As a new sign of cultural engagement and expansion of soft power into northern Syria, Ankara announced that it will establish three new faculties in colleges in Al-Bab, Azaz and Afrin. Turkey has conducted cross-border military operations in all of these towns to drive out the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and Daesh. The decision is backed by a presidential decree. which was published on the Official Gazette on Oct 4.
A faculty of economics and administrative sciences, a faculty of Islamic studies and a faculty of education will be set up in Al-Bab, Azaz and Afrin respectively.
The faculties will be affiliated to Gaziantep University in southeastern Anatolia. The courses will be given in Arabic. Graduates from these universities will have accredited diplomas from Turkey.
This is not the first time Turkey has opened a school in Syria. Last year, Gaziantep University launched a vocational training school in Aleppo’s Jarablus district. In the same year, the Turkish University of Harran opened a branch in Al-Bab, with no university fees and giving faculty options on various areas such as electrical and mechanical engineering, civil engineering, physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology.
This new engagement is seen as a move to deepen Turkey’s footprint in the region as well as to assist the war-torn country in the capacity building efforts.
The emphasis on economics and administrative sciences in Al-Bab is related to the ongoing project of setting up an industrial city at the northern entrance of the town and the need for training.
Mohamad Najjouma, deputy head of the Stabilization Committee and director of research, studies and projects in the north of Syria, said that after the collapse of educational facilities and schools in the region by Daesh, there was a need bWoth to fight against illiteracy and to recover from the radical nationalistic ideology of the past.
“I believe that the establishment of branches of Turkish universities inside Syria, in the Euphrates Shield and Afrin areas, is a necessary humanitarian issue. It guarantees the local population access to a university education with an official status,” he told Arab News.
However, for some experts, the move is a waste of time and a waste of taxpayers’ money. Some experts also criticize Turkey of trying to increase its cultural and educational presence in the country, and see it as a sign that Ankara’s presence will last for a long time.
Michael Tanchum, senior fellow at AIES, an Austrian private nonpartisan research institute, is skeptical about the underlying reasons of this new initiative
“Turkey is adept at combining hard power with soft power projects to deepen its influence in the societies of other countries, we see this for example in Somalia. The fact that this is occurring in a country that borders Turkey and without the permission of that country’s government raises questions about what kind of sphere of influence is expected to develop,” he told Arab News.
But Mohamad Najjouma, deputy head of the Stabilization Committee and director of research, studies and projects in the north of Syria, said the development of human capital in these areas has been necessary for the development of the country and tackling extremism.
“Education is a human right guaranteed by international laws and obtaining internationally recognized university education certificates is also a human right,” he added.
Najjouma also believes that the establishment of these faculties will be an incentive for Syrian refugees residing in Turkey to return to their homeland as they will have an opportunity to get a recognized university education with accredited certificates in the same way as Turkish students.
In the meantime, Ankara has warned of an imminent military operation in northeastern Syria, currently under the control of the YPG, if Washington fails to support it in the planned safe zone initiative. On Saturday, Turkey’ President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at a possible military operation into the region, where American troops are deployed, to drive out the YPG.