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Syrian Turkmen groups return from Turkey to support opposition

Turkey has encouraged Syrian Turkmen organizations to move to Syrian areas controlled by anti-regime militias.

ALEPPO — Several Syrian Turkmen groups have relocated their headquarters this year from Turkey to Syrian areas occupied by Turkey and controlled by Turkish-backed opposition groups.

The Syrian Turkmen Assembly (STA) political coalition met July 28 with members of the Turkmen Shura (Consultation) Council at the STA's new headquarters in al-Rai, Syria. The STA moved last month from Istanbul to the town in Syria's northern Aleppo province. STA leader Muhammed Vecih Cuma told Al-Monitor that Syrian Turkmens are actively participating in the Syrian revolution against the regime and receiving support from the Turkish government, which encouraged the move to al-Rai, a town controlled by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Cuma said about the meeting, “Several issues were discussed, including the STA’s relocation to the liberated territories, its work method and how to solve the problems of the Turkmen community and alleviate its suffering.”

He added, “The work plan for the next round of STA elections was also discussed, in addition to how the parties in the liberated territories will operate and how the meetings will be held. We also discussed the method of choosing candidates [and] the STA’s capacity as the political cover uniting all Syrian Turkmens under its wing."

The STA's goals include returning Syrian Turkmens safely to their lands and guaranteeing their rights under a new Syrian Constitution through democratic and fair elections.

On its Facebook page, the STA writes about how it consulted with experts to develop new by-laws that comply with international law. The by-laws are designed to facilitate STA management inside Syria, help Syrian Turkmens return and allow for representation of all Syrian Turkmens in the STA.

The STA was established in 2012 in Istanbul, through direct support from the Turkish government. It was known as Syria’s Turkmen Association at the time, and was limited to independent members, most of whom were migrant Turkmens. The name was changed to STA in 2013 after other groups joined, including the Syrian Democratic Turkmen Movement, the Syria Turkmen Bloc and the Turkmen Development Party, along with FSA-affiliated armed Turkmen factions. It now includes independents, political parties and the armed factions. STA is the biggest Turkmen political assembly and includes most Syrian Turkmens.

The STA is one of the components of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, also known as the Syrian National Coalition.

The STA convenes every two years and is made up of a general secretariat and an executive office. There are 42 members in the secretariat, which elects the 14 members of the executive office. Parties are represented as follows: The Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party and the Syria Turkmen Bloc each has six members and the Turkmen Development Party has three, while the remaining seats are divided among independents and the FSA-affiliated armed Turkmen factions. Independents' representation in the STA is based on Turkmen population distribution in Syria.

There are members from Aleppo, Damascus, Raqqa, Latakia, Hama, Homs and other provinces. The most active Turkmen groups are located between Azaz and Jarablus in Aleppo province, and they constitute the majority in al-Rai and surrounding villages.

The groups' movement from Turkey is logical, Cuma explained.

“There is a general inclination to move Syrian opposition institutions from Turkey to Syria," Cuma said. "The [Syrian] National Coalition, for instance, opened headquarters in northern Aleppo on April 24. As STA is part of the Syrian opposition, it was important to move [the coalition's] headquarters to the liberated Syrian territories.”

The Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party also relocated last month from Istanbul to al-Rai. During its first meeting there, the group elected Ziad Hassan president to succeed Bassam Barq, and presented an overview of its new strategy, which generally aims to increase activity in the FSA-controlled areas in Aleppo. A movement member told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the FSA-controlled areas in Aleppo are the natural places for its activities: "[The move] helps us get closer to our Syrian Turkmen fellows in liberated towns and cities. The [areas have] become free from terrorism, and it was the right step to move our party inside Syria.”

Syria’s Turkmens consider themselves the second-most-dense population in Syria, after Arabs. There are no exact statistics on the number of Syrian Turkmens there, but there are unofficial estimates of half a million, constituting 3% of the citizens. Syrian Turkmens, especially in northern Aleppo, have protested the Syrian regime. They have also established political parties and opened Turkish learning centers in the FSA-controlled areas. Syrian Turkmen groups affiliated with several military factions also have been established.

Cuma said, “Syrian Turkmens are preserving the national project of the Syrian revolution, and they are seeking, alongside the remaining Syrian constituents, to reach a free Syria, without [President] Bashar al-Assad and his regime. We want Syria to be united and democratic and to respect people and their rights, while respecting its neighbors and abiding by international norms.”