Murad Abdul Jalil | Dia Odeh | Mohamed Homs
Behind him, the emblem of the Ottoman state, and on his left, the image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On his right, another picture of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. If it were not the flag of the Syrian revolution besides the Turkish flag and the Turkish-made plastic water bottle, the picture would have looked as if it is a Turkish government official.
“Abo Amsha,” the military commander in the countryside of Aleppo, who is in the middle of the photo that has been circulated on social media websites in early May, has often sparked controversy about appearing in a Turkish look at the expense of highlighting the Syrian identity.
Muhammad al-Jassem, known as Abo Amsha, leads the Suleyman Shah Faction, founded in 2016, and is part of the Turkish-backed National Army. The faction’s activity is concentrated in the city of Afrin in the northern countryside of Aleppo.
The photo of Abo Amsha is part of a broader picture of the reality of the northern areas of Aleppo Governorate, where the Turkish cultural, civil, military and service character has been obvious during the past two years.
The Ottoman Nation Park), the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Square, the Bulant Al Birek School, and other names have strengthened the Turkish character in the cities, towns and villages of the countryside of Aleppo. At the civil and service levels, the “Turkish System” has become part of the Syrian dealings in the region, and the Turkish language has become “compulsory” learned by part of the students in schools.
This reality raises questions about the motive for the Turkicization of the region and the party responsible for it, as it is a justification for the fears of some Syrians and a source of stability for others.
In this investigation, Enab Baladi examines the prominence of the Turkish character in the northern regions of Aleppo, and reveals the sides responsible for it and the role of the Turkish government and local officials in this, in order to foresee the future of the region and how things will turn out.
Targeted policy or spontaneous initiatives
Local councils in the countryside of Aleppo with a Turkish character
After nearly two years of the control of the Turkish-backed opposition factions over the northern countryside of Aleppo, the region has started to take the Turkish character at the civil and service levels due to Ankara’s great interest in the region and its support for economic and investment projects that provided a source of livelihood for the citizens.
|Euphrates Shield military operation
It was launched on August 24, 2016, led by Turkey, with the participation of fighters from the Free Syrian Army. They took control over large areas of Aleppo’s northern countryside, which were controlled by ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Despite the announcement of the end of Operation Euphrates Shield in March 2017, the Turkish-backed opposition factions took control over the whole region of Afrin in March 2018, adding 2 percent of the surface of Syria to the area which has been called after the Turkish military operation.
Turkey’s military intervention in the northern and eastern parts of Aleppo was in August 2018. It launched an operation called Euphrates Shield, with the help of Free Syrian Army factions that it supports, through which it managed to take control over large areas from the hands of ISIS. The first of these areas was the border town of Jarabulus.
Following the factions’ control over the areas, the Turkish interest has been focused on the military side, which has been represented in the formation of the National Army, as well as the civilian side by supporting the formation of the local councils in areas of the countryside of Aleppo, which have played a major service role in securing the citizens’ requirements in various areas, such as relief, health and education. This is in addition to the development of infrastructure, paving the way for the entering of areas of investment with large economic projects and economic activity.
These councils have turned into a kind of government assembly that oversees and manages the affairs of geographical area where the council is located (such as the local council in al-Bab, Azaz, Jarabulus and others). These councils are backed by the Turkish provinces close to the Syrian borders, such as the provinces of Kilis and Gaziantep, amid the absence of any role of the Syrian Interim Government.
A source close to the local councils, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained to Enab Baladi that the local councils are politically linked to the Interim Government and are subordinate to it. However, there is no subordination mechanism that regulates the relationship between the two sides. Each council has its own projects that it implements with Turkish support, amid absence of a real role of the Interim Government.
Local councils are independent, and there is no coordination between them. Each council implements the suitable projects for its region according to a study of the reality of the region, despite the existence of unified projects among all councils, as they target the region as a whole, such as the projects of education and the police, according to Munther Sallal, head of the Stabilization Committee responsible for supporting the work of local councils.
Sallal clarified to Enab Baladi that the Committee has often sought to collect and unify councils, through the enactment of laws and regulations related to contracts and employment as well as the unification of the system of collection, in addition to the unification of the logo of the councils. He stressed that there are plans to move towards forming a unified administration for all councils.
The councils’ funds in the Turkish banks
Over the past two years, Turkey has worked to connect the local councils in the northern countryside of Aleppo with it, through their support and provision of the means that help them to provide their services, in addition to the disbursement of salaries of employees and project expenses through Turkish banks where each council’s funds are stored.
A source knowledgeable about the work of the councils and who asked not to be named, explained to Enab Baladi these councils’ mechanism of implementation of any project they want. He said that there are two types of projects implemented in the region. The first are strategic projects with the support and direct implementation of Turkey, such as electricity and water, provided that taxes are paid for the country, in addition to its provision of unpaid services such as garbage containers and parks.
The second type is those projects carried out by the councils. Each local council has its own sources of funding from collection (taxes, transportation, crossings, and others). These funds are placed in a bank in Turkey with the name of each council under the supervision of the Turkish province.
The source clarified that each council submits a plan of action and study on projects that it wants to implement in the region and the costs of these projects to the Turkish province, which in turn transfers funds through the Turkish Postal Corporation PTT if approved, after making sure that these projects are not fake and will be implemented according to the plan. The source believed this to prevent theft and embezzlement by bad people.
The Turkish province also transfers salaries of employees, who it knows their numbers, and the value of projects per month, according to the source, who pointed out that salaries are paid in Turkish lira and are specified according to Turkish standards and not according to the head of the council.
On the Turkish role in these projects, the source stressed that through administrative coordination between it and the councils, Turkey plays an oversight, audit and implementation roles and does not intervene in the name of the project. It only intervenes in cases threatening the security of Turkey.
Sallal stressed that the local councils are independent, but there is a consultative dependency on Turkey, as the Turkish government sends consultants to develop the work of the council.
Sallal identified four sources of funding of the local councils; the first of which is the Stabilization Committee. However, the funding coming from this Committee is currently suspended due to the cessation of support from the countries, and there are currently working to return it. The second source of funding is the humanitarian organizations, while the third is support provided by the Turkish government. The fourth source is the council’s resources.
There are no Syrian banks in the opposition-held areas of the countryside of Aleppo, which may justify the recourse of organizations and institutions operating in the north to deposit their funds in Turkey.
In some areas of the countryside of Aleppo, the Turkish authorities opened centers of the PTT and forced the local and foreign organizations operating in these areas to transfer funds inside Syria through this service. The employees in these areas, such as teachers, police, council members and preachers, were also given credit cards to withdraw their salaries from PTT centers.
Turkey has recently tended to restrict the movement of funds entering Syria and regulate them through the Turkish Money Transfer System, after these funds used to be transferred through black market money changers.
Who proposes the names of the projects?
At the end of May, Azaz Local Council announced the reopening of one of the public parks in the city, under the name Ottoman Nation Park, which sparked great controversy among the Syrians and reopened talks about several Ottoman labels that have been recently attributed to places and institutions in the region, amid accusations against Turkey of trying to “Turkicize” the region, and against local officials of direct dependency on Turkey.
In order to determine the mechanism of the selection of the names of the projects implemented by the local councils, Enab Baladi has contacted a number of council officials through WhatsApp and asked them a number of questions, including the Head of al-Rai Local Council, the Director of Public Relations and Media in al-Rai Civil Council, Deputy Head of Afrin Local Council, all of whom dealt with the questions either by ignoring them or by requesting a postponement of the response.
The Head of Azaz Local Council, Muhammad Hamdan, refused to answer, and only said that these names are “Islamic and not Turkish.” He recommended communicating with the media office in the Council, which in turn requested contacting the Head of the Council, considering these matters to be “private.”
The Head of the Local Council at al-Bab, Jamal Osman, declared that such process “of naming streets or gardens after those who have carried out projects, had achievements or were martyred on this land, is adopted in most countries around the world. Everyone knows that our brothers, the Turkish people, offered considerable support and sacrifices to this land in order to liberate it from ISIS.” However, he stressed that these names were chosen by the council not Turkey.
The Head of the “Stabilization Committee” in Aleppo countryside, Munther Sallal, said the names were chosen by the local council, whose members met up and decided the name of the project. He stressed that the names were not selected as result of Turkish orders, recalling that a Turkish official went furious during one of the meetings, blaming one of the councils for raising Turkish flags without raising the Syrian revolution flag.
Referring to the frequent visits Turkish figures paid to the region and the way they had contributed into imposing Turkish style, Sallal considered them to be part of the coordination involving the regions’ affairs, for Turkey is the sponsor of projects, services and military issues. This requires a representative of the governor to be present in order to coordinate between the Turkish states and local councils to provide facilities for the activities of the councils.
Syrian Turkmen Assembly: In gratitude for the Turkish
The Syrian Turkmen Assembly, established in 2013, adopts the old name of al-Rai city in the northern Aleppo countryside, originally known as “Çobanbey.” The Assembly believes this has nothing to do with bringing any Turkish characteristics to the region. It is rather the real name of the town bordering Turkey, which has been changed to al-Rai by the Syrian government just like other villages and towns, said the President of the Assembly, Mohammed Wajih Juma to Enab Baladi.
|Aleppo Turkmen constitute the majority of the Syrian Turkmen, and are distributed among Manbij, al-Bab, Jarabulus and Azaz. A large number of them is located in al-Rai town (Çobanbey). There are about 145 Turkmen villages in northern Aleppo, according to a study conducted by Turkmen scholar and politician Ali Öztürkmen, entitled “Who are the Turkmen of Syria through their long history?”|
Juma believes people are trying to have a common ground meant to be established in society through these namings. “Namings are likely to be used to commemorate a person having a moral value in the community, mainly martyrs. On the other hand, these namings are meant to highlight human values and foster partnership as well as future aspirations, he added.”
Juma attributes giving Turkish names in north Syria to the “Turkish support of the revolution.” He considered that the victories in the region are achieved thanks to cooperation with the Turks and the support they offer.
“We and our Turkish brothers have agreed to cooperate against all sorts of injustice, manifested through the authoritarian Syrian regime and all forms of terrorism,” said the President of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly.
Juma stressed the existence of joint relations with the Turks, made evident through “their diplomatic, political and military achievements, in order to provide security and safety and protect Syrians in Idlib and Aleppo countryside.”
“The Syrian people’s act of expressing their gratitude is of great value and importance. Giving names of Turkish Army martyrs to some service facilities, is meant to consolidate this concept.”
In response to questions referring to any future Turkish move aiming to impose its own cultural characteristics in northern and eastern Aleppo, Juma denied the existence of political objectives behind the names of projects. He justified this saying: “The Turkish state is keen on ensuring the unity of the land and the Syrian people as well as their sovereignty. It is also standing against all forms of division and separatists, because many goals are being fulfilled thanks to the will of Syrians and their future perspective.”
The President of Syrian Turkmen Assembly asserted that Turkey treated Syrians equally, and reiterated: “Hence the namings represent a form of cooperation and fulfillment.”
Facilities, Branches, Schools:
Prominent Turkish features
Turkey contributed into establishing some service and education projects in the region, which has been positively reflected on the educational, service and medical reality.
Branches of some Turkish government universities were opened in Aleppo countryside, including the universities of Harran and Gaziantep, which started receiving students for the 2018/2019 academic year.
At the medical level, the Turkish government has expanded some hospitals in the area thanks to the Turkish Ministry of Health, rehabilitated several health centers, built new ones, and opened a hospital in al-Bab city, considered as the largest and most advanced in the region, and another in al-Rai city.
At the level of service, Turkey has established six branches of the Turkish Post “PTT” in Afrin, Azaz, Mare, Jarabulus and Al-Bab, and al-Rai, according to the correspondent of Enab Baladi in northern Aleppo.
The Turkish telecom company Türk Telekom opened its first service center in northern Aleppo in July 2018, in addition to supporting the communications towers located in the areas of al-Bab and Azaz with the fast Internet “G 4.5”.
Turkish projects, together with a number of projects carried out by the local councils in the region with Turkish support, highlighted the Turkish characteristics in the region and made them distinguishable thanks to some of the names given to them.
Erdogan Roundabout and the Ottoman Nation Park
Some of the main streets and squares were given other names after the Turkish-backed military factions’ control, including the Kaveh Blacksmith roundabout in Afrin, which became known as the Olive Branch Roundabout (referring to the Turkish military operation bearing the same name) in addition to the square of “the Saraya Building” in the center of the city, which is named after Erdogan now.
In the city of Azaz, the name of the “martyr Ammar al-Dadikhi” park was changed after being rehabilitated, at the end of last May. The province of Kilis in southern Turkey named the park, which dates back to the 1920s, as “the Ottoman Nation Park,” according to the media center of Azaz.
Bulent al-Bayrak, the name of a Turkish officer killed during military operations against ISIS in east Aleppo, was also given to a primary school in al-Bab.
Who are the ones whose names have been replaced?
The story of Kaveh the Blacksmith, a myth told by grandparents while recounting tales of injustice, victory and freedom to their grandchildren, tells the story of a tyrant called Zahak who caused the curse of darkness to befall his kingdom, where the sun no longer rises.
The king used to kill two children from the local villages every day, and fed their brains to two snakes he placed on both his shoulders. One day, the turn of Kaveh’s daughter came; however, he refused to sacrifice her, and gave the king a sheep’s brain instead.
People heard Kaveh’s trick, so they did the same and sent their children to the mountains where Kaveh lived and vowed to protect them. The children grew up in the mountains and Kaveh trained them, forming eventually an army to end the reign of the evil king.
When the army reached a peak of strength, it descended from the mountains and broke into Zahak’s fortress, where Kaveh gave a fatal blow to the king.
Kaveh’s supporters built a large torch that lit the sky to send the news to Mesopotamia, in order to break the curse and restore sunshine. According to the legend, this was the beginning of “a new day,” or Nowruz, which the Kurdish minority celebrates every 20 or 21 March.
Ammar Dadikhi’s story is not ancient. It took place about six years ago, when he was fatally shot during the siege of the Menagh Air Base in the countryside of Aleppo, leading to his death in January 2013.
Dadikhi, who was born in 1961, commanded the Northern Storm Brigade and played an important role in liberating several barracks and military barriers in the villages and towns of the countryside of Aleppo; in addition to participating in the Siege of Menagh Air Base.
Although, the commander of the Northern Storm Brigade was not a consensual figure in the region, the Menagh Air Base was renamed after him, following its liberation in August of the same year. Besides, a public park in Azaz, Dadikhi’s hometown, was also named after him.
Syrian factions bearing Ottoman names
At the organizational level, the Free Syrian Army (TFSA) emerged as an organized military bloc in the north of Syria. It was established early 2018. The army was divided into three brigades (1st Corps, 2nd Corps, and 3rd Corps). Thus, all names attached to these armed troops, either Arabic or Turkish, were removed.
On the other hand, some factions affiliated with the TFSA hold Turkish names, as is the case of the Suleyman Shah Faction. Thus, the commander of this faction has recently established another armed formation called “Ertugrul’s fighters,” then he appeared in a photograph placing the Turkish flag on his chest and the revolution flag on his right shoulder, while wearing his military uniform; in addition to the factions of “Sultan Murad,” “Mehmed the Conqueror,” “Samarkand Brigade” and other names.
Turkish flag printed on school score records
The Turkish changes in the region affected the school curriculum fixed by the Syrian Interim Government. Thus, some contents and political references were modified, especially in history and geography programs. For example, words referring to the Ottoman occupation were replaced by the “Ottoman rule,” which was confirmed by the Minister of Education, Imad Barq, in a previous interview with Enab Baladi.
Turkey is attempting to implement its educational system in these areas, at a time when it is working to establish an integrated educational system serving the region. These regions include about 500 schools, where about 150,000 pupils are receiving education, according to the Turkish Ministry of Education.
The Turkish language was included in elementary and secondary levels’ curricula, in accordance with a decision issued by the educational offices of the Aleppo Revolutionary Council in 2017.
The dominance of the Turkish culture was evident in the educational process, as the educational offices in the countryside of Aleppo printed both the Turkish and the revolution flags on the covers of the school score records.
Civil records and identity cards
The Civil records departments in the northern countryside of Aleppo are interconnected with the provinces of Hatay, Kilis and Gaziantep in the south of Turkey. These districts require the population in most areas of the northern countryside of Aleppo to get identity cards which integrate the data of the ID holders in the Turkish civil records system.
Vehicle registration plates and driving licenses were also linked to the general Turkish system; a decision which was initiated by the local councils in August, 2018; however, it did not materialize until March 2019.
In March, the Local Council in Azaz launched a central network linked to the Turkish civil records system and another system linked to the transport department of the Kilis province. On the other hand, the transport departments of the local councils in the town of Akhtarin, Sawran, al-Rai and Marea are also connected to Kilis province. Al-Bab, Qabasin and Bizzah are also linked by a central network with the Gaziantep province.
From human rights point of View: What are the consequences of the predominance of Turkish culture in the countryside of Aleppo?
Turkish cultural predominance in the northern countryside of Aleppo caused some of the concerns expressed by Syrian activists based on questions about the possibility of a Turkish expansion plan in the north of Syria.
These concerns were expressed by followers of Enab Baladi’s Facebook page, in response to an opinion poll that asked the following question: “According to you, who is responsible for the introduction of the Turkish culture to areas of the countryside of Aleppo controlled by the Syrian opposition? Is it a Turkish policy or a Syrian initiative undertaken by local officials?
The largest proportion, 55 percent, of the respondents, i.e. more than 2300 participants, believed that this step is driven by a specific Turkish plan.
Qanbar Esmat commented: “The Turkish presence is a danger to Syria and the Syrian people,” while Ahmed al-Dulaim said that Turkey had “expansionist intentions, aiming to restore lands formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire.”
46 percent of the respondents thought that the initiatives of the local officials in the countryside of Aleppo paved the way for the expansion of the Turkish culture in the region. Abu al-Halabi, who indicated that there are some officials who are loyal to Turkey, was backed by Mohamed Abdel Hamid, who stated that “hypocrisy is the source of the problem.”
Omar al-Khatib also supported this view, justifying his stance by “the behavior of Syrians during the visit of a governor or a state official, i.e. cleaning and garnishing the streets and sidewalks. On the other hand, Hamza Rankusi also believed that “the Turkish government is not the one making such requests.”
In view of diverging opinions about the emergence of Turkish culture in Aleppo and its effects on the region, Enab Baladi attempted to discuss the subject from a human rights perspective, and met with the director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, Bassam al-Ahmad, to find out more about the issue.
Al-Ahmad believed that the Turkish names that have been used to name gardens and public facilities in the countryside of Aleppo are imposed by Turkey; however, such step does not constitute an individual Endeavour either.
He said: “There seems to be a soft policy to ensure the predominance of the Turkish culture over the area and the other Arab regions or areas where Arabs are a majority, such as al-Bab, Tripoli and Azaz, as well as the predominantly Kurdish areas like Afrin.”
According to al-Ahmad, the reason behind using Turkish names is the linkage between the local military groups and the Turkish government. As such, several military groups carry the names of Turkish sultans. On the other hand, heads of local councils do not know the real reasons for the phenomenon.
Al-Ahmad conveyed that is clear that the countryside of Aleppo is witnessing a cultural shift, considering that the process of integrating the Turkish culture in the Arab regions is obvious; while other areas, like Afrin, are also undergoing a simulation campaign by Arab and Turkish cultures, which constitutes “a dangerous indicator.”
Head of Syrians for Truth and Justice stated: “Yes, we have a problem with the Syrian regime; however, the land is Syrian and the culture is Syrian, Arabic and Kurdish, and we are proud of it. We respect the Turkish culture and language, but this does not mean that we accept that the Turkish culture dominates certain things, as this particular subject creates much sensitivity among the Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Turkmen.”
What is the future impact?
Does naming the facilities in the countryside of Aleppo using Turkish names fall under a policy of integrating the Turkish culture in the region, or is it a temporary procedure with no further intentions? What is the future impact of these steps; especially that the region is fully run by the Turkish side through the Turkish provinces of Kilis, Gaziantep and Hatay, at military and civilian levels?
According to al-Ahmad, the future effects behind using Turkish names are “dangerous,” as they are considered as soft demographic changes.
He explained: “At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the demographic shift was clear. At the moment, after the media uproar, the documentation of and talks on the street about the violations, the process has been turned into a diplomatic formula employed in a soft way.”
The soft strategy to realize a demographic shift needs a lot of work to be proved, according to al-Ahmad. Thus, in the case of the countryside of Aleppo, the region is witnessing the appointment of officials who are loyal to Turkey, which managed to subordinate the area administratively, militarily and politically.
Al-Ahmad indicated that “each state must respect the sovereignty and independence of the other, regardless of its position toward the current regime of that state.”
In the previous context, al-Ahmad believed that the media, human rights and political organizations and many international organizations have no serious position on what is happening in the areas of the Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch zone, in the sense that they are silent “for political reasons or lack of neutrality and other reasons related to terms of bias.”
Legally speaking, al-Ahmad added: “The organizations must take a position regarding the violations, because their work is not limited to violations committed by the Syrian regime, but also other breaches perpetrated by Turkey and forces associated to it, in addition to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and any other party.” He pointed out that the countryside of Aleppo is poorly covered by human rights organizations, “which is regrettable and undermines these organizations’ credibility.”
Turkey in Aleppo, Iran in Damascus, Russia in al-Sahel
Syrian identity threatened
In spite of the fact that the Syrian north, specifically the northern countryside of Aleppo, is embracing aspects of Turkish hegemony, this region epitomizes only a limited part of a broader cultural shift led by the foreign intervention in Syria.
These shift markers are widely seen in the regime-controlled areas, where Iranian militiamen are moving freely and Russian military police are deployed in major cities, such as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. Both countries are strengthening their presence in Syria by implementing strategic steps in economic, cultural and educational sectors.
Russia, the regime’s military and political ally, has taken several steps to prolong its stay in Syria, most notably its investment in the transport sector. In April, the Russian authorities leased Tartus port under a 49-year contract, automatically extended to 25 years, which was signed with the Syrian government.
The Syrian regime is also studying Russia’s offer to rehabilitate the airports of Damascus and Aleppo, as confirmed by the Ministry of Transport in the government of the regime last May, amid talks about a Russian intention to invest in Damascus International Airport.
Russia is also seeking to control the real estate market and the banking sector in Syria, in preparation for the post-reconstruction phase.
With Russian support to al-Assad regime, the Russian language has become an optional language in schools since 2015. Thus, according to the Head of the Russian Language Department at the University of Damascus, Haitham Mahmoud, 25,000 students are currently studying Russian language in Syrian schools.
On the other hand, Iran is seeking to dominate other sectors in Syria, including the phosphate sector. Hence, the Iranian authorities have submitted projects for the banking and transport sectors, and have recently taken several steps to establish its presence in Syrian media.
At the cultural level, the Iranian religious rituals are being spread throughout the regime-controlled areas. In fact, religious celebrations are being held periodically in the Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus, the town of Sayyidah Zaynab, the countryside of Damascus and in other areas such as Darayya, Aleppo and recently Deir ez-Zor, east of Syria.
This reality poses a threat to Syrian identity, under the influence of multiple forced cultures imposed by the presence of foreign political forces in Syria, for which the state of division between Syrians presents a fertile ground.
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