Since Turkey established a safe zone in northern Syria last year through its Euphrates Shield military operation, local Turkmens, both civilians and fighters, have played a central role in running the territory. This has provoked hostility from Arab residents of the zone, amid complaints of Turkish favoritism on behalf of Turkmens in the distribution of aid and development projects. However, the Turkish and Turkmen approach remains focused on emphasizing Syrian unity against Kurdish secessionism.

Dissaproval of the Turkmens is particularly strong among Kurds,* who associate them with the era of Ottoman rule in Syria and their leading role in governing the region at the time. Turkmens have been part of the Syrian and Levantine social fabrics since the Ottoman period at least, although some can trace their ancestry back to the Seljuk Empire, when they were used to fight the Mongol invasions during the 13th century. However, the bulk of the Turkmen migration to Syria occurred toward the end of the 19th century, as they “were ideal settlers to reinforce the Ottoman presence in the frontier zones of Syria,” as British historian Eugene Rogan has written. The community is scattered geographically today in Syria, where its presence is the most visible and well-known among Arab countries, stretching from the Golan Heights to a few dozen towns in northern Aleppo governorate.

After the advent of the modern Arab state, specifically under Ba‘th rule in Syria and Iraq, the socio-economic status of the Turkmens deteriorated, while many slipped into poverty. They were denied linguistic and cultural rights, forcing thousands of them to lose their heritage and blend into Arab culture. This explains partly why the Turkmens joined the Syrian uprising in 2011, participating in demonstrations in Homs, Hama, and Damascus, and later enrolling in armed opposition groups fighting in northern Syria.

Turkmen towns in northern Aleppo governorate bore the brunt of Russian bombing in 2015, which was at the heart of the Turkish-Russian crisis after the downing of a SU-24 Russian aircraft in November of that year. At the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had told CNN that the Syrian regime’s aim was to “rid the whole region of the Turkmens, clear that whole area.” He went on to say that the Turkmens, whom he described as “our brothers and sisters,” had strong ties to Turkey, which would seek to protect them. By then, thousands of Turkmens had fled the fighting, particularly in Damascus and Homs, ending up as refugees in Lebanon and Turkey. Later, some joined Turkmen militias in the Euphrates Shield zone, especially the largest group, Sultan Murad.

Turkish support for Syria’s Turkmens began early in the Syrian conflict, before the Euphrates Shield operation and the downing of the Russian jet. Politically, Turkey helped to organize the Turkmen community. The Syrian Turkmen Assembly was established on March 29, 2013, in a general congress convened in Ankara and attended by Erdogan and then-Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Militarily, the Turkmen militias, in particular the Sultan Murad, Sultan Suleiman Shah, and Sultan Osman brigades, were closely allied with Turkey. Today, they are united under the command of the Sultan Murad brigade.

The close relationship between Turkey and the Turkmens has come to influence Arab perceptions in the region. Many Arab residents fail to differentiate between Turkish and Turkmen troops, according to two journalists contacted in Jarablus and Al-Bab. Among themselves, some Arabs often refer to Turkmens as “the new Alawites,” in reference to the minority community from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hails, and which is perceived as enjoying special privileges. In November last year, photos of the Euphrates Shield forces in which Turkmen fighters wore blue armbands, symbolizing their ethnic flag, while Arabs wore red ones, fuelled more questions on social media about Turkish favoritism.

To the Turkmens, however, this accusation is quite inflammatory, as they assert that they are treated equally. One Turkmen politician, who shuttles between the region and Gaziantep in Turkey, underlined that “even in education, we are being treated equally, with no exceptions granted.” However, Arabs to whom I spoke and who are mostly from tribal origins, insist that, given the common language and ethnic kinship with Turks, Turkmens have taken the lead in the region’s small job market, which is highly dependent on aid, mostly from Turkey.

For instance, Al-Ra‘i, a Turkmen town near the border, has been transformed into a hub for services provided to the region, replacing larger population centers such as Al-Bab. Turkey helped build and equip a new border crossing at Al-Ra‘i, with new storage facilities for humanitarian aid, placing it under the control of the Sultan Murad Brigade. The Turkish authorities quickly upgraded the crossing, signaling that it will play a leading role in the region. This move exacerbated tensions between the Turkmens and Arab armed groups who control the border crossings of Jarablus and Al-Salameh, which provide the groups with essential funding. Clashes between one armed group, Al-Jabhat al-Shamiyya, and the Sultan Murad brigade broke out in recent weeks over control of these crossings.

However, Turkmen leaders from the region dispute this, saying that Arab towns and cities receive similar attention, if not more, in the form of aid and development projects. The fact that Turkey has allowed the Syrian opposition’s interim government, led by Riad Seif, to play a role in running the zone highlights the Turkish emphasis on the Syria’s unity, these leaders say. However, Kurds see this policy as being directed against autonomous Kurdish areas nearby, rather than one that shows genuine concern for the country’s unity.

For the Kurds, the Turkmens are seen as a manifestation of the neo-Ottoman foreign policy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. This policy is aimed at restoring Ankara’s influence in the region, stressing pan-Islamic links and maintaining the nationalist narrative of defending Turkish minorities abroad. The Ottoman symbolism exacerbates these Kurdish fears, especially given the fact that Ankara launched its operation in Syria on the anniversary of the 16th-century Ottoman invasion of Syria. Turkmens also name their militias after Ottoman sultans. Rumors are circulating of Turkish plans to move combatants of the Uyghur Turkistan Islamic Party and their families, who are presently located in Idlib governorate, to safer Turkish-held regions of Syria. Although affiliated with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, they are viewed by the Turks as ethnic brethren. Yet the news of their upcoming transfer remains unconfirmed.

The Kurds are right to be worried. The anti-Kurdish rhetoric heard in the Turkish-controlled regions of northern Syria is only escalating, and a military build-up is currently taking place. For the Kurds, the question is not whether a conflict with the Turkmen militias will occur, but rather when.

*This sentence has been changed to correct an error.