In Syria’s rebel north, Turkey deepens roots, spreads influence

AZAZ, Syria: “Brotherhood has no limits.” The phrase is painted in Arabic and Turkish on a wall in Azaz, the town at the heart of Turkey’s de facto protectorate in northern Syria.
From Turkish-language classes for Syrian children to the state-owned Turk Telekom company erecting its first cell towers on Syrian soil, Ankara’s role in the rebel-held region around Azaz has been expanding.
“All the support we receive is Turkish — education, services, and so on,” said Mohammad Hamdan Keno, 64, head of the Azaz Local Council (ALC), which governs the town.
“Everything here is from our Turkish brothers.” Like the rest of his hometown, his desk in the ALC’s headquarters is adorned with both the three-star flag of the Syrian uprising and Ankara’s red-and-white crescent emblem.
Turkey began providing humanitarian, political and military backing to Syria’s opposition in 2011, and it has remained a steady ally ever since. But its influence became more explicit in 2016, when Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels launched a military operation against both the IS group and Kurdish fighters.
They cleared the extremists from the towns of Jarabulus, Al Rai and other areas, and this year overran the adjacent Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin.
Ankara keeps Turkish troops and intelligence forces in the area, and still backs the local police forces.
But Turkish state institutions and private companies have also put down roots in this relatively stable pocket, becoming an integral part of everyday life. Walls of the main hospital in Jarabulus are now adorned with portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the town is lit by an electricity grid set up by Ankara.
“A private Turkish company will implement an electricity project in Azaz, and Turkey is the guarantor,” he said. The town’s main market and several neighbourhoods have already been linked to the grid over the past week under an initial $3-million deal with AK Energy, he added.
The firm opened an Azaz satellite office in a former Syrian government building. Keno said Turkey has also helped the council pave roads, renovate mosques and repair classrooms.
“They fixed up the schools, gave us desks, books, schoolbags, computers and printers,” he listed off.
As class started up again this year, the council decided to introduce something new for the area’s estimated 18,000 students: Turkish courses.
“We used to have two foreign languages in our curriculum: English and French. Because of the rapprochement between us and Turkey, all the teachers and administrators decided to switch” from French to Turkish, said Keno. — AFP