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Turkey’s ‘Soft Power’ in Syria: A University With Accredited Degrees

Living in northern Syria, Hassan al-Tarraf, 24, did not expect to be able to pursue his university education, due to the continuous war in his country and the lack of recognized universities in his region. But the opening last year of a branch of the Turkish University of Harran, in al-Bab, a city east of Aleppo, made the impossible possible, al-Tarraf said.

“The university’s opening of this branch has opened up new horizons for hundreds of youths here who have been denied completion of university education due to the lack of qualified and accredited universities,” he said. The university’s lack of fees also attracted him and his fellow students, he said:  “Our living conditions are very difficult, and free schooling encourages many to resume their studies.”

About 16,000 students, in the opposition-held areas in Idlib and near Aleppo, in northern Syria, face financial, academic and security difficulties in continuing their university studies. Students have difficulty paying university fees and transportation expenses, and fear that university buildings will be shelled. If they earn a degree, it may have no international or local recognition. (See a related article, “Universities in Syria’s Opposition-Held Areas Face an Uncertain Future.”)

The opening of the branch campus in al-Bab sparked controversy at first. The university branch only has about 500 students, but some observers believe that the presence of Turkish universities inside Syria means Turkey is trying to increase its cultural and educational presence alongside its troops in the area. The campus is only about 30 kilometers from the Turkish border.

“There is a clear tendency on the Turkish government’s part to increase its influence inside Syria,” said Mohammed Khair al-Shartah, an independent social researcher in Kafr Nabl, in northwestern Syria. “Its interest in opening university branches inside Syria is proof, for putting a hand on education means to touch the youths’ future.” He noted that Turkey has participated in the rehabilitation of schools and the construction of new ones, the training of teachers and the supply of textbooks, in cooperation with the interim opposition government. “Today, the financial dealings in Aleppo’s northern countryside have become almost all in Turkish lira,” he said. “That means the Turkish presence will last for a long time.”

Others believe that the presence of a Turkish university in Syria genuinely helps hundreds of young people who are eager to complete their university studies.

“The opening of a Turkish university in Syria is a good outlet for students hoping to complete their studies at an internationally recognized institution,” said Qutaiba al-Farahat, a professor of Arabic at Ankara’s Karatekin Private University. Those who get undergraduate degrees at the Turkish University of Harran could go on to study at other Turkish universities. He noted that many students are reluctant to attend those Syrian universities that began operating in the opposition-held areas because of their lack of accreditation. (There is also a Syrian university called International Sham University supported by Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a conservative Turkish nongovernmental organization, operating in northern Syria.)

Students at International Sham University. (Image: Ahmed al-Ogla)

The University of Harran offers courses in six disciplines, including civil engineering, electrical and mechanical engineering, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, with course materials that are translated into Arabic. The university also accepts high school diplomas issued by the National Coalition and the Syrian Interim Government, which helps students from opposition areas since their certificates are not recognized outside the opposition-controlled areas. The university, however, also accepts high school diplomas issued by the Syrian government in Damascus.

Still, many young Syrians find it difficult to reach the university, which is located more than 100 kilometers from Idlib, and far from any other city. The Turkish university also requires an entrance exam, something that Syrian students are not used to because Syrian public universities admit students based only on their high school diplomas.

“The university is about 200 kilometers away from my city and the security and living conditions do not facilitate daily movement, so I decided to continue my studies at my university,” said Mohammed al-Jumaa, a student at Aleppo Free University’s Faculty of Education in the town of Ma’rat al-Nu’man in Idlib al-Janoub’s countryside, which is a local non-accredited university. “It is the closest to me and all possible jobs for me will be in my town, which I will not leave,” he said. “So, I am not interested in the subject of internationally accredited degrees.”

Mohammed al-Kamil was a student at Ebla University’s Faculty of Medicine, which was closed last year by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist militant group that has been active in the Syrian civil war, on the pretext of its not separating male and female students. He does not plan to join the University of Harran because there is no medical faculty.

“The university specialties are very limited,” he said. “Also, I heard that the admission examination is difficult. I do not think joining this university is the opportunity I need.”

It may be that only time and the resolution of the civil war in northern Syria will determine the Turkish University of Harran’s future.


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