On June 21, 2021, a newly built mosque was inaugurated in the village of Sheikh Khurez, in northwest Syria, close to the Turkish border.
Sheikh Khurez is located in the part of Syria under the nominal administration of the opposition-linked Syrian Interim Government. In practice, since the Turkish Armed Forces' Operation Olive Branch of 2018 destroyed the Kurdish Afrin canton, the area has been under the de facto rule of Ankara and its associated militias. The latter are organized in the framework of the Turkish-trained and financed Syrian National Army.
The opening of a small mosque in a remote corner of northwest Syria six months ago might generally be seen as an unremarkable event. The new house of prayer in Sheikh Khurez, however, was noteworthy because of a particular detail – namely, the identity of the organization that sponsored the mosque's construction, and whose logo is displayed at its entrance.
The organization in question is called the Jamia'at al aish bi'Karama, or Living with Dignity Association. This body is based not in Syria, but in the city of Tira, in central Israel. It achieved some prominence last year because of the support it afforded to Arab residents of Jerusalem protesting planned expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah. It is linked to other organizations supporting a Sunni Islamist outlook, of the type represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Turkey.
What is a charity based in Israel doing building mosques in northern Syria?
So what is a Tira charity, apparently devoted to the Palestinian cause, doing building mosques in northern Syria?
To understand, it is necessary first to recall the events of early 2018. At that time, Syrian Sunni Islamist militias supported by Turkey entered the Afrin area. Around 300,000 people, mainly Kurds, became refugees following the destruction of the Afrin canton. Most of these individuals then made their way to Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria. Many of them remain in refugee camps within this area.
Since that time, Turkey has been engaged in the large-scale resettlement in Afrin of Syrian Sunni Arab refugees formerly resident in Turkey. Turkey claims that 330,000 Syrians have been relocated to the Afrin areas and other parts of northern Syria conquered by Turkey in earlier operations, since 2018.
Most of these families hail from majority Sunni Arab areas of Syria that came under rebel control during the civil war and were then reconquered by the Assad regime, such as the Damascus countryside, Homs and Hama governorates, and southern Idlib.
A considerable number of Palestinian families caught up by the war have also been resettled in Afrin. According to a January 28 report at the Rohani website (a news outlet associated with the Kurdish authority in northeast Syria), 1,535 Palestinian families have been resettled in the Afrin area. These families hail from the Yarmouk refugee camp, Khan al-Sheikh and other areas south of Damascus.
Living with Dignity's Facebook page indicates that the organization does not appear to prioritize the interests of these Palestinian displaced persons who have been resettled in Afrin.
Rather, the organization is a participant in the Turkish-led effort to insert a new, Sunni Arab population along the border between Syria and Turkey. The mosque at Sheikh Khurez is a small detail in a larger strategy of transformation, supported by Ankara, and carried out under the auspices of the Islamist Syrian National Army. The intention is to permanently transform the demographic and cultural identity of traditionally secular and multiethnic Afrin.
The remaining non-Sunni/non-Arab populations in Afrin, whose communities are the target of this effort, include some of the most oppressed and impoverished in Syria. Living with Dignity has, for example, also financed the construction of a housing complex for Arab refugees known as Basma, which is located just south of the Yazidi village of Shadira, 15 km. from the Syrian-Turkish border. The now completed housing complex consists of eight units, totaling 96 apartments. Each apartment is 50 square meters. A mosque, a school and a health center have also been built for the new village. Around 500 Syrian Arab refugees have since been rehoused there. The complex was built on the land of one Ziad Habib, a resident of Shadira who claims that he was coerced into selling the area.
According to Kurdish sources, the authorities in this area are currently forcing remaining Yazidi residents of the village to attend compulsory Islamic education, and Yazidi residents are also required to recite the Shahadah (a declaration of Islamic faith). Six similar such villages are under construction along the Syrian-Turkish border. The specific goal appears to be the seeding of a loyal Sunni Arab population along the borderline, as part of the larger demographic transformation under way.
The Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking, non-Muslim population in northern Syria and northern Iraq, were the subject of an attempted genocide at the hands of the Islamic State organization in the 2014-19 period. Widely reviled by Muslims in the area as "devil worshipers," they remain the victims of widespread prejudice.
Living with Dignity has also, according to regional media, taken part in land seizures from a Syrian Kurdish citizen in the Tal Tawil area, and has financed the construction of mosques in Tal Tawil and the village of Ikidam, all within the framework of the larger project of transformation outlined above.
Living with Dignity, on its Facebook page, solicits donations for its housing projects in Syria, which it refers to under the title of the "Noble Housing" plan. The advertisement for this project includes details of a Bank Hapoalim account to which donations can be made, and the information that the cost of construction of a single housing unit is NIS 16,000.
The organization's Facebook page notes that it raises money for these endeavors in a number of Israeli-Arab (or '48 Palestinian, as it refers to them) communities, including Kalansuwa, Umm el-Fahm, Jaljulya and Tira.
This Israeli-Arab/Palestinian charity is a single component in a larger archipelago of Islamic organizations involved in the project of resettlement of Arab refugees in Afrin. These include the Ayad al-Bayda (White Hands) organization, with which Living with Dignity cooperates closely. This group, established in 2013, according to its website in turn cooperates with Muslim Brotherhood-associated charities and NGOs from the Gulf, including the Kuwait-based Rahma International and Zakat House, and the Qatar-based Qatar al-Khairiya.
Pro-Syrian regime and other anti-Erdogan outlets have carried a number of articles on this process of ethnic displacement and demographic transformation.
They have, unsurprisingly, found a way to blame Israel for it. Syrian commentator Khayyam al-Zoubi, writing at the Arabic-language Rai al-Youm website in June 2021, asserted that the resettlement of Arab refugees in Afrin forms part of a "Turkish Zionist conspiracy to deport the Palestinians by uprooting them from the occupied 1948 area to northern Syria, to settle at the expense of Yazidi and non-Yazidi Syrians, in order to implement its agenda to destroy Syria." A pro-PKK Kurdish-language Twitter account also suggested that Israel's government must surely have "approved" the financial contributions of Israeli-Arab charities to this project. An article in Arabic at Ronahi website laments that Palestinian involvement with Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood "contradicts the essence of their just cause."
Pointing out contradictions is not entirely out of place. The same bodies that argue against alleged ethnic displacement in one context defend and assist it in another.
There is nevertheless a deeper consistency apparent here. Islamist activities in Syria and further south share an essential component – namely, the view that Arab and Muslim communities alone are present in the relevant area by right and with moral agency. They and they alone are seen to have a right to a life with dignity. Tactics may differ according to the relevant local power balance. This core viewpoint, however, appears common to both geographical contexts.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.