Kurds fear ‘displacement’ by Turkey’s Syria campuses plan

Ankara may be seeking long-term presence in Syria through campuses that will bring influx of non-Kurdish refugees, according to experts

October 31, 2019
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Turkey’s new campuses could displace Kurds by bringing an influx of non-Kurdish refugees into north-western Syria

The Turkish government may be seeking to use new university campuses to establish a long-term presence in areas of Syria it has taken control of, a move that could displace Kurds by bringing an influx of non-Kurdish refugees, according to experts on the region.

That universities can have roles in geopolitical manoeuvres was emphasised when Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, approved a plan from Gaziantep University to open three campuses in north-western Syria.

Gaziantep, a Turkish public institution located in a border city that has seen a huge influx of Syrian refugees during the civil war, will open an Islamic sciences faculty, an education faculty, and a faculty of economics and administrative sciences in Jarablus, Al-Bab and Afrin respectively, according to a decree signed by Mr Erdoğan this month.

The planned new campuses will be in areas of Syria where Turkey has previously deployed forces against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and Islamic State, starting in 2016.

Turkish forces recently moved into a different Kurdish area of Syria, in its north-east, in a bid to drive out the YPG. The AKP government in Ankara regards the group as a terrorist organisation and as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.

Ryan Gingeras, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California and an expert on Turkish history, co-authored a recent New York Times opinion piece that argued that Ankara’s plan to resettle non-Kurdish refugees in the areas of north-eastern Syria currently the focus of military action would “create a living, breathing demographic barrier to Kurdish autonomy” in Syria.

Professor Gingeras told Times Higher Education that, on the one hand, the Turkish government’s infrastructure efforts in northern Syria could be “interpreted as genuine signs of temporary assistance”.

However, he noted the role that the creation of universities has played in Northern Cyprus, controlled by Turkey since the invasion of 1974. The number of universities in Northern Cyprus will reach 30 by the end of 2019, deepening Turkey’s presence on the island.

Professor Gingeras said that “if the case of Northern Cyprus serves as any precedent, one may also interpret the establishment of state-run Turkish universities in Syria as a sign that Ankara plans to stay for the long term”.

“As it stands now, the region of Azaz and Jerablus are run as extensions of the neighbouring province of Gaziantep, a fact that points pretty strongly to the possibility that parts of Syria are being incorporated into Turkey in all but name. Plans to resettle the region with millions of refugees now living in Turkey also reinforce this latter conclusion,” he said.

Ali Gur, the Gaziantep rector, told a Turkish news agency earlier this year that under the plan for new campuses, Syrians who return to Syria for education and stay there will be eligible for scholarships. “Our aim is to send students back there,” he said.

The YPG-affiliated Hawar News Agency has been reported to have claimed that the plan to establish the campuses “confirms” Ankara is trying to alter the demographic make-up of the region. 

Güneş Murat Tezcür, Jalal Talabani chair of Kurdish political studies at the University of Central Florida, noted that an unaccredited Kurdish university had been established in Afrin in 2015. But this “came to an end with the Turkish incursion in early 2018”, he said.

There were “several similar” Kurdish institutions in north-eastern Syria, Professor Tezcür continued. “[Mr Erdoğan’s] AKP government aims to counter the influence of these institutions.”

Professor Tezcür added that “one interesting aspect is whether these ‘new university branches’ in the occupied areas would offer Kurdish education. I very much doubt it.” 

He suggested that “the strategy entails demographic engineering” through “the relocation of some of the Syrian refugees – mostly Sunni Arab – from Turkey into these territories”, and “the displacement of Kurds” into other areas.

Janroj Yilmaz Keles, senior research fellow in politics at Middlesex University and author of Media, Diaspora and Conflict Nationalism and Identity amongst Turkish and Kurdish Migrants in Europe, argued that the university campuses would “serve for the Turkish imperial and colonist project and will be used for cultural genocide and linguicide of Kurdish or other languages in the region”.

Gaziantep University did not respond to requests for comment from THE. But Professor Gur said earlier in the year of the plan for campuses in Syria: “There was a high demand from local assemblies and provincial leaders. I went [to northern Syria] myself and saw the demand, they really need it.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Kurds fear displacement by Turkey’s campus plans

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Reader's comments (2)

There are so many ca. 3 million Syrians living in Turkey. Some have received university education at Turkish Universities. They can continue their education or start university education for the first time. Would not it be better for them to have universities in the area instead of misery that feed terror and further misery. Sweden gained todays southern Sweden from Denmark and it had built a university which has become Scandinavia's biggest and world-known university now. One may be a little less skeptical. Just a humble thought.
Erdoğan seeks to be the caliph of the new ottoman empire, the Kurds and the rest of the world would do well to remember the Armenian, Assyrian and Christian Greek genocides, lest history repeats.

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