CATF Reports Mar. 9, 2017, 12:44pm


As the horrific civil war in Syria has left many young Syrians without schooling for years, Turkey and Qatar have pledged to take matters into their own hands by educating Syria’s next generation. The two states, while generous in their aid, have a disturbing track record of using humanitarian and religious causes as a way to spread their government’s message. Although all efforts to provide education for Syria’s youth, many of who are struggling with the invisible wounds of their country’s war, should be considered, the world must also be wary of Qatar and Turkey’s nonmilitary efforts in reshaping Syria to their liking and in their dangerous interests.

The strategic goals of government leaders in Doha and Ankara for the future of Syria are far from a secret. While they have been forced to recalculate based on a changing on-the-ground reality, Turkey’s military interventions in northern Syria and both countries’ strong support for Islamist anti-government rebels have left little doubt about the anti-Assad regime basis of their plans. Yet, beyond a general distaste for a war criminal as Syria’s leader and a regime increasingly reliant on its foreign backers in Moscow and Tehran, the Turkish and Qatari governments ultimately strove to foster and expand their influence in a post-Assad Syria.

Yet today, Turkey and Qatar have much less of a chance of securing their influence through the barrel of a gun than they may have had years ago. Short of provoking a regional (if not global) war, Assad and the Syrian regime look set to remain in power in Damascus despite the hopes of many of its regional adversaries – including Turkey and Qatar. Put plainly, Turkey and Qatar have been on the losing side of the battle for Syria.

With this in mind, leaders in Doha and Ankara may be prepared to reset their Syrian strategies in favor of the tried-and-true approach of buying influence through nonmilitary and somewhat untraditional means. Such an approach, which has appealed to both governments in the past, aims at reaping long-term results through the dissemination of a specific religious interpretation, educational materials in the interest of the donor government, and public services (often distributed through charities) intended to improve the donor country’s image among the local population.

A strategic partnership between Turkey and Qatar would hardly be a new development. Since the early 2000s, the two governments have worked together in favor of their shared regional commitment to Islamist causes and parties. Turkey, like Qatar, has sponsored the construction of mosques around the world – including over 100 mosques in more than 25 countries in what has been donned as “religious diplomacy.” In education, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has spread the imam-hatip religious schools, introduced Quranic studies in schools, and led a general Islamization of education.

While providing education for over a million Syrians under the age of 17 living in Turkey presents a myriad of challenges, leaders in Ankara, in keeping with their track record, may see a strategic opportunity in exposing the next generation of Syrians to textbooks relaying the government’s views and interests.

Qatar, for their part, has been active in utilizing humanitarian and religious causes to spread its name and message around the world. CATF reported on Qatari activities in ‘buying a say in Italy’s Islam’ by financing the construction of Italian mosques and Islamic religious centers, instating imams favorable of Qatar’s Wahhabi strain of Islam, and ultimately creating a reliant relationship between Italian Muslim communities and Qatari donations. Meanwhile, Qatar Charity and Foundation Sheikh Thani Ibn Abdullah for Humanitarian Services (RAF), two of Qatar’s most prominent charities, have spanned the Muslim world in hopes of furthering humanitarian causes, making Qatar’s presence known through the implementation of large infrastructure and public services projects, and even, at times, partnering with dangerous individuals engaged in terrorist activities.

For example, RAF charity, named after a prominent member of the Qatari royal family, may have been used to channel funds to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, according to the al-Nusra Front fundraiser and U.S.-designated terrorist Shafi al-Ajmi who encouraged donors to send their funds through RAF. Despite these reported ties, it is RAF charity that is set to print and distribute four million books for Syrian children based in Turkey in coordination with the Turkish Religious Foundation.

A joint Qatar-Turkey vow to educate Syria’s next generation should raise red flags. Qatar and Turkey, through their military, educational and humanitarian priorities have strove to disseminate their influence and religious interpretation. Many Syrians, especially since the outbreak of the civil war, have viewed Turkey’s military intervention and Qatari and Saudi backing of Islamist militias as an attempt to spread foreign influence and a non-native interpretation of Islam within their country’s borders. As the military approach has proven relatively ineffective, Syrians and non-Syrians alike should be wary of Turkey and Qatar turning to their proven methods of buying influence in an attempt to shape the minds of young Syrians.

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