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A Turkish takeover of schools in Northern Syria: A nation in jeopardy?

A Turkish takeover of schools in Northern Syria: A nation in jeopardy?

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Politics History The Truth

Tuesday 8 August 202302:26 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

تركيا تزيل اللافتات العربية في ولاياتها... والمجالس المحليّة "تُترّك" الشمال السوري!


The popular discontent within northern Syria – under the control of the Turkish-backed opposition – has escalated following the arrest of an activist in Al-Bab, a city in the Aleppo countryside. The activist was detained for the act of removing a sign bearing the name of a Turkish officer from a local primary school. The individual in question, Khalil Abu Sheikho, had shared on his Facebook account that, as a Syrian citizen, he "intended to remove the newly imposed name of the school."

This incident comes in the wake of a decision by the city's local council to change the school's name from "Amina bint Wahb" (the mother of Prophet Muhammad) to the Turkish "Martyr Duran Keskin".

The public outrage and the subsequent calls for protests led to the prompt release of Khalil Abu Sheikho, just hours after his arrest. Particularly noteworthy is that the local councils' move to alter the names of schools and public places to Turkish ones had encountered significant resistance among the local populace. This resistance has been exacerbated by the concurrent removal of Arabic-language signs in several Turkish provinces that are under the influence of the Turkish opposition.

The local councils' move to alter the names of schools and public places to Turkish ones had encountered significant resistance among the local populace.

Provocation.. and public resentment

Moutaz Nasser, an activist residing in the city of Al-Bab, views the recent "public outcry and the calls for protests is an entirely natural and predictable response given the irresponsibility demonstrated by the Turkish-appointed local councils." Nonetheless, Nasser finds the timing of these events "puzzling, as if it is intended to provoke tensions between Syrians and Turks, both within and outside of Turkey". In conversation with Raseef22, he remarked, "No one can deny Turkish sacrifices, and they can't be undermined. But we strongly reject any attempt to distort our identity or tamper with our religious and political values. We consider Turkey as a neighbor and ally, and we aspire to foster better relations based on the principle of mutual respect and shared interests."

The northern region of Syria is currently grappling with turmoil and dissatisfaction, largely due to its deteriorating political, economic, and living conditions. This sense of unease has been further exacerbated by the suspension of UN aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Consequently, there has been a depletion of strategic resources within Syria, coupled with substantial challenges faced by humanitarian organizations.

Nasser assigns a considerable portion of the blame for the deteriorating living conditions in northern Syria, since 2017 up until the present, to the Turkish authorities. He observes that "the uprisings among the local population began as early as 2019 and have continued unabated, as Turkey's policies concerning Syria have been perceived by many as increasingly provocative towards the Syrian populace. While rational actors on both sides attempt to bridge the increasingly widening gaps, there's a looming concern that these gaps could grow to undermine and eventually swallow up all of Turkey's positive reputation. Syrians might shift from being staunch supporters of Turkey to becoming its opponents, a situation detrimental to both Turkey and the Syrians."

Eradicating the region's identity

The incident of altering school signs and other public centers, alongside other practices that preceded it, are being widely seen as deliberate attempts of "Turkifying" the region. These efforts aim to reshape the region's overall character, erase its identity, and distance it significantly from Syria's cultural and social fabric. This unease is heightened by the Turkish authorities' concurrent removal of Arabic-language signs in several Turkish provinces. These actions coincide with a political impasse and inaction concerning the Syrian crisis, and Turkey's eagerness to establish closer ties with the Assad regime. This has only heightened tensions arising from any decision targeting the Syrians' sense of belonging and identity within northern Syria.

Numerous schools and public spaces have undergone the process of "Turkification" with changes to their names. For instance, the "Amina bint Wahb School" in Al-Bab was renamed as the "Duran Keskin School". Similarly, an elementary school in Al-Bab was renamed the "Bülent Albayrak School", in honor of a Turkish officer who lost his life during military operations against ISIS in the eastern Aleppo region. Additionally, the Primary Girls' school in Bza'ah had its name transformed to "Utdar Pinar School", and "Al-Thawra School" became "Akash Farajah School". The "Maysalun School" was renamed "Fakhr al-Din Pasha School", while the "Sossian Elementary School" was changed to "Koknan Ozik School". In addition, in the heart of Afrin city, the square adjacent to the Saraya building underwent a renaming, becoming the "Recep Tayyip Erdogan Square", while the "Martyr Ammar Dadikhi Park" in Azaz is now known as the "Ottoman Nation Park". Furthermore, the local council of Azaz bestowed the name "Sultana Ayşe (Aisha) Kindergarten" on one of its early childhood education centers.

In response, the "Syrian Free Teachers' Union", operating from the northern regions of Syria, has voiced strong condemnation of this trend to rename schools in the Aleppo countryside, an area controlled by the opposition Syrian National Army. The union noted that the names of several schools in Al-Bab and Bza'ah were changed from Arabic names that carry historical and religious significance to Turkish ones.

"We strongly reject any attempt to distort our identity or manipulate our religious and political values. We regard Turkey as a neighbor and ally, and we aspire to cultivate a more constructive relationship founded on mutual respect and shared interests"

In a statement, the union's message further emphasized that this renaming process demonstrates "a lack of respect for the revolution and for the people who have sacrificed more than a million martyrs, hundreds of thousands of detainees, and millions of displaced individuals." The union fervently called upon civil and revolutionary entities in Al-Bab to exert pressure on the Education Directorate for the restoration of the original names of these institutions and to initiate an in-depth investigation, holding those responsible for the decision accountable.

Omar Laila, a prominent member of the Aleppo branch of the Syrian Free Teachers' Union, points out that there is clear Turkish supervision over the educational sector of northern Syria. This oversight encompasses aspects like curriculum modifications, exams, and study plans, which mandate the teaching of the Turkish language in schools from the elementary levels, with a number of weekly classes on par with that of the Arabic subject. Moreover, the emphasis on foreign languages has taken a backseat, overshadowed by the appointment of Turkish language educators, while teachers for other languages remain marginalized. Laila underscores that while "Turkey may not provide substantial material or logistical support to the education sector, its guidance and direction significantly influence it in alignment with its own interests."

As per Laila's observations, the renaming of schools, places, and streets in northern Syria results in the loss of an entire generation and the erasure of the region's distinctive historical identity.

Education holds paramount importance within the Turkish administration's agenda in northern Syria. The Turkish Ministry of Education oversees the entire educational framework and system as a whole, including the Syrian Education Directorate. In October 2019, Turkey inaugurated three faculties in Syria as part of Gaziantep University, managed by the teaching faculty, which encompasses the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences in Al-Bab, the School of Islamic Sciences in Azaz, and the Faculty of Education in Afrin. Furthermore, establishments like the "Yunus Emre" Turkish language center and the Anadolu center in Afrin have been established to facilitate Turkish language education.

"Local councils" ... A directed policy

It cannot be denied that the region of northern Syria under Turkish administration carries a distinct Turkish influence across civil, service, and security dimensions. Some residents perceive the current situation as a state of safety from the Assad regime, and they view the Turkish activity with a sense of relief. The Turkish presence has also evolved into a positive and developmental aspect for remote areas, especially as it noticeably contributed to facilitating strategic projects.

Northern Syria is currently grappling with a state of turmoil and discontent due to its deteriorating political, economic, and living conditions, exacerbated by the halt in the flow of UN aid.

This trend of "Turkification" extends beyond the renaming of educational institutions, permeating various economic, trade, and administrative spheres. For instance, transactions are now conducted in Turkish lira rather than the Syrian pound, PTT centers (Turkey's national Postal Agency) have been set up, along with clear support and encouragement for the formation of local councils, with direct support from southern Turkish provinces such as Kilis, Hatay, and Gaziantep, as they play a crucial role in fulfilling the needs of residents in areas such as healthcare, relief, and education. This comes in the absence of any significant role for the interim Syrian government, which primarily holds a symbolic position. This helps explain the swift action taken by the local council, which is closely tied to the province of Gaziantep, in submitting a formal complaint against activist Sheikho, on the accusation of removing an official banner.

Raseef22 reached out to the Ministry of Education in the opposition interim government for details, but Education Minister Jihad Hajazi declined to respond, citing being "busy". He suggested directing inquiries regarding this issue to local councils. Raseef22 attempted to contact the local council in Al-Bab, but as of the publication date of this report, no response has been received.

Yahya Al-Aridi, a Syrian writer and politician who previously held several positions in the Syrian opposition, remarks that Turkey only cares about its own heritage, history, and language, and does not feel compelled or obligated to extend the same regard to another language or to honor the sacrifices of another country. In contrast, he points out that "the current Syrian opposition has become subservient and dependent on Turkish decisions," attributing this phenomenon to "individual interests, and that the revolution and opposition have seemingly become nothing more than a mere job, and rights have become a seasonal display."

Omar Layla, member of the Aleppo branch of the Teachers' Union, shares Al-Aridi's viewpoint regarding the opposition. He points out that the persistent action taken by local councils backed by Turkey stems from an intent to offer them complimentary services, a move that could potentially stir conflicts between these councils and those who oppose this methodology.

Meanwhile, activist Nasser holds the belief that the decision by local councils to rename schools in Turkish names isn't something they would dare undertake independently; rather, they would require direction from the Turkish side. However, this doesn't absolve them of their accountability for allowing this change to occur without the slightest objection. He further adds that "as Syrians, we shoulder the majority of the responsibility for two main reasons: firstly, our internal shortcomings in establishing a centralized body that truly represents the spirit of the revolution and enforces its ideals and agendas, and secondly, we have trusted Turkey much more than we should. Our excessive reliance on Turkey has surpassed reasonable bounds and burdened it beyond its capacity. Yet, this doesn't absolve the Turkish government from its own responsibilities and the errors it has made in handling the Syrian situation. These errors might not be accidental, but rather aligned with the interests of more influential players like Russia, China, and Iran."

Turkish opposition and its campaigns against the Arabic language

Recent times have seen a heightened campaign by local Turkish authorities against the use of the Arabic language in various Turkish provinces. This campaign is characterized by the removal of all Arabic signage while deliberately ignoring signs in other languages. Interestingly, municipalities aligned with the oppositional secular Republican People's Party, such as the municipalities of Istanbul, Bursa, Mersin, and others, are at the forefront of this campaign. This points to a concerning escalation in racial rhetoric and intentional systematic incitement against the Arab identity, including the Arab refugees. In fact, it's gone so far that Ilay Aksoy, deputy chair of the Democratic Party for Immigration Affairs and Social Policies, labeled the activist Abu Sheikho as a terrorist, voicing her protest against his release after he reinstalled the school banner bearing the name of Amina bint Wahb. Notably, she had previously criticized the presence of Arabic writing on storefronts in Istanbul's Fatih district in a video shared on Twitter in March 2019, asserting, "I won't hand over Fatih to the Syrians."

Local councils are changing the names of Syrian schools and streets from Arabic to Turkish, looking for historical Turkish figures to impose on a school or public square. This begs the question: Why all this submissiveness, and what are the motives behind it?

Without a doubt, this move, with its many question marks, appears to be aimed at preserving the Turkish identity, according to the opposition party's perspective. However, this raises significant queries about the selective removal of Arabic signage compared to signs in other languages, which amplifies the surge in nationalist sentiments and ideological inclinations that the Turkish Union and Progress Party have championed post the Ottoman Empire's collapse. Their call for unifying individuals of Turkish descent and their endeavor to enforce "Turkification" among citizens of diverse ethnicities and other nationalities, coupled with their desire to 'cleanse the Turkish language of impurities' introduced by non-Turkish ethnic groups, particularly Arabs and Persians, all contribute to the broader context.

Historical researcher Abdullah Quwaider posits that "secularists, in a broader sense, consider the intellectual struggle as a pivotal matter and non-negotiable red line, so they have an unwavering stance on certain key points." He suggests that the "escalating prevalence of today's racist discourse, manifesting in various forms, can be attributed to the prevailing economic conditions and inflation. The presence of immigrants and refugees isn't a novel phenomenon; they have seamlessly integrated into daily life and productive routines, and their presence has had no detrimental effects or adverse impacts, particularly among the Arab populace. In contrast, the government's lack of legislation criminalizing racism or the adept handling of the foreigner issue is noticeable."

Quwaider further explains to Raseef22 that "racial incidents should not be interpreted through a historical lens, nor should culpability be solely ascribed to a particular political faction or a specific societal category. During their dominion over Arab lands, Ottoman Turks did not have substantial cultural influence and did not leave a lasting Turkish cultural legacy or impact."
Evidently, it seems that everyone is capitalizing on the Arab and refugee issue. The racist rhetoric has become a partisan tool wielded across the political spectrum by all parties in parliamentary and partisan conflicts. Even conservative Turks have found themselves ensnared in racial undertones due to the underlying intellectual rivalry between two factions: the conservative Ottoman Islamic faction and the westernized, enlightenment-driven secular faction, all within the milieu of political manipulation and economic inflation.

Quwaider concludes by underscoring that "nations whose governments stand unwaveringly by them and uphold their dignity cannot be seen as easy prey, disregarded, or dismissed as devoid of value or respect. We've noted that the rhetoric is directed in particular towards Syrians and Afghans, as their countries grapple with pressing issues, and the fragility and weakness of the state reflects on its people."


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