Scattered across the country, the Turkmen of Syria now constitute a significant part of the rebel forces in war-torn Aleppo, the largest city and commercial center of the unrest-ridden country, working to clear it of regime troops.
Ebu Mohammed Suleiman, commander of the Turkmen Sultan Abdulhamid Han Brigade operating under the general command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Today's Zaman that nearly 400 Turkmen fighters have taken part in the fighting and are bent on taking down regime loyalists in Aleppo.
Speaking to Today's Zaman on Monday, he claimed that 65 percent of the city is under rebel control and not much more time will be needed to push the army back from Aleppo. However, he noted that they need surface-to-air missiles and other significant, heavy weapons to carry out operations against the heavily fortified military bases in the city, which are still controlled by regime troops.
Suleiman called on the international community and Turkey to step up efforts to establish a no-fly zone for Syrian air forces. The constant airstrikes during the day and night seem to be a critical factor in the prolonged battles, constraining rebel operations. Additionally, indiscriminate shelling is causing heavy civilian casualties and material devastation.
Asked about how people perceive the rebels' presence in the city, which stirred a furious reaction from the regime and led it to begin airstrikes last month, he said most locals are happy to see the rebels in Aleppo, with exception of some small groups. He said they are not responsible for the destruction of the city as they do not have aircrafts or tanks.
In the meantime, some groups -- especially Aleppo Kurds -- have remained neutral in the fight. Suleiman said the rebels would like to win the support of the Kurds against their common enemy. “If they don't act with us against the Assad regime, it is critical we ensure they do not turn against us during the raging battles,” he said.
In remarks to Today's Zaman, Fayed Suleiman, a retired Arabic literature teacher, bemoaned the long neglect of the Turkmen by the Assad regime. He underlined that the Turkmen represent one of the first groups in Syria to take to the fore and stand against the tyrannical, brutal regime when the protests broke out last year.
According to the teacher, what Turkey is doing for the people of Syrian should set an example for all other countries in terms of providing humanitarian aid to refugees and the wounded. However, he added, this support is not enough for the Syrian opposition, which is battling for survival and faces make-or-break moments tougher than before.
“Turkey has set up refugee camps in its territory and opened its hospitals to the injured. We really appreciate that. However, nobody could imagine the scale of the humanitarian tragedy that ordinary civilians face in Syria. Only a few charitable foundations have sent aid to the people who have been trapped in the beleaguered areas of Aleppo and isolated border villages,” said Suleiman, calling on Turkish people to hear the cries of the Syrian Turkmen.
While some international pundits think the rebels are awash with weaponry, what Today's Zaman has seen on ground is the opposite: Opposition forces lack the ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and surface-to-air missiles needed to conduct more sophisticated operations against the army.
Asked about fragmentation and a lack of unity among the various factions of the opposition forces on the ground in Aleppo, Commander Suleiman confirmed the fractured nature of the rebels, which operate in different units, but said all units are coordinated and work in cooperation with each other.
“The commanders of the units meet five times a week. We constantly contact each other and act together to carry out sophisticated operations or a big fight erupts. When a unit needs reinforcements, we send our men to help. Moreover, each unit has its own responsibility and duty. Our main task is to defend newly gained neighborhoods,” Suleiman stated.
In the meantime, the split between the FSA and the Syrian National Council (SNC) is taking its grip as international support for the latter fades away due to the endless squabbles within the council and its failure to include additional opposition groups. Suleiman criticized them for staying in luxury hotels and pretending to represent the Syrian people while FSA fighters make sacrifices on the ground. “If someone wants to politically represent the Syrian people, they should take risks by coming here and fighting like us.” However, Suleiman contended, he has respect for those who try to prod other countries to back the rebels, whether militarily or financially.
Regarding mounting questions over the political future of the tumultuous country, Commander Suleiman said they are sternly against any kind of federalism and back a central form of government in the post-revolution process in order to keep Syria united.
Turkmen concerned about potential PKK takeover of border villages
The Turkmen in Syria have serious concerns about a potential takeover by the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) of Turkmen villages along the Turkish border in the province of Aleppo, where the PKK has renewed its presence. “The truth is, we have no power to confront an attempt [at a takeover] by the PKK,” said Ali Beshir, a civilian official who heads the financial and political affairs of the Turkmen brigades. He added that they have no problems with Kurds and want to live in peace.
As Kurds have no power to challenge the PKK in their region, Beshir noted that those who have guns have the final say over the entire Kurdish population, regardless of what they really think about their future.
Regarding the role of Turkmen rebels in Aleppo, Beshir said Turkmen groups control five neighborhoods in the restive city. “We have 350-400 disciplined Turkmen fighters and 1,500 men in reserve who are waiting for their turn to fight due to a lack of weapons,” Beshir told Today's Zaman.
He lamented the long-standing social distrust of Turkmen, who are seen as a remnant of the Ottoman past and an extension of the Republic of Turkey in Syria. He argued that the Turkmen arrived in Aleppo even before many Arab tribes, after taking down the Greeks and Romans of the region during the time of the Seljuks. Syrian Turkmen are a natural part of society and want their natural rights in a post-Assad Syria, he said.
A day with the Turkmen rebels
The ragtag rebel army is trying to wear down regime loyalists by fighting a war of attrition; however, their lack of ammunition and heavy weapons is limiting the realization of their combat objectives. The current picture is bleak for rebels despite a boost to morale thanks to recent gains in several central districts of the Stalingrad-like Aleppo. A near stalemate is holding fast, escalating the agony of ordinary civilians. The same could be said of the war-weary, exhausted and overstretched military that is stubbornly trying to retake the city. If they succeed, it could affect the nature of the fight in all corners of the country.
Heavy clashes erupted on Monday. The Turkmen rebel force Sultan Abdulhamid Han Brigade managed to retake control of another neighborhood, Suleiman Halebi, as part of an overall strategy that seeks to take the city's inner districts and cut the regime's supply lines. Assad's army retaliated by pounding the area with artillery shells and sending reinforcements into the neighborhood to inflict a fatal blow to the overstretched rebels, who had not yet solidified their position in the newly gained area.
When a rebel rushed to tell the brigade commander the army was approaching, Commander Abu Mohammed Suleiman and nearly 40 rebels entered the area to save their comrades, who were facing a siege by Assad's forces.
Thanks to these reinforcements, the determined fighters managed to push the army units out of the Suleiman Halebi neighborhood to the outskirts of Aleppo. However, the fiercest fighting of the day was yet to come.
Towards the evening, a hundred Turkmen fighters scrambled along with the other battalions from the city's rebel-held districts to the district of Arqup to carry out a more sophisticated operation against regime troops. More than 1,000 FSA fighters gathered for the fight. A veteran war correspondent from Japan, Mika Yamamoto, was killed during the clashes.
The fighting lasted for hours. The Turkmen brigade suffered a loss but returned to their base at midnight with another victory on the ground. Despite stern warnings from his comrades, Saghri, a 23-year-old law student, had insisted on taking part in the fight. The man, whose wife is two months pregnant, was shot and killed by a sniper in his first clash.
The death of their comrade brought deep sorrow to the brigade. His body was brought to the Turkmen base amid calls of “Allahu akbar” (God is great) by the men of the brigade. While a small ceremony was organized in front of the command with the attendance of nearly a hundred rebels, a helicopter began to fly over the area and strike an adjacent neighborhood with heavy machine gun fire.
The commander ordered his men to disperse so as not to attract the attention of the helicopter, as Syrian air forces carefully target crowded areas. Two cars brought the young man's body and family to his village for a proper funeral.