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“Almost like Chechnya”: Why Syria and Russia are finishing off “Turkmens” in Latakia

Two months ago, Turkish ultra-nationalist Alparslan Celik showed to journalists part of the parachute of the killed Russian pilot. A few days ago, he twitted that the Grey Wolves were killed in Syrian mountains and posted a photo of a plastic sack for the dead with a Turkish flag on it. The sack may be empty, but the phrase looks quite symbolical.

This week, the Syrian government troops liberated the last town occupied by “Syrian Turkmens” in the Latakia highlands. So, now the Syrians are very close to taking back that province. They spent big resources on that campaign. But why did they do that in Latakia, where, according to Turkey, there were no terrorists but just Syrian Turkmens fighting an illegal regime?

“Turkmens” with Russian passports

There were lots of grounds for storming the Latakia highlands. This is a strategic point for Damascus: control over it will prevent further threats for the coastal part of Syria and will block one of the fighters’ supply channels. For the Russians, this is not just revenge for the killed pilot or support of the pro-government forces. Among the Syrian Turkmens, there are lots of Chechen fighters. The Turks are pretending that they are not noticing them, but those people are not hiding and their photos with real Turkmens can be found in social networks. One of them is the leader of Ajnad al-Kavkaz Abdul Hakim Shishani – or Rustam Ajiev, according to his Russian passport.

Today, all the three Chechen groups fighting in Syria are concentrated in the Latakia highlands. They have not joined ISIL but are allies to the al-Nusra Front. There are over 100 of them. The best known group is Junud al Sham led by Muslim al Shishani - Murad Margoshvili from the Pankisi Gorge, who fought in both Chechen campaigns side by side with Hattab. His group is part of the Jabal al Turkman (Turkmen Mountains) force.

The presence of Chechen Jihadists in the Turkmen Mountains was first noticed last summer. One of the Chechen groups, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, is deployed in Aleppo. The Syrian Chechens first split in late 2013 when Umra al Shishani (Trakhan Batirashvili) joined ISIL. But the last blow was a Sharia judge’s verdict to drop Chechens from the command of the group. So, now the Syrian Chechens are freely floating in Latakia.

The local landscapes are almost identical to the Chechnya highlands. But this is not the key reason why they are in Latakia: they have been sent there by Turkey, who is supplying them with food and arms and is using them for “protecting” Syrian Turkmens.

So, the strike at Latakia was Russia’s strike at Turkey’s double-faced policy. Despite the Russians’ protests, for many years already, the Turks have been neglecting hundreds of Chechen fighters hiding in their country. The commanders of Ajnad al Kavkaz Abdul Hakim Shishani and Hamza Shishani came to Turkey in 2009 so as to heal the wounds received in Chechnya. But it is not known how many Chechens there are exactly in Turkey. Imkander alone says that it is providing support to 150 Chechen families. That fund claims that it is supporting Chechen widows and children, but when one of the well known Chechen fighters Saifullah al Shishani was killed, Imkander organized his funeral and remembrance demonstrations in five Turkish cities, including Ankara. Even more, president of the Fund Murat Ozer expressed support for the Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) (a group organized by Doku Umarov for establishing a caliphate in the North Caucasus and comprising almost all Chechen fighters in Syria). According to Ozer, the Imarat Kavkaz is just a restored Islamic state ruined when Russia captured the Caucasus.

Imkander organized similar events after the death of Umarov in the autumn 2013. And Saifullah al Shishani is part of the fund.

It is a fact that Turkey supported all the pro-Turkmen fighters in Syria. The leader of the Turkmen Liwa al-Mu’tasem Billah brigade Firas Pasa has told Warontherocks that even Arab received support from Imkander, Grey Wolves, Turkmen Der and IHH, with Muslim al Shishani having posted photos picturing him unloading a truck in Turkey.

And it is also a fact that Chechen fighters have long joined the Syrian Turkmens and enjoy support from Turkey. For example, in Jan member of the Nationalist Movement Party Ali Erdem posted a photo of Muslim al Shishani and comments like “May Allah Give You Victroy!” and “All Prayers Are with You!” In the meantime, the party’s young members, the notorious Grey Wolves, can be seen in photos with Chechen fighters.

Double strike for Ankara

Either ceasefire or Turkey’s interference can save the Syrian Turkmens. But the Turks will hardly dare to openly war with the Syrians and the Russians. They have pronounced no single tough word since the success of the Syrians in Latakia.

But ceasefire is not good for them as it means involvement of Kurds in the Geneva talks. So, this deadlock may end in a double strike for Ankara. On the one hand, this is a strike at Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions – for the support of the Syrian Turkmens is very much like an attempt to revise the borders fixed after WWI. But the other geopolitical players are not ready for this. So, the campaign in Latakia was the last nail in the coffin of Recep Erdogan’s Syrian ambitions.

The defeat in Latakia may have serious political consequences for the Turkish President and his ruling AKP party as support of Syrian Turkmens was one of the party’s slogans during the last elections. These calls inspired Turkish patriots so much that they began sending even more assistance to Syria. In Dec 2015 alone the Grey Wolves send to the Turkmen Mountains 35 trucks with some assistance, while Imkander raised $100,000 for the Syrian Turkmens. The war of the Syrian Turkmens against Bashar al Assad is even compared in Turkey with the Dardanelles Campaign of WWI, when the Entente lost 45,000 men in its futile attempt to capture the strait.

In Latakia, the Turks have failed. The Syrian Turkmens are unable to oppose the Syrian army and the Russian air forces, while the Turks are unable to give them more. This is perhaps why Celik posted the photo with a Turkish flag on a sack for the dead. This means that the “Syrian Turkmens” brand is dead.

EADaily Middle East Bureau

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