In schools and hospitals, Turkey carves north Syria role

AL-BAB/BEIRUT/ANKARA: Children returning to school in the northern Syrian city of Al-Bab were handed a new textbook this term: “Türkçe Ö-reniyorum” — “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 IS 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.
Launched to drive IS 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 six-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 al Assad win back swathes of the country elsewhere.
“After IS was expelled… we returned and the cities were suffering from large-scale destruction and general ruin,” said Mohammad 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 IS 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 Baathist 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 recognised 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. — Reuters