Turkey promotes Jarablus as model of positive influence in Syria

Turkey is using the Syrian border town of Jarablus to showcase the benefits of its presence in Syria, wrote Laura Pitel in the Financial Times on Monday.

Turkey occupied Jarablus and neighbouring areas of Northern Syria in 2016, following three years in which the area had been under ISIS control.

Pitel, who visited Jarablus on a trip organized by Turkish officials last week, paints a mixed picture of conditions in the town.

“Our priority is to normalise life,” explained Ahmet Turgay Imamgiller, the deputy governor of the Turkish city of Gaziantep, who has been working in Jarablus for 9 months, “There was chaos, there was war, and now people have begun to see good things.”

Since coming under Turkish control, schools have reopened, damaged buildings have been repaired and a hospital has been set up. Ankara also pays the salaries of hundreds of local officials and has connected the town to the Turkish grid to restore electricity.

As conditions in Jarablus improve, the population has risen from a low of 5,000 to more than 140,000 today. Many have returned from Turkey, whilst others are internally displaced people drawn to Jarablus from other regions of Syria.

Despite the benefits Turkish occupation has brought, tensions remain, says Pitel. Although Turkish officials insist their role is an advisory one, signs of the Turkish presence are everywhere. A poster commemorating the failed 2016 coup attempt hangs from the wall in a school playground, whilst a video of a police graduation ceremony in January 2017 showed graduates chanting slogans supporting Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The biggest challenges for Jarablus revolve around security. Territory just a few kilometres outside town is controlled by Kurdish forces hostile to Turkey, who have been blamed for recent bombings in Jarablus. Locals also worry about the number of weapons in the town and the presence of rebel groups on the streets. When these groups will leave is not clear. “We are working on it,” said Mohammed Eissa, a Turkish trained member of the police, “It will happen step-by-step.”

Even if the Turkish occupation of Jarablus have been a relative success, as Turkish officials clearly believe to be the case, it is unclear the extent to which this success can be replicated in other areas of Syria Turkey has occupied, such as Afrin, which sit further from the Turkish border than Jarablus and lack its predominantly Sunni Arab population.

Finally, whilst Turkish officials have repeatedly insisted that Turkey has no plans of permanently occupying Syrian territory, even Turkish officials concede it may be years before they can leave Syria. This increases the risk of Turkey becomes bogged down in an indefinite commitment to the areas of Syria it has occupied. And whilst popular sentiment for now favours Turkey, at least in Jarablus, this may change if Turkey comes to be seen as overstaying its welcome.