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How Turkey Is Governing in Northern Aleppo

At the end of major combat operations in Syria’s north, the Turkish government faces many challenges governing areas it now controls. Atlantic Council’s Aaron Stein, Hossam Abouzahr and Rao Komar tracked stabilization projects and violence in Aleppo’s northern countryside.

Written by Aaron Stein, Hossam Abouzahr, Rao Komar Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Sellers showcase their produce in front of destroyed buildings in the Syrian city of al-Bab in the northern Aleppo province.AFP/Zein Al RIFAI

On March 30, the Turkish military, backed by Syrian rebel groups, ended its seven-month military operation dubbed Euphrates Shield in northern Syria. The Turkish aims were twofold: force the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) from the border and prevent the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from pushing west from its territory in nearby Manbij. The end of the military operation gave way to a stabilization effort to provide services and establish security over a 860 square mile (2,225 square km) area in northern Aleppo for Syrian refugees in Turkey to be safely resettled. The transition from conflict to post-conflict stabilization has proved challenging for almost every military that ends up occupying and then administering areas taken from a hostile force. The Turkish case is no exception.

As of June 2017, the Turkish government claims that over 42,000 civilians returned to areas cleared of the so-called Islamic State. The Turkish government has not taken any steps to internationalize the response to this movement of people, choosing instead to directly assume the costs of reconstruction and for the provision of security. To assess Ankara’s post-conflict stabilization efforts, the authors tracked stabilization projects and violent incidents after the end of major combat operations on March 1, 2017 to June 20, 2017. This data was broken down into two spreadsheets: The first tracked violent incidents and the second tracked infrastructure and stabilization-related projects. The data was then combined with interviews conducted by the authors with Syrians living in the Euphrates Shield territory, as well as non-governmental organization workers. The findings were then used to draw some early conclusions about Turkish-led post-conflict stabilization operations and the challenges the government faces in administering and governing an area inside of Syria.

Governance and Stabilization: Turkey, NGOs and Civil Society

Turkey is utilizing preexisting Turkish military and civilian institutions to oversee the administration of aid, and local Syrian organizations for implementation. For non-military activities, the Turkish government placed Euphrates Shield territory under the de facto control of the governor of Gaziantep and the Ministry of the Interior. They oversee the patchwork of disconnected local councils, and to a lesser extent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), that runs the daily administration of the Euphrates Shield territory. As a result, the Turkish government does not have one entity through which it can coordinate aid and service efforts at the local level. For the purpose of this study, “foreign NGOs” are defined as non-Syrian nongovernmental organizations, while “local civil society” is defined as local civilian-led organizations in the Euphrates Shield territory.

The data collected on stabilization projects indicates that local councils and civil society organizations remain the largest providers of services within the territory. However, they are still dependent on supplies from Turkey and are subject to Turkish political oversight. Turkey’s approach is a quick response to a humanitarian crisis following the end of combat operations. The data, however, suggests that Turkey is still having trouble delivering enough aid to cities and people now under its control. The problems stem from governmental micromanagement and the fragmented nature of the Syrian insurgency and local governing structures. Thus far, Turkey’s approach has failed to provide key services, repair infrastructure or address public health issues. This is partly due to the lack of adequate infrastructure in the area, a common challenge that any foreign power taking charge of managing a territory is certain to face.

Public Health

The fighting damaged a fair amount of physical infrastructure in the city, which has led to public health problems. In al-Bab, the city’s water infrastructure was severely damaged by fighting, leaving residents without access to safe, if any, drinking water. The regime also has control over al-Bab’s water pumping station and has refused to pump water into al-Bab, exacerbating the problem. With water-pumping stations offline and the Turkish government unable to provide enough drinking water, locals have dug makeshift wells throughout the city. These wells are built without input from engineers or city planners, leading to many wells becoming contaminated from seepage from al-Bab’s aging sewage system. The result is a significant rise in water-borne illnesses, like typhoid. The spread of disease has overwhelmed understaffed hospitals and medical clinics.

Government Micromanagement

Turkey’s efforts to micromanage local councils in Syria have also complicated the delivery of aid. To receive aid, local Syrian administrative councils within the territory must seek permission from Turkish government authorities before starting new projects. For instance, the al-Bab Local Council, which governs the largest city in the territory, had to seek approval from the Gaziantep governor’s office before it could build a new soccer field within the city. In other instances, international NGOs requested permission from the Turkish government to work in areas cleared of ISIS. However, the Turkish government has denied many of these requests, as told to the author in an interview with a Turkish aid worker in May 2017. Ankara is cracking down on aid organizations working within Kurdish-held territory, by revoking or not renewing permits to operate in Turkey. It is unclear if the crackdown has had a negative impact on reconstruction and aid deliveries in Euphrates Shield territory, though some locals have complained that NGOs are more responsive to their needs. In either case, the data suggests that the Turkish government or government-affiliated groups have assumed much of the responsibility for aid delivery in the area.

State and Religion: A Role for Diyanet?

Other Turkish government institutions are also getting more involved in the cities under Turkish control. Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which administers all mosques in Turkey, is increasingly involved in governance and community affairs in the territory. Diyanet started to build mosques and charities within the area, even employing and training Syrians to preach in these mosques. The role of religion in the area is a complicated matter. The general perception of locals is that Ankara is allocating money to mosque building and community affairs, instead of broader infrastructure work that addresses immediate local needs.

Differences between the Turkish-backed civil society organizations and rebel factions about the role of religion is increasing tensions. In February 2017, the Turkish-backed Jarabulus Council banned face coverings for both males and females in schools on the grounds it was a security issue. Locals in the area saw this decision as un-Islamic and authoritarian and began protesting the decision. In response to the protest, local rebel factions violently arrested the Jarabulus local council head, Muhammad Habash, and effectively dismissed the council. The incident underscores the tenuous control the councils have over the armed groups in the area, a major impediment to establishing governance in the territory.

Security: Militia Control and Local Police Forces

To secure the Euphrates Shield territory, the Turkish government has a two-pronged approach to build security institutions in the territory it governs: training militiamen to join larger groups active in the area and creating Syrian police forces to maintain security in urban areas. These twin efforts are in addition to the Turkish military presence in the area, which ultimately guarantees the territory’s protection from Syrian regime attack. The Turkish military has built at least six bases in the area, with the largest just east of Dabiq. The purpose of these bases is to allow for a sustained Turkish military presence in the area in a series of forward operating bases to sustain military operations in the area.

The first cadres of Turkish-trained Syrian police are now active in Azaz, Jarabulus and al-Bab. The intent of the Syrian police is at odds with the concurrent Turkish effort to train Syrian militiamen. The former program, it seems, is linked to initial efforts to establish rule of law. The latter, however, trains groups that compete for the monopolization of the use of force – and thus undermine the purpose of a dedicated police force. The reality of the Syrian conflict, of course, is that Ankara is reliant upon local militias to man the front line with the Syrian regime and the dominant Kurdish led-militia, the YPG. To solve this obvious problem, Turkey has sought to create a Syrian National Army, which would seek to unite the disparate militias under one command. This would, in theory, allow for Syrian police to take full control of the day-to-day security of Euphrates Shield cities, leaving the Syrian National Army to focus on external threats, such as the regime or the YPG. However, there are few indications that this strategy has worked in practice.

The reality on the ground suggests that efforts to provide security have proved difficult. In at least two cities, al-Bab and Azaz, the Islamic State still retains the capability to carry out attacks. The group struck the Azaz Sharia Court on January 7, killing 48 and wounding many more. So far this year, ISIS has bombed Azaz seven times, killing 67 and injuring 148 in total, despite the fact that this city has been under FSA and Islamist rebel control since August 2015, and that it has a strong Turkish military presence.

In the larger towns in the Euphrates Shield territory, inter- and intra-rebel clashes are common and account for a greater percentage of violent incidents than those perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State. Defections from Euphrates Shield forces have increased since the end of military operations within the territory; 75 FSA fighters defected to the regime or the SDF in the month of June and most of them were Turkmen from northern Aleppo.

The defections may stem from how the Turkish training program is conducted. The Turkish military recruited Syrians by offering cash stipends to male refugees in Turkey. Turkey was drawing from those who previously fled the fighting and were not part of the armed groups that Turkey supports – these recruits were not aligned with commanders of units active in the Syrian conflict, and some may not have ever actively fought. Ankara has sought to ameliorate this problem by placing trained individuals with larger groups it also supports.

This recruitment process requires a stringent vetting process to understand the motivations of individuals, especially those that chose not to join with elements of the Syrian insurgency earlier. It then delegates responsibility for the individual to the militia leader, who then must have a process for policing the men under his command. The risks from this approach is that individual recruits will be poorly motivated, or have goals independent from the militias they are joining. The defections point to a long-standing problem for Turkish efforts in northern Syria: The anti-Assad insurgency remains fractured. This has been the case since Turkey’s 2011 decision to arm various insurgent groups, and remains the case in territory it now controls.


Turkey’s challenges in post-conflict stabilization operations are not unique. The territory Turkey controls is unstable, with various armed groups vying for control over the local war economy. The local police forces Ankara is recruiting are not as powerful as the militias it also supports, creating an obvious situation where the police are not capable of competing with the militias. The local councils placed in charge of governance are subservient to Turkish political control, undermining their ability to represent the local population. The Turkish government, in turn, has micromanaged early reconstruction efforts. The government has also, independent of its military operation in Syria, begun a large-scale crackdown on NGOs. The outcome is the further centralization of the aid delivery process to government or government-allied NGOs, which further centralizes the decision-making process. Ankara has also decided to independently assume responsibility for this territory, and has not taken any steps to internationalize the response.

These problems are independent of the substantial – but more mundane – challenges inherent to rebuilding infrastructure in war-ravaged cities. The infrastructure requirements and the needs of the population are considerable, ensuring that Turkish government institutions must be present in this part of Syria for the foreseeable future. The nature of Turkey’s intervention may also exacerbate this problem. Ankara has indicated that it is considering expanding its military operation to Tel Rifaat, a town now under Kurdish control. The battle could bog down Turkish allied forces in a months-long siege of the town.

The challenges, evident with the early data from Turkey’s administration control over northern Aleppo province, underscore how the military is only one phase of the conflict. The expansion of territory will require a greater Turkish aid commitment, further exacerbating the reconstruction challenge Ankara is now dealing with. The initial data suggests that the Gaziantep Municipality would struggle with any added burden. The closure of NGOs appears independent of the challenges in northern Syria, and is instead linked to Ankara’s antipathy toward groups that work in SDF-held areas. However without these NGOs, Turkey may find it harder to provide services in the Euphrates Shield territory.

While the military campaign to oust ISIS and to block Kurdish expansion ended in March, Turkish efforts to provide governance and security in this territory will continue for the foreseeable future. Despite these efforts, the security situation in the territory remains poor. Turkey has also been unable to create effective governing institutions that can provide services in the territory, largely due to its strategy of micromanaging local councils and civil society bodies. Instead, Turkey could empower local civil society bodies to govern the area, rather than micromanaging them or placing them subservient to Ankara’s political interests.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council and is reprinted here with permission.

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