North Syria: How a German association helps finance Erdoğan’s fantasies of great power

In northern Syria, Turkish President Erdoğan wants to establish a mini-Turkey, including schools, universities, and mosques. Turkish aid organizations are an important tool in this expansionist foreign policy. The trail of aid money leads back to Germany.

This article was originally published in German on June 16, 2021 by Die WELT.

By Alfred Hackensberger Correspondent for North Africa and Arab countries for Die Welt

“A warm house – 30 square meters, two rooms, bathroom, toilet, kitchen, running water and sewage.” The fundraising poster reads that the costs of accommodation are only 700 euros, “a benefaction for disadvantaged and oppressed Syrian families.” The poster includes an image of a woman with headscarf and a child on her lap with no shoes on. Donations can be made by direct debits or online through PayPal and Payjinn. Donation money flows into an account at KT Bank, which bases its banking ethics in Islamic banking.

At first glance, a credible fundraising. People who lost everything in the Syrian civil war and lived in tents for many years are getting a new home. But is the aid impulse really as altruistic and harmless as it seems?

The fundraising is an initiative of the Turkish-Islamic Union of the Directorate of Religion. It is a non-profit association under German law and better known by its acronym DITIB, a controversial religious association with some 800 mosques spread across Germany.

“Outwardly liberal and tolerant and involved in interfaith dialogue”, says Christoph de Vries who holds the file on religious communities of behalf of the CDU/CSU party in the German Bundestag. However, the MP accuses the association of being anything but tolerant internally, especially not towards “the multicultural society and other minorities”.

The new ‘warm houses’ are intended for Idlib, the province with a population of 2.6 million in north-western Syria. Idlib is the last stronghold of the opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The radical Islamic militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) rules Idlib. HTS was first part of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia, then moved to al-Qaeda’s terrorist network but has now adopted a more moderate appearance. Turkey has stationed several thousand soldiers in Idlib to prevent the Syrian army and its allies – Russia and Iran – from retaking the province.

Turkey built new briquette houses for Syrian IDPs in Idlib. This picture is from January this year. Source: picture alliance / AA

“There is nothing wrong with charitable work and humanitarian aid by religious communities,” says de Vries. “But since Turkey’s illegal invasion of northern Syria, in which Turkish troops and Islamist militias drove out the Kurdish population, there is a strong suspicion that the construction of houses is in fact intended to strengthen Turkish presence in this region.”

Turkish troops marched into northern Syria in the fall of 2019 to fight the Kurdish YPG militia. The government in Ankara labels the militia a terrorist organization. The Turkish deployment of troops is considered to be in violation of international law and that is also the official line of the German federal government.

The fundraising campaign once again made it clear that DITIB in Germany is controlled directly from Turkey, de Vries adds. DITIB is an offshoot of Diyanet, the Turkish state Directorate for Religious Affairs. This religious authority appoints and pays the imams who serve in the German mosques affiliated with DITIB. This puts DITIB in the same political ideology as the Erdoğan government. Members in Germany are said to have carried out intelligence work for Ankara. Protected by the constitution of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, more than a dozen DITIB imams had reported the names of people and institutions, including some in the education sector, to Diyanet. Then DITIB secretary general Bekir Alboga called what happened an accident which his association highly regretted.

From the organizations’ logos at the bottom of the poster, it becomes clear that DITIB and Diyanet too are raising funds for the ‘warm houses’. “It is not the task or responsibility of a German association to raise money for Turkey’s foreign policy,” says Kamal Sido of the Society for Threatened Peoples in Göttingen, Germany. Sido is originally from Afrin, Syria, the Kurdish region in north-western Syria that Turkey occupied in 2018 together with its auxiliary Islamist militias, part of the Syrian rebels.

“The donations are not really aid to the needy,” says the 60-year-old. “Diyanet only wants to spread her radical political ideology of Islam to create a loyal population.” In the end it is really about Islamization, Turkification, and annexation of the controlled areas.

Infographic by Die Welt

In fact, one cannot help but get the impression that the activities of Diyanet and other major Turkish aid organizations are being instrumentalized for Erdoğan’s expansionist foreign policy. Whether in Afrin or northern Aleppo, undesired ethnic-religious minorities such as Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis were expelled from the areas.

Syrian Arabs, often families of the radical groups, were settled instead. Turkey and its Syrian militias use force to bring about demographic change. The occupied territories are systematically Turkified. Turkish aid organizations play a crucial role in this process.

The Turkish national flag flies on the roofs of newly built hospitals, schools, universities, and post offices. Turkish is the language of instruction, and the curriculum and school management are imported from Turkey. Religious education is a focus on schools and based on the extremely conservative form of Islam as defined by Diyanet. Classes are divided between boys and girls. Girls wear headscarves. Quran lessons are an important part of the curriculum.

Students taking physical education in Afrin. Turkey supports the education system. Source: picture alliance / AA

In Germany, the DITIB branch of Diyanet is often criticized. When Turkey launched its incursion into northern Syria, in violation of international law, Muslim worshipers were encouraged to pray for “victory” in the mosques of the association. Only recently did the umbrella organization make headlines after the government of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia announced in May that it would be involving Ditib in religious education. There was heavy criticism. Critics argued that DITIB is the “extended arm of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” – a claim ruled inadmissible by a German court after a lawsuit – and should therefore not be allowed access to German classrooms.

DITIB defended itself against what it called “polarizing sentiment” and repeatedly denied getting any content from Turkey. “Our mosque congregations and parishioners receive absolutely no Friday sermons from Diyanet,” the Düsseldorf DITIB regional branch wrote on its Facebook page in May. It called the accusations “unfounded”.

Erdoğan sees the imams and employees of the religious state authority as “an army,” so he said in a 2018 speech when he paid them tribute in a grand reception at his presidential palace. At the time, he thanked “his army” profusely for the support during the attempted coup 2 years earlier. At that time, Diyanet called on the population to resist the attempted military coup. Diyanet manages 90,000 mosques in Turkey.

State budget allocations show how important Diyanet is to Erdoğan. It’s budget rose from 1.3 billion Turkish lira in the past 10 years to almost 13 billion in the fiscal year 2021. Expenditure on personnel alone rose by 2.1 billion lira in just 2 years. By comparison, the Turkish Ministry of the Interior, which includes the National Police and the Gendarmerie, has an annual budget of 10.6 billion lira. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a budget of 5.7 billion. Abroad, Diyanet is active not only in Syria, but in more than 140 countries worldwide. The boundaries between civilian work and the military are blurring. Aid and military work hand in hand.

“I still have relatives in Afrin,” says Sido of the Society for Threatened Peoples. “Anyone who doesn’t attend prayers at the mosque is under suspicion and can immediately get into trouble.” International human rights groups report arbitrary arrests, looting, kidnappings, and rapes by Turkey’s affiliated militias in Afrin and other occupied territories.

In close controversial cooperation with Islamist aid organizations

In Syria, Diyanet works together with the Turkish civil Disaster and Emergency organization AFAD, the Turkish Red Crescent, and the International Humanitarian Aid Organization (IHH). It does so in Afrin and northern Aleppo, but also in Idlib, where German DITIB sends its donations to. Especially IHH is not a neutral aid organization. IHH’s affinity to radical Islamist groups is known and it is said to have close ties to the controversial charity of Qatari sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. IHH is suspected of distributing weapons to al-Qaeda groups during the Syrian civil war. It would also have been responsible for transporting injured IS fighters to Turkey, who received free treatment in Turkish hospitals.

IHH has been banned in Germany since 2010. The aid association had transferred German donations in Gaza to social organizations of the Palestinian Hamas. The German Federal Constitutional Court reaffirmed the ban 3 years ago. “Of course, IHH and Diyanet work together,” says a local employee of an international NGO in Idlib. He wanted to remain anonymous. “They have joint projects,” reports the young man in a call via internet. Like everyone else, the Turkish aid organizations would need approval from the ruling Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militia. IHH got access to everywhere. “They play a crucial role in Idlib,” he adds.

There is however one important difference compared to other Syrian areas occupied by Turkey. In Idlib, Ankara is not taking over the schools and mosques it built and renovated. “We also have the Turkish Lira here, but no Turkish teachers and imams,” says the NGO employee. Education and religion remain in the hands of the administration of the radical Islamist HTS. There is so far only 1 Turkish university, he recalls. It is up to the students whether they want to learn Turkish or not. But they usually do so because it gives them the opportunity to continue their studies in Turkey.

A colleague of the young man, who is also on the line but only listened, intervenes. “You know, of course we know that Turkey doesn’t do all this for free,” he says. “As usual, the Turks want to win hearts and polish their image and ideology.”

But people here do not care because all of Idlib relies on outside aid. Without that aid, a humanitarian catastrophe looms. According to the United Nations, 75% of the 2.6 million people in Idlib depends on aid supplies. “Take, for example, the briquette houses that Diyanet and IHH have built through local companies,” the colleague continues. “They are cheap and of poor quality. But for people, a roof over their heads is a luxury, and they don’t care who gives it to them.”

You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.