Turkey’s anti-French incitement underpins protests in Syria

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during the re-opening of the Ottoman-era Yildiz Hamidiye mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, August 4, 2017
(photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)

Ankara’s decision to create a crisis with France over allegations that offensive “anti-Islam” cartoons were shown in France has led to numerous terror attacks targeting France and protests against French diplomatic posts in Lebanon and other countries. Protests in Syria have gotten more serious, where protesters have not only protested against France but have held up the 18-year-old who beheaded a French teacher as a hero. The murder of the teacher, who was accused of showing a cartoon in class, led to France cracking down on extremists. This was then exploited by Turkey’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood government to claim France was “anti-Islamic” and to curse its president Emmanuel Macron.  
The tense atmosphere in Syria illustrates how extremists, some of whom appear to support ISIS or ISIS-linked ideologies, are popular from Idlib to Jarabulus to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. This is a swath of Syria where ISIS was once in control or had influence. Much has changed in Syria since ISIS was defeated in Raqqa in 2017, but the influence of the group remains. Many other groups also feed off the same pool of extremism that fed ISIS. These include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group with roots in Al-Qaida, as well as Turkish-backed Syrian extremists, some of whom used to be affiliated to Syrian rebel groups.  
On October 30 images showed men climbing onto a church that ISIS had destroyed years ago in Tabqa and removing the new cross. The cross had been erected after the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces liberated the area in 2017. Tabqa is one of many areas where Christians once lived in Syria. There are an arc of Christian villages from the Euphrates to Deir Ezzor and up to Tel Tamr and along the Khabur river. Christians in Syria have been targeted by ISIS and by Turkish-backed mercenaries who invaded Tel Abyad in 2019. Many Assyrian, Armenian and other Christian minority communities have been decimated.  
The protesters targeted the cross to show they have renewed power, despite the control of the SDF. In recent months the SDF has received pushback over a liberal school curriculum they wanted to put in for areas near the Euphrates. Tribal groups have resisted and demanded that there be more conservative and Islamic texts.  
Images from protests between October 26 and 29 show men with ISIS flags in Dier Ezzor and also posters celebrating the beheading of the teacher in Idlib. Protesters also appeared in Raqqa, chanting extremist slogans, and also in Serekaniye, which is under Turkish occupation, where they waved extremist flags. People claimed to have video that shows ISIS flags in some locations. Syria today is divided between the Syrian regime controlled areas in the center and south, the Turkish-occupied areas in the north, including areas like Afrin that were ethnically-cleansed of Kurds, and the SDF controlled areas in the east. The Russians and Syrian regime also have a role in areas that are a buffer between where US forces are and where Turkey is. This includes Tel Tamr, Qamishli, and other areas. Turkey wants to undermine the SDF. Russia and the Syrian regime also want to show that areas outside Syrian regime control are home to extremists.
This means many have an agenda to push extremism or encourage extremists to parade with ISIS flags. There is no French presence in Syria so the sudden protests against France appear to have been largely invented by locals who received guidance or propaganda from various groups. These groups tend to be linked to Turkey. For instance Turkey not only trains Syrian rebels, but also hosts mercenary and religious extremist groups. ISIS members have transitted through Syria to Idlib. The US has carried out numerous airstrikes on groups linked to Al-Qaeda in Idlib and elsewhere. This means that ISIS sleeper cells are still active in areas where ISIS once existed. The protests are a way to galvanize support by latching on to a claim that “Islam was insulted” whereby groups are able to come out of the woodwork claiming to “defend Islam.”
In Raqqa the extremists protesting shouted the slogan “Khaybar, Khaybar, Oh Jews,” a reference some Muslims use to Islamic history when the “army of Mohammed” defeated Jews. This is often chanted by antisemites throughout the Middle East as it blends hatred of Jews with Islamist agendas. Many of the extremists linked to ISIS tend to have chants against Shi’ites, Armenians, Kurds and “atheists.” Turkey’s media using the French cartoon controversy to incite against France appears to have fanned flames of protest across Syria. This is clear because the protests began in Turkish-controlled areas and then spread to Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other places. The attack on Tabqa's church was the latest part of the campaign.

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