More important, they also expose two big lies of the Palestinians: 1) the Islamic attitude towards the Jews; and 2) the Islamic relationships concerning Jerusalem.
1) Islam and the Jews: Love-Hate Relationship
Islam’s attitude towards Judaism and the Jews is a fascinating tale that began with admiration and imitation. Muhammad was highly influenced by the Jewish religion and in fact he admired the Jews as a model to imitate. The 90 Meccan Sūwar (p. of Sūrah) contain the history of the Jews from Abraham and his descendants to Moses and the Children of Israel in Egypt and Sinai Desert and to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Moses was the chosen personality and he appears in 34 Sūwar.
Many of the Islamic views originate from the Jewish religion and traditions: Tawhīd, the belief in one unique God and denial of Fetishism. The belief in sin and Punishment, Hell and Paradise. Ummah, the religious congregation; Salāh, the prayer as an exhibition of the belief and the direction (also Jāhilīyah origin). Sawm, the fasting (together with Jāhilīyah origin). The heroes of Muhammad and Islam were Jewish and above all of them are Abraham and Moses. It is of note that Muhammad encompassed the history and creation of the Jewish people, being the chosen people, and the best of this is the centrality of the Land of Israel to the Jews.
Initially, Muhammad had no intention to establish a new religion. During the Mecca Period, Muhammad admired the Jews, as attested to in the Sūwar of the Qur’an. He explained that since the Jews have a book (Tawrat) and the Christians have a book (Injīl), and the Arabs have no book, he endeavored to give the Arabs a book. Muhammad introduced to the Arabs a book akin to the Tablets of the Testimony, which were given to Moses at Mount Sinai and contain great virtues.
The Qur’an insists that the Jewish Scripture is the voice of Allah. This is the book that Moses was given on Mount Sinai and it is the only truth as spoken by Allah and given to the chosen people, the Children of Israel. Moreover, when the Arabs mocked at Muhammad and persecuted him, he attested the Jews to remove the doubts about his prophetical prophetic messages and being the seal of all prophet.
Muhammad publicly stressed the Children of Israel are the Chosen People, and he will make Abraham and his descendants the leaders of all peoples:
O Children of Israel, remember my favor which I bestowed upon you, and that I exalted you (Faḍḍaltukūm) over all nations. We certainly chose them (Akhtarnāhūm) by knowledge over [all] the worlds (‘Ala al-‘Alāmīn). We showed them miracles which tested them beyond all doubt. We gave the Book to the Children of Israel and exalted them (faḍalnāhūm) above the nations. We have cause the Israelites to inherit them (Awrathnāhā).
Thus, there is much material in the Qur’an which links the Children of Israel to the Land of Israel. Abraham came to this land when he first left his homeland; the Children of Israel came to the Land when God brought them out of Egypt; the Temple of the Children of Israel stood in this Land. God promised that they will be gathered together in the land just before the end-times.
Allah’s promise to the Children of Israel is that He will never renege on his promise, therefore they must not leave their land, and otherwise Allah will grow angry with them and punish them. The Children of Israel were also given the Book as an inheritance, wa-Awrathnā Banī Isrā’īl al-Kitāb. The Book was bestowed upon those whom Allah has chosen, Alladhīna Istafaynā Min ‘Ibādinā. The Qur’ān also honors the Children of Israel with peace, guidance and safety. Allah will “destroy your enemies and make you rulers in the Land,” wa-Yastakhlifakum Fīl-Arḍ.
Not only Muhammad recognized the only rights and legitimacy of the Jews to the Land of Israel according to its biblical borders, but he insist that they must live only in it.
And we caused the people who had been oppressed to inherit the eastern regions of the land and the western ones, which we had blessed (al-Arḍ Allatī Bāraknā Fīhā). And the good word of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel…
Enter, my people, the Holy Land (al-Arḍ al-Muqaddasah), which Allah has decreed for you (Allatī Kataba Allāhu Lakum) and do not turn back and [thus] become losers.
And we said after Pharaoh to the Children of Israel, “Dwell in the land, and when there comes the promise of the Hereafter, We will bring you forth in gathering.”
The Land of Israel is the “Holy Land” (al-Ard al-Muqaddasah); the “Blessed Land” (al-Ard al-Mubārakah); the “Land of Israel” (Ard Banī Isrā’īl). That is why Ibn Kathīr goes so far as to consider these verses a divine command to Israel for Jihad to enter the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. Though they sinned and strayed from Allay, their punishment was to delay their entry for forty years, after which they were to enter the land. They are also commanded to “enter the gate” which refers to the Land of Israel.
If the Macca era until September 622 and the beginning of the Medina period was characterized as one might say a love story between Muhammad and the Jews, the Medina period until Muhammad’s death is totally different. The love story transformed into hatred and animosity and ended with racial and religious anti-Semitism; genocide (Banū Qurayza tribe); ethnic cleansing (expulsion of the Jewish tribes Banū Nadīr and Banū Qanūwqā’), and by prohibiting the Jews from living on the Islamic lands.
Muhammad immigrated to Yathrīb, which became Madīnat an-Nabī (the City of the Prophet), exactly because Jews were there. However, after Badr War (March 624), everything was changed. Two main reasons were indicated:
a) Muhammad and his small group of supporters went from being persecuted to vanquishing their enemies. The immediate result was a rapidly growing community of followers. The figures are impressing: in twelve years of preaching in Mecca Muhammad had only at most 150 followers. After the victory at Badr, almost ten thousand joined his ranks. This fact shows one of the most important characteristics of the Arab political culture, namely following the war hero, the conqueror. However, the crucial result of Badr victory was that only from that period of time on Muhammad proclaimed himself as a prophet who brings a new religion to the Arabs, which is separate from that of the Jews. Now his preaching were not only warmongering against the infidel Arabs but precisely against the Jews.
b) The Jewish tribes of Medina, Banū Nadīr, Banū Qanuwqā’ and Banū Qurayza, reacted against Muhammad’s new approach and objected him as a prophet similar to the prophets of the Bible, and mainly being the seal of all prophets and the Qur’an is the words of Allah. The Jews refused to accept him, claiming he was a false prophet.
From Muhammad’s perspective, the Jewish tribes expected of him to embrace their own religion, however he declared adherence to the basic religion of Abraham and rejected the demand to follow their own religions. Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a pure monotheist Muslim (Ḥanīfan Musliman), and so are those who “who follow him, the Prophet and the true believers.” Abraham was also the founder of Mecca’s sacredness. Allah assigns to him the place of the Ka’ba, and tells him to purify it and proclaim to the people the duty of pilgrimage. The Qur’an also insists that the rest of the prophets, too, were the same, pure Muslims.
Muhammad claimed that the destiny of Islam is to control the entire world, being the only legitimate religion. Later on Muhammad proclaimed that all of prophets, from Adam and Noah to Abraham and his children, and to Moses, David, Solomon, Job, Jesus and Peter – were his prophets, Muslim prophets. The Muslim believers are the chosen community, and not the Jews, and Islam is above Judaism and Christianity. The full and last revelation from Allah was given to the Arabs by Muhammad, and the Qur’an is the final and superior scripture. Consequently the Ka’ba has become the religious center of Islam and the Ḥājj has transformed into Islamic ritual.
The Jews were mortal challenge to Muhammad, and according to the aggressive Arab political culture that externalizes the guilt, his reaction was brutal accusing the Jews with all the faults and sins. Consequently, the tribes of Banu Nadīr and Banu Qaynuqā’ were expelled, and their property was seized and expropriated to the Muslims. After the Battle of the Trench (627) all of the males from Banu Qurayza, from the age of fertility to the elderly were slaughtered, their heads cut off by a line, while the women and children were coerced to convert to Islam.
Now, the Qur’anic depiction of the Jews is highlighted in Sûrat al-Baqarah, 2:61 and Sûrat al-‘Imrān, 3:112. They are considered “cursed” and “enemies of Allah”, deserving of death. This is also expressed in the prayer Muslims say at least 17 times a day: Allah’s rage is upon them, therefore, he turned them into apes and pigs. Their worst sin was that they distorted the texts and intentionally concealed the appearance of Muhammad and his prophesies. They are the devil’s minions, and if they do not accept the true faith of Islam they will burn in the Hellfire. They are also “liars”, “accursed”, “stone-hearted”, “despicable traitors”, and the worst of all animals. They are the worst enemies of Islam, in fact the worst of Allah’s creation, and rats are in fact “mutated Jews.” It is the duty of the Muslims to persecute and kill the Jews:
The Day of Judgment will not come, until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. And when the Jews will hide behind a tree or a rock, the tree and the rock will call out: “Oh Muslims, oh, servants of Allah! A Jew is hiding behind me; come and kill him.”
Only Islam remains the religion of Abraham that Allah forwarded to Muhammad for the sake of all humanity. The Jews have become infidels, and they lost Allah’s covenant (Mīthāq). Their guilt: they associate others with Allah, like the idolaters.
2) Islam and the case of Jerusalem
According to the Palestinian narrative, the sanctity of Jerusalem stems from the following Islamic sources: a) Jerusalem is the first Qiblah, the prayer direction of the Muslims. b) Jerusalem is the third Ḥaram, Islamic holy place, after Mecca and Medina. c) Muhammed had supposedly made a miraculous a night trip to the Temple Mount, built a mosque there, and returned to Mecca that very night. According to this, Muhammed had thus established Jerusalem’s status and centrality in the Islamic faith and religion.
a) “Jerusalem is the first Qiblah” – what are the facts? When Muhammad made the Hijrah to Medina, he instructed his followers to pray like the Jews, towards al-Shām. It is important to note that even Bukhari, from the 9th century perspective claims that the direction of prayer was towards “Shām,” without any mentioning of Jerusalem. The Qur’an never mentions Jerusalem by name. The pagan Arabs had absolutely no affiliations or regard for Jerusalem and had no idea as to what it. Moreover, direction of prayer is Jewish tradition, unknown to the Arabs.
The refusal of the Jews, after 16-7 months of his presence in the Medina, to follow Muhammad’s new ‘theology’ turned him into their implacable and spiteful enemy to the extent that he made a 180 degree reversal and ordered to change the direction of prayer to the Ka’ba, the pagan shrine of Mecca.
Allah’s Apostle prayed facing Bayt al-Maqdis [the Jewish Temple Mount] for sixteen or seventeen months but he loved to face the Ka’ba. So Allah revealed: Verily, We have seen the turning of your face to the heaven (2:144). So, the Prophet faced the Ka’ba and the fools amongst the people namely ‘the Jews’ said, what has turned them from their Qiblah which they formerly observed? [Allah revealed]: Say: To Allah belongs the East and the West. He guides whom he will to a straight path (2:142)… Some men had died before the Qiblah was changed towards the Ka’ba. So Allah revealed [2:143].
The Prophet prayed facing Bayt al-Maqdis for sixteen or seventeen months but he wished that his Qiblah would be the Ka’ba. So Allah revealed 2:144 and he offered ‘Asr prayers and some people prayed with him. A man went out and passed by some people offering prayer in another mosque, and they were in the state of bowing. He said, I, by Allah, testify that I have prayed with the Prophet facing Mecca. Hearing that, they turned their faces to the Ka’ba while they were still bowing.
Ibn Sa’d agrees. In Mecca, Muhammad used to pray towards the Jewish Bayt al-Maqdis, with the Ka’ba in front of him. After his Hijrah he continued praying towards Bayt al-Maqdis for sixteen months and then he was instructed to turn towards the Ka’ba. By that, Jerusalem has lost its sacred status, and the Ka’ba remains the only Qiblah, and is identified as the ultimate Qiblah of Allah’s prophets.
Jerusalem was the prayer direction for only “16 or 17 months,” not because of religious reasons but because Muhammad wished to obtain the favor and support of the Jews when he arrived in Medina. The reason he fled in September 622 to Medina, was exactly because the Jewish tribes reside there. He thought that his admiration to the Jews and in fact that he wished to bring the Arabs a “Jewish book,” would help him to integrate in Medina more easily.
However, after the Jews objected to his claim to represent the Jewish religion and of being the last Jewish prophet and even mocked him as false prophet, and after Muhammad became a victorious war hero the instruction was amended from then on, Muslims must not follow the Jewish traditions, and were to pray toward Mecca. When Muslims pray, they face Mecca; in Jerusalem Muslims pray with their backs to the city toward Mecca. Even at burial, the Muslim dead face is turned toward Mecca.
Muhammad’s stance towards the Jews shifted totally to a deep hatred and animosity. Following this decision, Muslims in fact have turned their backs towards Jerusalem while praying. The Ka’ba in Mecca was fortified as a religious center and pilgrimage to Mecca has become an Islamic ritual. It is essential to note: it is not as many says, once the prayer direction was changed to Mecca the importance of Jerusalem was utterly cancelled. This is not the situation. Jerusalem was not important at all. Muhammad never mentioned its name. His former order to his followers was the direction of prayer of the Jews alone, and it was towards “Shām,” Syria.
In their astronomical and geographical analysis, the Muslim group under the title of Muslim awareness, clearly prove that the Qiblah after Muhammad’s death was never to Jerusalem. In their summary, “It was shown conclusively that the early mosques do not point at northern Arabia or even close vicinity of Jerusalem.”
b) Jerusalem is “the third Ḥaram” – what are the facts?
The issue of the “Ḥaram” concerning Jerusalem developed only during the Umayyad Period (750-661), and lasted at most 60 years only. Muhammad Ibn al-Zubayr, Abu Bakr grandson, revolted against the Umayyad ruler Yazid I, and refused to give him swear of allegiance (Bay’ah). After the Battle of Karbala in October 680, he established his power in Arabia, Iraq, and part of Egypt, thus denying the Umayyad Dynasty, its political center was in Damascus, to approach to Hijaz and to practice the Ḥājj, the pilgrimage in Mecca.
Jerusalem, which bordered the desert and being the faraway place from Mecca under Umayyad’s control, was chosen to replace Mecca as a place of worship and pilgrimage. For that, they had to build a mosque, the first in Jerusalem ever. The first structure, Qubbat as-Sakhrah (The Dome of the Rock), was built between the years 688 and 691, almost 60 years after the death of Muhammad (June 632). The second structure, the al-Aqşa, was built in 715, almost 83 years after Muhammad’s death.
From this perspective we can infer that the choice of Jerusalem was based on a political reality and not religious importance. It was only chosen to replace Mecca as a pilgrimage site for the Umayyad after Mecca became unavailable. Indeed, the fall of the Umayyad had also signified the end of the Jerusalem story as a place of Ḥājj. According to the testimony of one of Muhammad’s women, Jerusalem became Ḥaram only at the time when Muhammad admired the Jews and wish to get their political support and their religious legitimacy.
Therefore, Jerusalem being an Islamic Ḥaram is a religious myth that lasted for less of 100 years all in all out of 1300 Islamic history for political reasons. Contemporary Muslims and Palestinians have brought it to the forth for mere political reasons without any substantial religious corroborations.
c) Did Muhammad make a miraculous night visit to the Jewish Temple Mount?
The only reference in the Qur’an employed by Muslims, by means of their egregiously distorted political interpretations in our time, in respect to the sanctity of Jerusalem for Islam, is the first verse in Sūrah 17, Banī Isrā’īl:
“Glory to Him who journeyed his servant by night, from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque” (Subĥāna al-Ladhī Asra’ bi-‘Abdīhī Laylan Mina al-Masjidi al-Ḥarāmi Ilal-Masjidi al-’Aqşā”).
The verse called Isrā’ is connected to the Mi’rāj, which describe how Muhammad had a vision at night in which he hovers with angel Gabriel through the seven worlds while riding on his miraculous horse al-Buraq, and returns to Mecca the same night. On the way to the seven worlds he meets the prophets: Adam, St. John and Jesus, Joseph, Idris, Aaron, Moses and Abraham.
Flying horses and dragons and gods able to fly were common myths centuries before Muhammad. These myths were often grafted onto new religions. The whole story may have been influenced by the story of the prophet Elijah who flew into heaven in a burning chariot pulled by horses. Prophet Ezekiel experiences in Babylon a vision in which he was taken by a lock of his hair and a wind lifted him up between the earth and the heaven” to one of the gates of the Jerusalem Temple. In the following verse it is stated that Ezekiel saw there the glory of the God of Israel. The story of Muhammad has also its source in the story of the ladder of Jacob in the Bible.
The issue from Muhammad’s perspective was that his two most admired Jewish ancestors were Abraham and Moses, and both saw God face to face. God appeared to Abraham and promised him to inherit the Land of Israel. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received from God the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. So, if his prophets saw God, he is more entitled to see Allah by himself.
The only source from which contemporary Muslims derive the belief in the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam rests on their interpretation of this event of the so-called night journey on the white horse. The assertion that the Mosque that stands today on the north edge of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the same mosque called al-Aqşā in the Qur’an, that assertion is completely modern that lacks any historical foundation. Muhammad intended to reach heaven in order to behold Allah. Muhammad, in his opinion, was the seal of all prophets, believed that he was in a better situation to see Allah, because he was more important than his predecessors.
However, it is worthwhile to recall that the Jews never claimed that Moses functioned in, or ever visited, Jerusalem. Nor did Abraham, who lived a large part of his life and died in Hebron, ever visit Jerusalem. Most probably it was a very small Jebusite village during Abraham’s day. Moreover, there are no Jewish sources or other religious sources, or political and archaeological from antiquity that can be cited as a source of the story by Muhammad. Nor can it be said that there was some misunderstanding or inaccurate interpretation on Muhammad’s part. It is a pure political propagation promoted by contemporary Muslims for political ends.
Indeed, the Islamic tradition is not based on factual evidence and is not corroborated by religious or archaeological proofs. The claim that Muhammad’s miraculous visit had occurred on the Temple Mount is a new invention, spread by contemporary Muslim and Palestinian propagators. However, the most important and greatest reliable Islamic sages and classical exegetes and commentators discussed the subject of the meaning and place of al-Aqşā mosque. They raised various theories regarding its location, none is that al-Aqşā identified by the Jewish Temple Mount.
1) There is the approach of Ibn Abdallah Muhammad al-Wāqidi (748-822), a historian and biographer of Muhammad, who founded his suggestion on Islamic chain of testimony of authentic witnesses (called Isnād) who identify the al-Aqşā mosque as a prayer area established by Muhammad twenty kilometers north-east of Mecca on the way to Medina. In the Qur’an, the term Aqşa is a description of a location on earth. The verses contain a list of several holy places in the vicinity of Mecca, one of them being al-Mash‘ar al-Aqşa. al-Wāqidi also brings other sages who claim that al-Aqşā was a prayer area built by Muhammad 16 kilometers north-east from Mecca, in a place called Ji’rānah.
2) There is the approach proposed by Muhammad Ibn-Sa’ad (784-845), a biographer of Muhammad, with the consent of Abū Abdallah Muhammad al-Bukhārī (810-870), the most authentic author of the Ḥadīth; and Aḥmad ibn Shu’ayb al-Nasā’ī (829–915), a noted collector of Ḥadīth, who contend that the incident related to al-Aqşā in Surat Banī Isrā’īl, 17:1 occurred 18 months before the Hijrah (migration of Muhammad in September 622) at a place called Maqām Ibrāhīm, near the well of Zamzam – the well in the city of Mecca, adjacent to the Masjid al-Haram and the Ka’ba.
In Mecca, there was a well-known sacred area near the Ka‘ba, namely al-Ḥijr. It was a place of visions experienced during sleep. The best-known example is the dream of ‘Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad’s grandfather, in which he was entrusted with the task of digging the well of Zamzam. Later sources contain more stories of visions experienced during sleep in al-Ḥijr.
Uri Rubin believes that this year, 619, was the year in which Muhammad’s wife, Khadīja, and his uncle ‘Abbās died, and these events deeply influenced Muhammad and perhaps contributed to this event. Alfred Guillaume has argued convincingly that in its original context the verse refers to a point on the outskirts of the ancient sacred enclave around Mecca.
3) Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (838-923), a Persian historian and biographer of Muhammad, and one of the first commentators on the Qur’an, has collated all of the Islamic sources. He states that Muhammad’s objective was spiritual: to reach the house of Allah in the upper firmament and to see Allah face to face. If Muhammad was to be the last and the most important of all the prophets, and Abraham and Moses had seen God face to face, Muhammad surely would have had to see Allah.
The important thing is that according to Tabari, Muhammad rode to heaven on the heavenly white horse, but did not dismount his horse or pray at any mosque. That was not his mission. He wished to see Allah. Therefore, he pursued his journey to heaven to see Allah and from there he returned directly to Mecca at the same night. Had Muhammad prayed in any al-Aqşā mosque, his followers would have been constrained to pray there, but that was not the case. From this perspective, Muhammad’s ascension (Mi’rāj) was failed, as there was no mentioning he met Allah.
Tabari also states the significance of al-Aqşā as representing not Jerusalem but the edge of the world, the farthermost point in the world. It may refer to “the highest heaven,” reflecting Muhammad’s aspiration to encompass the entire world. Ibn Hishām, states that Muhammad had other night visions which were not inserted to the Qur’an. The Meccans mocked at Muhammad of his night visions, in which he was deeply insulted. According to Ibn Ḥanbal, Muhammad did not erect any Mosque, and these are Jewish traditions called Isrā’īlīyāt.
Muslim exegetes refute this by claiming there is nothing in the Qur’an to indicate that al-Aqşā verse stands for a site in heaven. Rather, it seems to mean that the site is situated at the farthest end of the terrestrial course of the night journey. This verb occurs five more times in the Qur’an, all of which in passages describing biblical history. Three of them describe the nocturnal exodus of Moses with the Children of Israel from Egypt, and in the other two places the verb describes the nocturne flight of Lot with his family from his city. Thus accordingly, the Qur’anic al-Masjid al-Aqşā was identified as Medina.
4) A good summing up of the issue, is Muhammad Ibn-Ishāq (704-761), Muhammad’s most important biographer. He stated there are additional testimonies of Muhammad’s nocturnal journeys that were carried out while he was sleeping and were not included in the Qur’an. These journeys did not include visits to other places (such as Damascus, for example) apart from Mecca. As for this specific journey, he cites the testimony given by ‘Aisha, Muhammad’s beloved wife, who related to the issue of Isrā’ and Mi’rāj by declaring that Muhammad’s body was lying beside her throughout that entire night, but his spirit was taken by Allah and hovered in the heavens.
5) There is also a contemporary explanation introduced by the Egyptian researcher Ahmad Muhammad ‘Arafa (2003) through the medium of the Egyptian Ministry of Cultural Publications. He suggests that Muhammad’s night journey related to 17:1 refers to the Hijrah of the prophet from Mecca to Medina. The journey was not to Jerusalem but to Medina. The word Isrā’ in Arabic that appears in the Qur’an means “to move secretly from a dangerous location to a safe place.” In that way the prophet obeyed the instructions of Allah to the effect that Mecca was dangerous, his enemies were plotting to kill him, and he was to escape secretly at night to Medina. Muhammad’s praise for Allah in the Sūrah, demonstrates the importance of the event for Muhammad’s life and career.
Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds
The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.
It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.
The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.
Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.
Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.
Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.
There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.
The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.
This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.
The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.
Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga
The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.
Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.
Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.
By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.
The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.
Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.
This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.
The Central Asia factor
These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.
Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.
Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).
The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.
“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.
All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.
As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.
Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.
Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.
This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.
Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.
In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.
Restoring balance with the West
Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.
Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.
This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.
However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.
From our partner RIAC
The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?
Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.
The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.
The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.
The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.
The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.
The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.
“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.
While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”
The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.
The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.
The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.
The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.
“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.
The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.
Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.
In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.
By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.
“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.
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