MOSCOW/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Russian air strikes in northwest Syria have heavily targeted ethnic Turkmen areas, according to a Reuters data analysis that helps explain rising tensions between Moscow and Ankara in the weeks before Turkey shot down a Russian warplane.
Tuesday’s incident marked the biggest clash between a NATO member and Russia in half a century, and has drawn threats of economic retaliation from the Kremlin. Turkey says the plane strayed into its airspace, which Moscow denies.
Long before that, Turkey had condemned Russia’s bombing of towns and villages in the north of Syria’s western Latakia province, areas it says belong to Syrian Turkmen, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.
Russian Defence Ministry data, collated by Reuters, shows the bombing raids have struck at least 17 named locations in Turkmen areas since President Vladimir Putin ordered them to begin on Sept. 30.
Russian missiles have destroyed ammunition bunkers, command points and a suicide bomb factory in towns including Salma, Ghmam and Kesladshuq to the west of Syria’s Alawite mountains, according to the data, an area humanitarian groups say is ethnically Turkmen.
Salma, which has a majority Turkmen population, has been bombed on at least eight occasions and has found itself at the center of some of the most geographically concentrated strikes.
Russian jets have hit 15 separate named targets within a 13 km (8 mile) radius of the town, which is used as a base by Turkish-backed rebels in their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The Russians were heavily bombing Turkmen villages before the downing of the plane,” said Samir Alo, head of the Higher Council of Turkmen in Syria. “Thousands of Turkmen families have been driven to the border.”
Putin has vowed to hunt down Islamic State militants who blew up a Russian airliner over Egypt last month, and said Russia will step up its air strikes against the group in Syria.
But Turkey, the United States and other NATO members say Russia is also hitting rebels opposed to Assad and fighting against Islamic State, allowing the militants to make advances on the battlefield.
Moscow says it only targets Islamic State and what it describes as other terrorist groups in Syria.
A Syrian Kurdish leader said on Friday Ankara had shot down the Russian bomber because the groups it backed were losing territory.
“Turkmen are Turkey’s ethnic kin but the world should understand that there is a bigger issue at stake here,” said a senior Turkish official. “We are extremely worried that the anti-Islamic State coalition is being weakened by these bombardments.
“How could a campaign against Islamic State be conducted by bombing these rebels which are actually battling Islamic State?”
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said this week that there are no Islamic State militants in Latakia and the area just to the north, which have been targeted by both Russian bombardment and Syrian government forces. He said 300 moderate Syrian rebels, including many Turkmen, had been killed in over a month.
Turkmen have lived in northwest Syria since traveling there to fight as part of a Muslim campaign against European crusaders in the Middle Ages.
Officials estimate 300,000 Turkmen used to live in northern Latakia but Murat Kavakdan, Syria coordinator for the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, said as few as 25,000 remain as a result of Syria’s four-year-civil war, which has displaced more than six million people.
A Reuters analysis in October found that almost 80 percent of Russian targets in Syria in the first three weeks of its air campaign were on groups other than Islamic State.
The Russian Defence Ministry did not respond to written questions submitted by Reuters on the latest data.
Writing by Jack Stubbs; Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Mark Trevelyan