On 26 August, the Yunus Emre Cultural Institute opened a Turkish language teaching branch in the Syrian city of al-Bab, situated to the north of Aleppo. This followed the opening of its first branch in Azaz, located in the countryside of Aleppo, back in 2020.
According to the institute, the schools are part of a campaign aimed at teaching 300,000 children the Turkish language and fostering their integration into Turkish culture within the regions overseen by Ankara and the Syrian National Army factions aligned with it in northern Syria.
However, many Syrians see the project as part of a calculated campaign aligned with Turkey’s standing policies aimed at Turkifying these areas by mandating Turkish as the primary language in educational institutions and universities.
These policies also aim to make Turkish a common language among Syrians residing in these regions and among the employees and Turkish officials overseeing various sectors including health, education, postal services, currency exchange, electricity, water, and telecommunications within these territories.
During the inauguration of the Al-Bab branch, Şeref Ateş, the president of the institute, stated in the presence of Ferhat Çitak, the coordinator of the Safe Zone in northern Syria: “Our principal objective is to teach the Turkish language to 300,000 children residing in the rural Aleppo region.”
He continued: “In our ongoing efforts to propagate Turkish culture and teach its language, we intend to establish two additional branches of the institute in Jarabulus and Afrin and have launched an extensive mobilisation campaign encompassing the entire region – areas that stretch from Jarabulus, traversing through al-Bab, Azaz, and extending up to Afrin. Our centres are currently teeming with children and youth.”
“In a region overshadowed by conflict and violence, Turkey is sowing the seeds of cultural enrichment, with the intent of nurturing and revitalising this land. Under the guidance of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, we are currently teaching the Turkish language to over 2,000 individuals in the city of al-Bab. Our foremost objective remains the provision of Turkish language education to 300,000 children within this region.”
The announcement of this educational initiative and the inauguration of the new branches of the Yunus Emre Institute — widely recognised as Turkiye’s foremost tool for the dissemination of its language abroad — in the cities of al-Bab, Jarabulus, and Afrin in northern Aleppo, coincided with the seventh anniversary of Turkey’s initial military intervention in Syria, named “Operation Euphrates Shield.”
This operation — conducted by Turkish armed forces in collaboration with Syrian opposition factions backed by Ankara— commenced on 24 August 2016. During the course of this operation, these combined forces secured control over regions in northern and northeastern Aleppo — most notably the cities of al-Bab, Azaz, and Jarabulus, all situated to the west of the Euphrates River, following the expulsion of the Islamic State (IS) from these areas.
They also thwarted efforts of Kurdish factions, notably the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to establish a contiguous corridor linking the eastern and western banks of the Euphrates. This strategic operation aimed to prevent the formation of a Kurdish-controlled security buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkey’s overarching strategy is aimed at bolstering Ankara’s military, cultural, and administrative influence within the predominantly Kurdish territory spanning from Jarabulus, located to the west of the Euphrates River, to the city of Afrin and its rural areas in the northwest of the nation.
Numerous indicators suggest that Turkey is pressing forward with its relentless campaign to spread Turkish culture and language within Syrian cities under its military jurisdiction.
Developments that back this assertion include Turkish-language signage being displayed at the entrances of official establishments, featuring both the Turkish flag and the green Syrian flag. Additionally, banners hung on the walls of educational institutions and city entrances display the phrase “Arabs and Turks are brothers”.
Turkish help-desk clerks and administrative personnel work in hospitals in Mare’, al-Rai, Azaz, and al-Bab, as well as in official government departments and security units. This collective presence indirectly forces Syrians to learn the Turkish language to communicate with these personnel.
Local councils aligned with the Temporary Syrian Government, backed by Ankara, have replaced Arabic names with Turkish ones on certain streets and in some public spaces, including parks, and even hospitals.
In mid-August, the municipal council of Azaz designated one of the urban parks in the city in honour of Omar Yilmaz, the Deputy Governor of the Turkish province of Kilis. This decision sparked outrage among the city’s inhabitants, who lashed out at the Syrian heads of these local councils.
However, the park name change was not an isolated incident.
The municipal council in the city of al-Bab, located to the east of Aleppo, in collaboration with Turkish law enforcement, had previously changed the name of the Amna bint Wahb School to that of a Turkish officer named Duran Kaskin, who was killed in Syria.
However, unidentified individuals removed the sign and reinstated the school’s original name. Consequently, one activist in the city was detained for allegedly promoting the removal of the Turkish officer’s name and advocating for the restoration of the school’s original name.
While some assert that Turkey is actively pursuing a strategy to Turkify Syrian territories under its control and imbue them with Turkish cultural elements following its expansion of military influence across vast swathes of northern and northeastern Syria, others perceive the dissemination of the Turkish language as a positive development.
They see it as an avenue to unlock opportunities for many young Syrians. Learning Turkish, they contend, opens them up to economic opportunities brought in by Turkey — particularly in industrial centres such as al-Bab, al-Rai, and Azaz, as well as within various organisations operating within the region.
They also believe that learning Turkish at an early age makes it easier for Syrian students to study at Turkish universities later on.
Akram Junaid, a human rights advocate and lawyer in the regions under Turkish influence within northern Aleppo, says that many Syrians of all ages and social classes are keen to learn Turkish in public or private schools.
These Syrians believe learning the language will help them in their daily interactions with Turkish authorities spanning security, military, and administrative domains, across numerous institutions, companies, and governmental departments.
At the elementary, preparatory and secondary school level, students are being taught Turkish to prepare them for the standardised language proficiency examination conducted at the Institute of al-Bab city.
According to a high school student residing in the city, this educational initiative aims to facilitate their admission to Turkish universities.
Omar notes that students in the region follow the Yunus Emre curriculum in their first academic year and the Istanbul curriculum in their second year.
In addition to these established curricula, their Turkish language education encompasses subjects including reading, writing, listening, conversation, grammar, and Turkish literature. They also study teaching methodologies, general education, and other relevant subjects, all conducted in the Turkish language.
On his part, Ahmed — a high school student hailing from the city of Mare’ situated to the north of Aleppo — says that private high schools within the city have adopted the Istanbul curriculum to teach all subjects except for the Turkish language, for which they use the Yunus Emre curriculum.
In the city of al-Bab, students attend institutions like the Anatolian Centre and the Yunus Emre Institute — both of which are affiliated with the Turkish Ministry of Education, alongside the Turkmani Foundation.
“My acceptance into a Turkish university hinges on my proficiency in the Turkish language. Without this, I won’t be able to pursue higher education and attain a university degree, which is integral to securing future employment opportunities.”
Hamid Baa’j — a civil activist based in Azaz within the Aleppo countryside — highlights that Ankara’s initiative to introduce Turkish as a third language, alongside Arabic and English, in both public and private schools across northern Syria, has faced challenges from the start due to limited resources.
“Mandating Turkish as a compulsory language requires qualified teaching personnel and an appropriate curriculum tailored for the students,” Baa’j said.
“To date, the majority of schools in the liberated areas (referring to regions under Turkish influence) continue to grapple with a shortage of Turkish language educators. In certain instances, vacancies are filled by appointing Syrian teachers who have sought refuge in Turkey and possess only a high school diploma,” he explained.
“They often lack the required academic qualifications needed to effectively teach the language, having acquired it primarily through oral exposure during their years of refuge.”
These challenges have resulted in limited enthusiasm for learning the Turkish language in the initial three years of Turkey’s rule in northern Syrian territories.
To tackle these challenges, the Turkish administration in these regions has taken steps to encourage Syrians to learn Turkish. They have established educational centres staffed by qualified Turkish instructors, and these centres have organised cultural and artistic activities aimed at familiarising Syrians with the Turkish language and culture.
Moreover, the Turkish administration in northern Syrian areas has enforced a policy requiring that only individuals proficient in the Turkish language be employed in institutions affiliated with the Temporary Syrian Government. This policy has led to heightened interest in learning Turkish.
However, Baa’j warns that Syrians who are primarily focused on learning Turkish for employment prospects may miss out on learning other important languages like English, which holds global significance, unlike Turkish which can only be used in Turkey.
*The writer’s name has been withheld for security considerations.
This article was originally published by Al Majalla.
The views and opinions expressed above the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.