Signs of Turkish influence are everywhere in the Syrian town of Jarablus. Doctors wear gowns bearing the name of the Turkish health ministry. Grocery stores are piled high with boxes of Turkish biscuits. There is even a distinctive yellow branch of the Turkish postal service. This patch of territory in the north of the war-ravaged country has been under Turkish tutelage since 2016, when Syrian rebels backed by Ankara swept into the town, forcing Isis jihadis who had tyrannised the local population for three years to flee. The town is now a symbol of the growing influence that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish state now command in northern Syria. Officials say it is a “blueprint” for Turkish governance after military incursions that have brought 4,000 sq km of Syrian land under Ankara’s control, most recently in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Analysts say that, like all occupations, the Turkish presence in the region risks breeding resentment and tension, and dragging Ankara into a costly and difficult commitment.
There is also the potential for conflict with Kurdish forces just 3km away, who are backed by the US. For now, though, Turkey is proud of its role — and eager to show it to the world. When the Financial Times visited Jarablus last week on a trip organised by Turkish officials, many Syrians in the town expressed gratitude at their efforts. “The general view here is that Turkey is helping us,” said Amira Najjar, a teacher. “People do not see them as an occupying force. We hope they will stay.”
Turkey has poured huge resources into the region over the past 18 months. Turkish ministries have helped repair damaged buildings, set up a hospital and health clinics, and reopened schools. Ankara is paying the salaries of hundreds of teachers, doctors and policemen. A 3km cable has been run across the border to reconnect Jarablus to electricity.
In a compound on the edge of town, encircled by concrete walls and steel gates, bureaucrats on secondment from Turkey explained how they view their task. “Our priority is to normalise life,” said Ahmet Turgay Imamgiller, deputy governor of the Turkish city of Gaziantep, who has worked in Syria for nine months. “There was chaos, there was war, and now people here have begun to see good things.” The primary goal of the Turkish operation known as Euphrates Shield was to prevent Kurdish forces — used by the west to fight Isis but viewed by Turkey as terrorists — from making further gains along the border region. But Mr Erdogan has also said that he is eager to speed the return of 3.5m refugees currently living in Turkey, who have placed heavy strain on Turkish cities and caused growing resentment.
The population of the Jarablus region has swelled from around 5,000 people during Isis control to about 140,000 today, officials say. Those living in the town include returnees from Turkey as well as internally displaced people from towns and villages across Syria. Turkish officials say their role in Jarablus as an advisory one that helps the council of Syrians appointed to govern the city. But there have been tensions. Protests erupted last year over a decision to ban female teachers from wearing a face veil. A video of Turkish-trained local police chanting “Long live Erdogan” caused ripples of discontent.
But Abdullatif al-Mohammed, a member of the local council, said those initial glitches had been ironed out. He insisted that Syrians were still in charge. “Nothing can happen without our stamp of approval,” he said. “We make our own decisions.” Nonetheless, traces of Turkey are everywhere. One school playground has a poster commemorating the 2016 Turkish coup attempt. Small boys roaming the streets have learnt to pinch their fingers into the ultranationalist grey wolf sign as Turkish soldiers go past. The biggest challenge in the town is security. A series of bombings have struck the area, blamed by security officials on nearby Kurdish militants.
Syrians say they worry about the number of guns, and about the rebel groups who swagger around the town. Discussions are under way about them leaving the city, but it is clear it will take time for their power to be curbed. “We are working on it,” said Mohammed Eissa, a Turkish-trained member of the civilian police. “It will happen step by step.”
Jarablus may be seen by Turkey as the model for its governance of Syria but it is also the most straightforward of the towns it controls. Unlike other areas, it suffered minimal physical damage. Its population is predominantly Sunni Arab. It sits right on the Turkish border, limiting the logistical challenges. Even so, there are many problems. Outside the town centre, villages have limited power and no running water. At least 20,000 people are still living in tents.
The challenge may yet get bigger for Turkey. Mr Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack the nearby areas held by the Kurdish forces and their US sponsors, putting two Nato allies on a collision course. The opposing sides are so close that rebel groups in Jarablus say they can see US military vehicles in the distance. Mr Erdogan has insisted that Turkey does not have its eyes on a Syrian land grab. Yet Turkish officials concede that it may be many years before there can leave, even as they seem unconcerned about the risks of becoming bogged down in an indefinite commitment, or a shift in local sentiment towards them. And for now, many Syrians are grateful simply to be safe both from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and from Isis. “We don’t have a choice about Turkey being here,” said Ummuhan Shabaan, a grandmother from a village outside Jarablus. “But when you compare life now compared with our time under Isis, it is perfect.”