Syrian Turkmens, Turkish Nationalists, Russian Jets & the Battle for Bayırbucak

Alleged killer of Russian pilot mourns MHP official killed by Russian airstrikes

Within hours after the first Russian airstrikes in Syria, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Western journalists began to explain why Russia’s intervention “is doomed to fail.”[1][2] A few days later, Western media gleefully announced that Russia’s intervention has failed.[3]

But four months into Russia’s Syria campaign, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to deny that the Kremlin is actually pursuing a viable military strategy in Syria. Therefore, Western media has recently resorted to explaining why it is a bad thing that the Russian airstrikes are working.[4]

Especially in terms of the situation on the Syrian-Turkish border, Russia’s intervention has been a game-changer. Thanks to Russian air support, Syria is able to exert control over parts of its own border for the first time in years.

Whereas Syrian aircraft refrained from conducting airstrikes close to the Turkish border for fear of being shot down,[5] Russian aircraft have not been deterred by Turkey’s efforts to protect its proxies in northern Syria.

Last November, Ankara summoned the Russian Ambassador and warned Moscow that the continued bombing of Syrian Turkmens “could lead to serious consequences.”[6]

Shortly thereafter, just as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was meeting with high-level Turkish officials to discuss the issue,[7] Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian jet over Latakia’s Turkmen-populated Bayırbucak region.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated, it is doubtful that NATO member Turkey made this momentous decision on its own.[8]

The Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber aircraft was ambushed on its way to a target about five miles south of the important Yayladagi border crossing that has been used by the Turks to slip jihadists into Syria. The Syrian Turkmens who occupy this sparsely populated area in northwestern Syria are sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and harbor Turkish-backed Chechen terrorists.[9]

True to form, the “moderate Turkmen rebels” did their best to kill the two Russian pilots after they managed to eject from their jet. Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov was shot dead while parachuting to the ground whereas Captain Konstantin Murakhtin could be rescued by special forces.[10]

Nevertheless, “Syrian rebel leader” Alparslan Çelik and his men boasted of killing both pilots.[11] As Çelik’s interview went viral, it was quickly discovered that the Turkmen militia leader is actually a Turkish citizen with an ultranationalist background. His father Ramazan Çelik served as mayor for the far-right National Movement Party (MHP) in the eastern Turkish province of Elazig and Alparslan himself is a member of the Grey Wolves, the paramilitary youth wing of the MHP.[12]

Both the MHP and the Grey Wolves have close ties to Turkish and U.S.-NATO intelligence going back to the days of Operation Gladio.[13]

The increasing involvement of Turkish nationalist and Islamist organizations in supporting “Turkmen rebels” in Syria has been extensively documented [14] but the crucial role played by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and agents like Heysem Topalca is often being omitted.[15]

Despite all Turkish efforts, Turkmen militias have now lost control of most of Latakia’s Bayırbucak region,[16] prompting a few hundred Turkmen refugees to cross into Turkey via the contested Yayladagi border post.[17]

Much to dismay of the Turkish authorities, the downing of the Su-24 didn’t stop Russia from striking targets close to the Turkish border, quite the contrary.[18] This has enabled Syrian government forces to make significant progress on the ground.

To make matters worse for Ankara, Turkmen sources told Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak that Russia is preparing to deploy S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in the former “rebel” stronghold Salma on Turkmen Mountain.[19] The strategic town was captured by government forces in mid-January “thanks to the support of the friendly Russian aviation” after having been under opposition control since 2012.[20]

Although the battle for Bayırbucak has already taken a heavy toll on all sides, the Turkish government is not willing to back down.

On 27 January, Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) reaffirmed its support for “the Turkmens in Northwestern Syria who are being targeted by the Russian airstrikes.”[21]

On the very same day, hundreds of people gathered at Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque to attend the funeral of MHP official Ibrahim Küçük. The former deputy chairman of the MHP's Fatih district office was recently killed by Russian airstrikes while fighting in Latakia.

As Küçük’s hearse left for the cemetery, many people raised their hands making the grey wolf sign and some shouted: “Killer Russia, get off of Turkmen Mountain.”

Among the funeral’s attendees were not only many leading MHP figures but also Turkmen militia leader Alparslan Çelik who described Küçük as a friend and told reporters that they had been fighting together in the Bayırbucak region. Çelik emphasized that he can move freely between Turkey and Syria and that he will return to the battlefield very soon.[22]

One day after the funeral, Çelik gave an interview to Doğan News Agency, in which he criticized the Turkish government for not doing enough to support the Turkmens and insisted that he is not afraid of the Russians who are reportedly looking for revenge.[23]

At the end of last year, Moscow called on Turkey to arrest Çelik after the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet had published a similar interview.[24] As the battle for Bayırbucak continues, this looks highly unlikely but Çelik would be well advised to stay away from both Syria and Istanbul for the future.[25]

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

Notes

[1] “Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” U.S. Department of Defense, 30 September 2015: http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/621301/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-secretary-carter-in-the-pentagon-briefi.

[2] Max Fisher, “Why Putin is doomed to fail in Syria,” Vox, 1 October 2015: http://www.vox.com/2015/10/1/9431773/putin-russia-syria-doomed.

[3] Louisa Loveluck, “Russia ‘reducing air strikes against Syrian rebels’ as intervention fails,” The Telegraph, 16 October 2015: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11934564/Russia-reducing-air-strikes-against-Syrian-rebels-as-intervention-fails.html.

[4] Liz Sly, “Russian airstrikes are working in Syria – enough to put peace talks in doubt,” The Washington Post, 19 January 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/russian-airstrikes-are-working-in-syria--enough-to-put-peace-talks-in-doubt/2016/01/19/64127084-beb2-11e5-98c8-7fab78677d51_story.html.

[5] “Turkey downs Syria military jet ‘in airspace violation,’” BBC, 23 March 2014: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26706417.

[6] Ercan Gurses, Daren Butler, Richard Balmforth and David Dolan, “Turkey summons Russian envoy over bombing of Turkmens in Syria: PM,” Reuters, 20 November 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey-russia-idUSKCN0T91MO20151120.

[7] “US air force Gen Selva visits Ankara to discuss terror, Syria,” Daily Sabah, 23 November 2015: http://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2015/11/23/us-air-force-gen-selva-visits-ankara-to-discuss-terror-syria.

[8] Rose Troup Buchanan, “Vladimir Putin claims US ‘leaked’ to Turkey the flight path of downed Russian jet,” The Independent, 27 November 2015: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/putin-claims-us-leaked-flight-path-of-downed-russian-jet-to-turkey-a6750966.html.

[9] Andrew Cockburn, “Mountain Ambush,” Harper’s Magazine, 4 December 2015: http://harpers.org/blog/2015/12/mountain-ambush/.

[10] Neil MacFarquhar, “Navigator of Downed Russian Plane Says There Was No Warning,” The New York Times, 25 November 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/26/world/europe/turkey-russia-jet.html.

[11] Adam Withnall, “Syrian rebels ‘shot dead Russian pilots as they descended in parachutes,’” The Independent, 24 November 2015: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syrian-rebels-shot-dead-russian-pilots-as-they-descended-in-parachutes-a6746981.html.

[12] Johnlee Varghese, “Syria: Photos of Alparslan Celik, rebel leader from Turkey who shot Russian pilot, go viral,” International Business Times, 27 November 2015: http://www.ibtimes.co.in/syria-photos-alparslan-celik-rebel-leader-turkey-who-shot-russian-pilot-go-viral-656993.

[13] Desmond Fernandes and Iskender Ozden (2001), “United States and NATO inspired ‘psychological warfare operations’ against the ‘Kurdish communist threat’ in Turkey,” Variant, 2(12), pp. 10-16: http://www.variant.org.uk/pdfs/issue12/Fernandes.pdf.

[14] Sam Heller and S.G. Grimaldi, “A cause for all Turks: Turkey and Syria’s Turkmen rebels,” War on the Rocks, 21 January 2015: http://warontherocks.com/2016/01/a-cause-for-all-turks-turkey-and-syrias-turkmen-rebels/.

[15] Fehim Taştekin, “Wiretaps reveal Turkey’s attacks on Syrian regime positions,” Al-Monitor, 18 February 2015: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/turkey-syria-weapons-civil-war-kessab-armenian.html#.

[16] “Syrian Turkmen control only 3 of 73 villages in Bayır-Bucak,” Yeni Şafak, 27 January 2016: http://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/syrian-turkmen-control-only-3-of-73-villages-in-bayir-bucak-2396707.

[17] Humeyra Pamuk, “Syrian Turkmens cross to Turkey, fleeing advances of pro-Assad forces,” Reuters, 29 January 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkmens-idUSKCN0V720O.

[18] Kathrin Hille, Noam Raydan and Josh Noble, “Russia vows to continue Syria air strikes close to Turkish border,” Financial Times, 25 November 2015: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6bb618c8-9355-11e5-94e6-c5413829caa5.html.

[19] “Russia set to deploy S-400 missile system on Turkmen Mountain,” Yeni Şafak,” 28 January 2016: http://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/russia-set-to-deploy-s-400-missile-systems-on-turkmen-mountain-2398288.

[20] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Syrian government thanks Russia for help capturing key town,” 22 January 2016: http://news.yahoo.com/syrian-government-thanks-russia-help-capturing-key-town-131542247.html.

[21] “Turkey will continue to support Turkmens under Russian attacks in Syria: National Security Council,” Daily Sabah, 27 January 2016: http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2016/01/27/turkey-will-continue-to-support-turkmens-under-russian-attacks-in-syria-national-security-council.

[22] “Turkish fighter who allegedly killed Russian pilot in Syria attends funeral in Istanbul,” Today’s Zaman, 28 January 2016: http://www.todayszaman.com/national_turkish-fighter-who-allegedly-killed-russian-pilot-in-syria-attends-funeral-in-i-stanbul_410830.html.

[23] Haluk Turgut, “I have no fear of the Russians, says alleged killer of Russian pilot,” Doğan News Agency, 28 January 2016: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/i-have-no-fear-of-the-russians-says-alleged-turkmen-killer-of-russian-pilot.aspx?pageID=238&nID=94474&NewsCatID=352.

[24] “Russia demands arrest of Su-24 pilot’s murderer who gave interview to Turkish media,” Russia Today, 30 December 2015: https://www.rt.com/news/327494-russia-turkey-downed-jet/.

[25] Shaun Walker, “Murder in Istanbul: Kremlin’s hand suspected in shooting of Chechen,” The Guardian, 10 January 2016: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/10/murder-istanbul-chechen-kremlin-russia-abdulvakhid-edelgireyev.

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Comments

  1. stevan topping says:

    Your article is appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Mission creep.
    Like this…!
    US government ask…
    The Danish government..
    For help in Syria…
    Whit some special forces..!
    http://www.thelocal.dk/20160111/denmark-could-send-special-forces-into-syria
    Hmmm..( Nato ),
    Best Regards
    Jens and Bornholm.

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