conflicting sides. But it also thrust one of the war’s minor players to the center of international attention: Syrian Turkmen rebels who are allied with Turkey and who operate in the Latakia region of northwest Syria, where the jet crashed. The Turkmen forces are small but have played a key role in the current crisis thanks to their longstanding ties with Turkey.
An estimated 200,000 members of the Turkmen ethnic group lived in Syria before the civil war, although Turkmen officials and activists say the number is far higher. Some speak the Turkmen language, which is closely related to Turkish, and the vast majority are Sunni Muslims, as are most Turks. They have long been deprived of rights and communal recognition under the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a Shia Alawite who regarded the Turkmen as a possible fifth column with loyalties to Turkey. Many Turkmen joined the rebellion against the regime when it began in 2011, and Turkmen armed groups continue to fight the regime forces, alongside other rebel groups.
In 2013, the Turkmen militias claimed to have thousands of fighters in their ranks. “We want to overthrow Assad’s regime and set up a democracy in Syria, where all ethnic and religious groups can live together in peace,” Mahmoud Suleiman, the commander of one Turkmen battalion, said in an interview with AFP in January 2013. The Turkmen militias formed one of element of the Free Syrian Army, which in the early stages of the civil war was the principle coalition of mainstream, non-jihadist rebel groups.
The dynamics that resulted in a Russian jet being shot down have their roots in the overarching conflict between the Assad regime and its opponents. Many Turks regard the Turkmens as kin, and the Turkish government has expressed a desire to protect so-called “outside Turks” across the border in Syria. Turkey also supports a broad range of other rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, which Ankara has opposed since the early days of the uprising . Meanwhile Russia’s military began overtly intervening on the side of its allies the Assad government in October, using air power to back a major offensive by pro-regime forces to reclaim territory lost to the rebels.
The Latakia region where the Turkmen operate has been one front in that recent offensive, and Turkmen rebels say Russian warplanes have launched airstrikes in the area—strikes that Turkey has protested. (Russia has come under criticism from the U.S. and others for focusing most of its airstrikes on opponents of the Assad government, rather than ISIS.) Last Friday, the Turkish government summoned the Russian ambassador in Ankara over the airstrikes. “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,” the foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters.
Turkey has taken other actions to protect what it regards as its historical legacy inside Syria. In February, Turkey sent hundreds of troops across the border to remove a shrine to the Turkic warlord Suleyman Shah, who was the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman empire, which predated the modern Turkish state.
The question now is what will happen to the pilots of the downed fighter—and how Russia will react. According to some reports in Turkey’s media, Turkmen fighters killed the two crew of the Russian-made jet after they ejected. Other reports said one of the pilots had been captured. Deepening the crisis, on Tuesday fighters in Latakia also reportedly destroyed a Russian helicopter using a U.S.-supplied missile.
Putin responded angrily to the downing of the fighter jet, saying, “We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today.” At a White House press conference with French President Francois Hollande, President Obama noted that it was important to ensure that Russia and Turkey continue to talk to each other, but went on to say: “This points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operation, in the sense that they are operating very close to the Turkish border and going after moderate opposition supported by Turkey and a wide range of countries.”
Whatever happens, today’s incident highlights the crosscutting aims of the rival powers in Syria, but also underscores the complexity of the situation on the ground. In a war as confused as this one, the actions of minor players like the Turkmen can have major implications.