Contrary to the rumor that the Syrian crisis will be resolved in favor of the Syrian army and that the issue of religious extremism and distorted ideas would be closed forever, there is a crisis that Damascus will face as it attempts to gather its remains following the years of war in the country.
This crisis is concentrated in Ankara’s brainwashing of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, through which ideas in line with the Turkish expansionist policy in the region are cultivated in the refugees.
This started when Turkey announced its control of the Afrin region in northern Syria in March 2018 following military confrontations with the Kurds, who are the indigenous people of the city, as part of Operation Olive Branch, which began in January of the same year.
Ankara was not satisfied with its administrative control over the city, so it started to implement a policy of exporting religious concepts reproduced from “Turkish religiosity” (dreams of the return of the Ottoman Empire) in order to prepare Syrians in the north to accept the idea of a return to the former caliphate so Turkey could then extend its control over northern Syria.
To carry out this operation, Turkey used imams from the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and increased spending on mosques that were destroyed by the war.
This policy, which Syrian media has called “Turkification”, does not just depend directly on the Kurdish areas under Turkish control, but has expanded to northern cities under the control of Turkish-backed militias. Ankara has intensified its religious activities and legal courses, relying on the Brotherhood-affiliated Syrian Islamic Council (SIC), which was formed in 2014 under Turkish sponsorship, in addition to Diyanet.
Contrary to the ease that Turkey found in exporting these concepts in areas such as Afrin, the crisis was in the areas controlled by militias, particularly Idlib, where the largest group of militias is located.
However, the religious discourse that Turkey is trying to export to northern Syria contradicts the discourse of the armed factions, which consider Turkey a secular, infidel state and only deal with it due to shared interests. Turkey has therefore found it difficult to discourage some of these militias, especially Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), from their jihadist path, even if only formally.
Analysts had monitored a decline in the jihadist tone of HTS’s discourse for a more civil approach, most likely due to Turkey, but HTS then found itself in an internal crisis after voices rose within it accusing the terrorist group’s leaders of hypocrisy and straying from what they consider the right path.
Claiming charity as a justification to compensate for the educational breakdown in northern Syria, the Brotherhood (through its various bodies such as the Homs Scholars Authority, Sham Khotaba Association, Sharia Graduates Union, Syrian Islamic Scholars Association, Association of Scholars of Idlib, Islamic Sham Authority, Zaid Bin Thabit Foundation, and Sharia Council in Aleppo) has offered various activities ranging from offering lessons on the Turkish understanding of religion, opening institutes for memorizing the Quran, and conducting legal courses and competitions.
While Turkey aims to target the minds of Syrians in the north through the subjugation of educational, religious and health institutions in most northern cities by means of Diyanet, Ankara has been brainwashing the Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey for years.
Diyanet and SIC bear the brunt of responsibility for this task, as they continue to organize competitions for them and build religious schools that provide religious instruction that matches Turkish religiosity.
Prior to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan coming to power, Diyanet, which was founded in 1924, was a religious authority that merely sought to assess the religious behavior of Turks. Then Erdogan resolved to implement his dream of restoring the Ottoman caliphate’s power, so he created a new role for Diyanet in this regard to export Turkish religiosity as a form of soft power.
The persuasion employed by Diyanet’s successive heads reflects the task entrusted to them. When former Diyanet President Mehmet Görmez visited Jerusalem, he spoke to residents there about the Ottoman role in protecting the city and emphasized how disasters have befallen the ancient city since the fall of the caliphate, hinting that the city’s liberation will take place after the Ottoman resuscitation.
Meanwhile, Diyanet’s role is not limited to Syria, as it also devotes many activities to Western societies and targeting Muslim communities around the world, especially its reception of student and official religious delegations from African and Asian countries.
In Europe, the European Union Council announced in October 2018 that it had opened an investigation into the messages and financing of Diyanet in EU countries in order to ascertain whether it was affiliated with extremism or not.
Syrian newspapers have expressed fear that, in the event that no Syrian military move occurs to purify the region from terrorists, Diyanet will rely on the group of loyal Syrians who work with the religious authority, which would guarantee the continuation of the Turkification of northern Syria.