As the Syrian Civil War enters its eighth year, previously overlooked ethnic and religious groups, and the divisions and alliances between them have garnered more coverage and analysis. After years of war and the break up of traditional loyalties, groups that were previously suppressed by the Syrian government have been able to reach out to new allies, renew historic ties, or forge entirely new positions for themselves.
Some of the more commonly covered groups involved in the conflict include Kurds, who are seen as the main ally of the US in Syria the SDF/YPG. The Syrian Druze community, living in southern Syria’s Suwayda and Quneitra area, were increasingly covered by media following attacks by the Islamic State. Yazidis and Assyrians have also seen more coverage in the wake of Islamic State attacks and alliances built with the SDF and the International Coalition involved in Syria and Iraq.
Although a large, and historically significant part of Syria’s diverse ethnic heritage, Syrian Turkmen have seen very little coverage as they re-assert their identity by forming own brigades, engaging in combat against the Syrian army and setting up political parties in Northern Aleppo.
The Turkmen flag (source)
Traditional estimates by researchers covering Syria place the number of Turkmen in Syria somewhere from 500,000 to 3,000,000. Turkmen generally reside along the Turkish border, mainly in Latakia and Aleppo province, though some have settled in Homs, Damascus, and Quneitra.
Throughout the civil war, Turkmen began to form their own predominately Turkmen brigades to defend areas traditionally considered to be Turkmen and to fight in opposition to the Syrian government. The Sultan Murad brigade was one of the first Turkmen brigades to establish itself in 2013. The group later became one of Turkey’s main allied groups in its Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations.
One of the first major incidents related to Turkmen groups dates back to 2015 in Latakia when Russia began bombing opposition forces. Following the downing of a Russian Sukhoi-24 fighter jet by Turkey, one of the pilots was killed by Alparslan Çelik, a prominent Turkmen commander in Latakia province. Çelik was later arrested while in Turkey for the killing of the Russian pilot, whose name was Oleg Peshkov.
Syrian Turkmen: Nationalism and Ideology
As Syrian Turkmen are of Turkish origin and share a significant part of their culture with Turkey, Turkish nationalism continues to be a strong force in ideological movements within the community. Right-wing nationalism has always been a major element in Turkish culture and politics, with several political parties maintaining right-wing nationalism as a central part of their platform.
Many Turkish right-wing nationalists are referred to and often refer to themselves as “Bozkurtlar”, meaning Grey Wolves. A famous hand symbol made by right-wing nationalist Grey Wolves in Turkey is often seen used by Turkmen rebels on social media.
Turkmen groups in Syria openly show support for more conservative Turkish parties like MHP and the ruling party, AKP. Neo-Ottomanism is also a common theme among Turkmen brigades in Syria, with several brigades making use of Ottoman flags, names, and symbols in group media. Lastly, there seems to be a minority of Turkmen who subscribe to Kemalism, the ideology of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an important figure for Turkish nationalists, the founder of modern Turkey.
The Turkmen Brigades
The Abdulhamid Han Brigade
Several Turkmen brigades currently operate in Latakia, the most notable being the Second Coastal Division, which includes Arabs but is predominately made up of Turkmen. Most Turkmen brigades in Latakia are part of the Second Coastal Division. Another, smaller faction, consisting of around 50 fighters in Latakia, is the Sultan Abdulhamid Han brigade, named after Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, led by Turkmen supreme commander Ömer Abdullah.
The Abdulhamid Han brigade has adopted a more hardline, Turkish nationalist view than other Syrian Turkmen brigades. They make heavy use of the flag and symbols of Turkey, The Ottoman Empire, the Turkmens, and the Shahada. Like many Turkmen brigades and individuals, the brigade openly affiliates with the Grey Wolves movement, an ultra-nationalist organisation in Turkey.
Below we can see the flag of the Abdulhamid Han brigade, which displays a crescent and a star, similar to most Turkic flags, and a Tughra, a common Ottoman seal or signature. The colours are blue and white, colours commonly associated with Syrian Turkmen:
The brigade was involved in heavy clashes in 2017, with visual confirmation of close combat engagement with Syrian government troops on Mount Turkmen (here is the *graphic* footage of Commander Zakariya Molla during clashes, in which at least one Syrian government soldier can be seen dead).
The Abdulhamid Han brigade enjoys limited Turkish backing, consisting of ammunition for small arms, mortar shells, and, reportedly, some heavy machine guns. The picture below shows the Abdulhamid Han brigade with 107mm rockets, as supplied by Turkey. On the 19 and 22 of January 2019, the Abdulhamid Han brigade received new uniforms and weapons from a Turkish supplier:
At its maximum strength, the Abdulhamid Han brigade consists of around 50 fighters. The organisation has several technicals (i.e. light improvised fighting vehicle) within its arsenal and at least one multiple rocket launcher (MRLS) on a technical.
The Murat Brigade
Another notable brigade within the Second Coastal Division is the Murat brigade. This brigade consists of only a few dozen fighters but includes multiple foreign volunteers of Turkish nationality.
Led by their supreme commander, a Turkmen named Ramazan Addi, the Murat brigade is backed by Turkey and was pictured using Turkish produced weapons to shell Syrian government troops on July 2017.
Ramazan Addi is pictured below (source):
And here is the Murat brigade with its 128mm rockets, from the same Facebook source:
The Murat brigade was also one of a small number of groups to receive a Panthera 9F after several were distributed to groups in Latakia in 2017:
The Murat brigade has several fighters of note. Such as Zafer Kerkeç, for example, who was born in Turkey. Zafer has been seen with several important commanders and Turkmen fighters. Zafer was also seen pictured with one of the Panthera 9F vehicles given to Turkmen rebels:
He has also appeared on Turkish TV, where he was interviewed about a ceasefire in Syria:
The logo of the Murat brigade features a standard crescent and star, which is traditional among Turkic flags. The Red and Blue flag represents Turkmen brigades in Syria, a variation of the white and blue used by Turkmen.
Several fighters from Central Asia have also visited with and/or joined the Murat brigade. Pictured here is an alleged foreign fighter from among the Turkic people from Xinjiang China, posing with Ali Kaplan, a Turkish national from the same brigade:
Other photos published by brigade members on social media show fighters who seem to be of Central Asian ethnicity as members of Turkmen brigades in Latakia. Emrah Çelik, a Turkish volunteer, can be seen sitting down in the below photo:
The Suleyman Shah Union
Another Turkmen brigade based in the Mount Turkmen area is the Suleyman Shah Union, not to be confused with the Suleyman Shah brigade in northern Aleppo province which took part in Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch. The Suleyman Shah union is a small brigade affiliated with the Abdulhamid Han brigade, as the commander of Suleyman Shah Union is often pictured alongside Abdulhamid Han brigade members.
On the left, we see commander Halil Abu Nejim (source):
The Suleyman Shah Union engaged in small scale clashes with the Syrian army on the 24th of July, 2018. Turkey allegedly supplies the organisation’s ammunition.
The logo of the Suleyman Shah Union consists of the traditional crescent and star with two arrows on either side. On the fletching of the arrow, we can read the word ‘’Turk’’ in the old Turkic Orkhon alphabet, which is usually used by Turkish nationalists. The colours are blue and white — again, these are colours commonly used by Syrian Turkmen:
The 2016 Coup D’état Attempt in Turkey
On July 15, 2016, the Suleyman Shah Union published a video about the coup attempt in Turkey, announcing that their feelings toward the attempt were negative:
Members of the brigade have also taken pictures with a banner commemorating Meriç Alemdar, the Turkish police officer who was killed during the night of the coup. The exact reason why the banner memorialises this specific officer is unknown.
Pictured below is Suleyman Shah Union commander Halil Abu Nejim with an Azerbaijani flag (Azerbaijan is a fellow Turkic country) (source):
The Dirliş Osmanli Brigade
The Dirliş Osmanli brigade is a very small brigade based in Latakia. This brigade consists of a dozen fighters and is a small-subunit of the Murat brigade, led by commander Izzet Baldir.
Izzet Baldir can be seen in the centre of this picture, flanked by other brigade members. A PKM and a variant of an AK with a scope lie in front of them. A Turkish flag is seen in the background:
There is a Facebook video of the brigade shelling Syian government positions with Turkish supplied 107mm rockets.
We’ve been able to spot a tank with the Dirilis brigade, the kind of development we haven’t had earlier when observing uploads from the Murat brigade.
The Dirilis Osmanli brigade’s name translates to “Ottoman resurrection” brigade or “Ottoman Empire will rise” brigade. Their logo is black brown. On their logo, the year 1299 is mentioned, marking the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Two crescents and a star (a traditional design among Turkic flags) can be seen and a Shahada in the middle. This shows the three traditional pillars of the Turkmen brigades: Islam, Turkism, Nationalism:
Second Coastal Division
As evidenced by close relations most commanders and members appear to have with each other, it’s no surprise that most of these small groups work under the umbrella of the Second Coastal Division, which is generally more well known than any of its smaller component groups.
In the below picture, we can see Muhammed Baldiri Büyük, a commander of a specific group within the Second Coastal Division command. Muhammed is Syrian Turkmen and can be seen here with the well-known ‘’IYI’’ flag (source):
Muhammed is wearing a uniform in the same style as the Turkish military. In a Facebook picture below, Muhammed can be seen with a Shahada flag and two different AK variants:
In another social media picture, Muhammed poses with an AK-103 with a Fortuna One 3L/6L Thermal scope and a suppressor attached to it. He has never been seen using the weapon again, and it’s unknown who the original owner is. He is also known to have an M4 and an AK-74 in his possession.
As of 2015, it was reported that the Second Coastal Division was made up of around one thousand fighters, with tanks, ATGM’s, and technicals (some mounted with machine guns) within the group’s arsenal:
Another (ex) commander of note here is Alparslan Çelik. Çelik is a Turkish born ultra-nationalist affiliated with the Grey Wolves.
In 2014, Çelik made his way to Syria and became a commander in the Second Coastal Division. Çelik is reportedly responsible for killing the Russian pilot Oleg Peshkov, who ejected from his jet after being shot down by Turkey. Çelik was arrested in Izmir and brought to trial — however, all charges were dropped because the prosecutors claimed it could not be confirmed that Alparslan actually killed Peshkov. His lawyer claimed Alparslan handed Peshkov’s body over to Turkey. Çelik has continued to deny any responsibility for the death of Peshkov.
It should be noted that the First Coastal Division also has Turkmens within their ranks. However, it’s not specifically a Turkmen group, unlike the other factions based in Latakia.
Another relatively small yet notable group is Sehitleri Birligi (Martyrs Brigade in Turkish). The group is based in Latakia’s Bayirbuçak region and has settled on Mount Turkmen and Bidama village. The supreme commander of the group is Halit Sireki.
In a photo shared on social media, Halit Sireki can be seen with several notable flags: A green flag with three crescents, a symbol of Turkish nationalism, similar to the MHP party flag, and two Turkmen flags, the faction’s flag, a Turkish flag and an IYI flag (source):
The brigade consists of at least two dozen fighters, and at least one Turkish foreign fighter has been spotted with them. The brigade has access to Croatian 40MM grenade launchers, often used by Turkmen rebels. The ideology of this group can be compared to other groups covered here, mainly focusing on the trifecta of Nationalism, Islamism, and Turkic Identity. In comments to Turkish media, Halit has said that Syrians aged 17 to 45 should join the rebel forces.
The group even seems to include children within their ranks, as seen in a picture released in 2017. Several of the children are carrying weapons. Whether the children have participated in combat has not been confirmed (source):
Olive Branch & Euphrates Shield
After Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in coordination with FSA forces, it became clear that several fighters had gone from Turkey to Afrin to participate in the operation. Among one of the most notable foreign volunteers during these operations was Nedret Küçük. Küçük is a Turkish “Grey Wolf” and a member of the aid group “Güney Hilali Yardimlasma Denegi” which focuses on sending clothing and food to refugees and people in need. It seems the organization is not officially registered and is fully volunteer-run:
While it was unclear which particular brigade Küçük was embedded with, Küçük shared pictures which show logos of the Murat brigade on his profile and shared photos of Murat brigade fighters holding a banner of the aid organisation. Nedret was also pictured with Izzet Baldir, a member of Murat brigade:
Küçük went to Afrin later to fight the YPG during Operation Olive Branch. As seen in the below picture, he wears a yellow ribbon which marks Olive Branch fighters. He also wears what looks like a Turkish army cap:
Here, Küçük is pictured with Izzet Baldir, a member of the Murat brigade. This photo was taken in July 2018, near the Syrian-Turkish border:
The extent of Küçük’s involvement in the Afrin operation is hard to confirm. Pictures shared by him on social media indicate he has been there. He may have entered Afrin to assist with distribution of aid, as no evidence exists of him participating in military operations. Nothing shared by him shows active involvement.
Another fighter of note is Hüseyin Hamed. Hamed was based in Latakia and was part of the Second Coastal Division.
The following picture shows Hüseyin Hamed (left) next to a fighter named Ahmad. Ahmad is still based in the Latakia area (source):
The next picture shows Hüseyin Hamed in Afrin city centre after Turkish soldiers captured it. Hamed can be seen here with a Turkish MPT-76, possibly only posing with the weapon used by a Turkish soldier as no evidence exists of regular use of the MPT-76 by fighters. In the background, we can see 3 Turkish soldiers operate a Leopard 2A4 battle tank and an APC-15. The building is the Afrin government building, as confirmed by images posted online by Al-Araby (source):
Hamed wears a Turkish military outfit and holding a weapon that belongs to a Turkish soldier during operations in Afrin, hinting at possible warm ties between Hamed and members of the Turkish armed forces.
Here he poses with an M16 rifle and a Turkish military tactical vest:
The vest is notable for the Seljuk logo. The logo is also identical to the Turkish air force logo:
Hamed’s pants also appear to be the same as used by the Turkish military.
A Special Note On Ali Kaplan
There is also the possible presence of ex-Turkish military members in Latakia and northern Aleppo — exemplified by such volunteers as Ali Kaplan. Kaplan took part in Operation Olive Branch, launched by Turkey against YPG and its affiliates in Afrin. He has also appeared in other parts of Syria, namely Latakia. Although active in Afrin, Kaplan has never been recorded participating in combat in Latakia.
Two Facebook pictures confirm that Ali Kaplan was part of the Turkish army. It could not be established if this was during his military conscription or as an active duty member of the army, but what looks like a patch showing his rank of Sergeant First Class can be seen on his right arm:
Kaplan has been pictured with several commanders of Turkmen brigades, one of them being the commander of the Murat brigade/Drilis Osmanli brigade, Izzet Baldir, as well as with the commander of the Second Coastal Division, Muhammed Büyük.
Kaplan seems to have a close relationship with Turkish soldiers and can be seen posing with groups of Turkish soldiers during Operation Olive Branch.
Kaplan seems to be generally better equipped than other Turkmen rebels, usually using a Norinco CQ, an unlicensed Chinese M16 clone, with a holographic sight attached to it, uncommon in Latakia. The picture below shows Ali Kaplan with a captured YPG fighter in Afrin city during Operation Olive Branch. It was confirmed that during Olive Branch, several fighters of the Second Coastal Division had been transferred to northern Aleppo via Turkey:
Conclusion and Analysis
Although it is a relatively small area of rebel-held territory, Latakia represents a unique environment for all actors in the Syrian Civil War. Religiously moderate Turkmen groups like the Murat brigade and more religious fundamentalist groups like the Abdulhamid Han brigade have shown that Turkish nationalism can act as a unifying force for a wide variety of groups in Latakia.
This stands in stark contrast to non-Turkmen groups in Latakia and the rest of Idlib, where Turkish nationalism only exists on more of an individual or cultural basis rather than as a core tenant of the group’s ideology. While the groups likely number in just the hundreds to low thousands, their growing influence and increased funding from Turkey may be evidence of increasing interest in developing a Turkic identity in Syria outside of simple cultural reasons.
Although within the umbrella of the Second Coastal Division, these groups seem only nominally to work within the actual command structure. Social media profiles of members show little to no connection to the overall group, barely displaying flags or symbols of the group.
From what can be seen in the media shared by these groups, there is evidence to suggest that Turkey is directly arming and funding the groups. Equipment produced in Turkey or been linked to Turkish purchases have been seen in the hands of these groups. American produced weapons, like the M14 EBR rifle, have also been seen in the hands of Murat brigade commander Ramazan Edde in 2017:
Although not likely provided by the US, these weapons have been delivered to rebel groups like the 23rd Brigade and al-Hamza division who receive some backing by the US and Turkey. These weapons may have made their way through Turkmen connections between the group, as al-Hamza Division has a Turkmen subunit.
Turkish nationals have increasingly sought to join and actively participated in operations with these groups with open knowledge of their participation in Turkey.
As Latakia remains relatively dormant, Turkey may see this as an opportunity to further solidify their influence in the shadow of Idlib and Aleppo. Nationalist Turkmen in Syria may potentially grow to be not only an obstacle but an entirely new dynamic for the Syrian government, Russia, and even other rebel groups.