In schools and hos­pi­tals, Ankara carves out role in north­ern Syria


AL-BAB, Syria (Reuters) – Chil­dren re­turn­ing to school in the north­ern Syr­ian city of al-Bab were handed a new text­book this term: Turkce Ogreniy­o­rum – “I am learn­ing Turk­ish.”

Turk­ish lessons, Turk­ish sign­posts, Turk­ish-trained po­lice and most re­cently a Turk­ish post of­fice all point to Turkey’s deep­en­ing role in an area of north­ern Syria it cap­tured from Is­lamic State with the help of Syr­ian rebels. Turk­ish ad­min­is­tra­tors are even help­ing to run hos­pi­tals in the area.

Ankara has taken on a widen­ing role in the 100-km. stretch of ter­ri­tory seized in its eight-month long Euphrates Shield op­er­a­tion, lay­ing the foun­da­tions for long-term ties with an area that is of cru­cial strate­gic im­por­tance to Turkey.

Car­ried out to drive ISIS away from the bor­der, the op­er­a­tion also aimed to block fur­ther ex­pan­sion by Syr­ian Kur­dish groups that Ankara deems a threat to its na­tional se­cu­rity.

With the Euphrates Shield re­gion calm for months, Ankara says it wants to help re­cov­ery and to en­cour­age a re­turn of Syr­ian refugees, mil­lions of whom fled the sixand-a-half-year-long war into Turkey.

But Turk­ish sup­port is also con­sol­i­dat­ing the re­gion’s sta­tus as a Syr­ian op­po­si­tion-held ter­ri­tory where Turkey-backed Syr­ian op­po­si­tion groups are build­ing their own gov­ern­ment even as the forces of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad win back swaths of the coun­try else­where.

“Af­ter Daesh [ISIS] was ex­pelled... we re­turned and the cities were suf­fer­ing from large-scale de­struc­tion and gen­eral ruin,” said Muham­mad Karaz, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion in al-Bab. “Some schools were wiped out en­tirely,” he said.

“The restora­tion was done by our Turk­ish broth­ers who re­stored 10 schools, one of which we are sit­ting in to­day,” he said dur­ing an in­ter­view at the Ma­jor Bu­lent al-Bayrak El­e­men­tary School, named af­ter a Turk­ish of­fi­cer killed while fight­ing Is­lamic State for con­trol of al-Bab.

“Arabs and Turks are si­b­lings,” reads a mu­ral in the school­yard. Turk­ish aid in­cludes sta­tionery, books and clothes.

Karaz said the schools were teach­ing a Syr­ian cur­ricu­lum mod­i­fied to re­move the state’s Ba’athist ide­ol­ogy. The de­ci­sion to add Turk­ish was taken unan­i­mously by Syr­ian ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials in the area, he said.

Turk­ish classes, taught by Syr­i­ans trained in Turkey, have started for pupils aged be­tween six and nine. Ex­plain­ing the de­ci­sion, Karaz noted that two-thirds of al-Bab cit­i­zens had sought refuge in Turkey.

Turk­ish author­i­ties had given as­sur­ances that qual­i­fi­ca­tions from schools in the area would “be rec­og­nized in Turkey and stu­dents can ap­ply to Turk­ish uni­ver­si­ties,” he said.

A se­nior Turk­ish of­fi­cial said Ankara aimed to recre­ate “the con­di­tions to bring life back to nor­mal” in the area, which is lo­cated north­east of the city of Aleppo and stretches to the west­ern bank of the Euphrates River. Turk­ish sup­port in­cluded health care, se­cu­rity, food and po­lice train­ing.

“Turkey wants the Syr­i­ans liv­ing [in Turkey] to re­turn to their coun­try... How­ever, it will con­tinue to host the Syr­i­ans here and pro­vide hu­mane liv­ing con­di­tions for the Syr­i­ans in the re­gions un­der its con­trol for as long as nec­es­sary,” the of­fi­cial told Reuters.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, in a speech last week­end, said: “We don’t have a wish to oc­cupy these lands but we want the right­ful own­ers to go back there.”

Da­m­as­cus has, how­ever, long ac­cused Turkey, a ma­jor backer of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion to As­sad, of colo­nial am­bi­tions in north­ern Syria. The front page of the pro-Da­m­as­cus Le­banese news­pa­per Al-Akhbar on Thurs­day de­clared that Ankara was un­der­tak­ing the “Turk­i­fi­ca­tion” of the area.

Turkey’s in­ter­ven­tion was driven chiefly by con­cern over the grow­ing sway of Syr­ian Kur­dish groups seen by Ankara as an ex­ten­sion of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade long in­sur­gency against the Turk­ish state.

The Euphrates Shield op­er­a­tion shat­tered the Syr­ian Kurds’ hopes of join­ing up two Kur­dish-dom­i­nated re­gions of north­ern Syria, where the war has al­lowed Kur­dish mili­tia to carve out their own au­tonomous re­gions.

The Syr­ian op­po­si­tion’s ef­forts to es­tab­lish their own “in­terim gov­ern­ment” in the Euphrates Shield area re­ceived a big boost this week when a Free Syr­ian Army rebel group handed it con­trol of a bor­der cross­ing to Turkey.

The in­terim gov­ern­ment’s aims in­clude draw­ing in­vest­ment to move “the peo­ple from a state of war to work and build­ing the re­gion,” said Khaled Aaba, a se­nior of­fi­cial with the Jabha Shamiya FSA group that handed over Bab al-Salama cross­ing.

Cred­it­ing Turkey for stand­ing by “Syr­i­ans in their tra­vails,” he said Ankara was “ac­tively par­tic­i­pat­ing in sup­port­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive and ser­vice in­sti­tu­tions in the area.

“The ex­is­tence of [the in­terim] gov­ern­ment bet­ter or­ga­nizes this re­la­tion­ship,” Aaba added.

Turkey’s sup­port to the health sec­tor has in­cluded re­pair­ing and ex­pand­ing hos­pi­tals pre­vi­ously op­er­ated by the Syr­ian state.

Turk­ish ad­min­is­tra­tors are work­ing along­side Syr­i­ans at Hik­meh Hos­pi­tal in al-Bab, said Ah­mad Aabo, a Syr­ian med­i­cal of­fi­cial in the city. Turkey’s main project is a 200bed hos­pi­tal that will re­place one de­stroyed dur­ing the war with ISIS.

“The com­pa­nies tak­ing con­trol of the con­struc­tion are Turk­ish, we don’t have com­pa­nies ca­pa­ble of do­ing such a project,” said Aabo, speak­ing to Reuters in a tele­phone in­ter­view from the city.

He said work on the hos­pi­tal, which be­gan a month ago, should be com­pleted by the end of the year, com­par­ing the rapid pace of the Turk­ish project with the 25 years it had taken to build its pre­de­ces­sor.

Turk­ish sup­port for Syr­ian se­cu­rity forces has in­cluded train­ing po­lice of­fi­cers who be­gan de­ploy­ing in the re­gion in Jan­uary. Ab­del Raz­zak al-Laz, the head of the “Na­tional Po­lice and Gen­eral Se­cu­rity Forces,” said 7,000 have now been de­ployed.

“Every­one wants the re­turn of se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity, wants to see a po­lice pa­trol at night and dur­ing the day,” said Laz, a po­lice di­rec­tor when he de­fected to the op­po­si­tion in 2012.

“The num­bers are in­creas­ing, and there are con­tin­u­ous cour­ses,” he said.

PUPILS IN a class­room in the Syr­ian city of Al-Bab ear­lier this month.

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