Al Hasakah Province, Syria
The Christian soldier extends his hand and greets me in Syriac with “shlomo” (peace) as he clutches the strap of the Kalashnikov draped over his shoulder with his other hand. His diplomatic bearing is in sharp contrast with both his combat fatigues and the austere headquarters of the Syriac Military Council, a Christian militia formed in 2013 that fights alongside the Kurds in northeastern Syria. David, a man in his early 30s, has been summoned to translate for the local military commander, to whom he defers with the humility of a natural soldier. That he is more than a mere soldier or translator is self-evident. Here is a man who has sacrificed much to stand with his fellow Christians in their hour of need — he is their khoura, or brother, as the soldiers call one another in Syriac. “We are not afraid,” he says.
Of the millions of diaspora Middle Eastern Christians in Europe, Australia, and the Americas, few have followed in David’s footsteps back to their ancestral homeland. However, in the two years since he returned to Syria, thousands of Sunni Muslim youths from across Europe have flocked there to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, many of them joining the ranks of Islamist extremist groups. “We defend ourselves against Islamists and Assad,” David says. “Here we are like sheep among the wolves.”
#ad#David explains the military situation and its broader implications as we sip Turkish coffee, its cardamom particularly acerbic. The fighting against al-Qaeda and its affiliates has been tense in recent days, especially in Tal Hamis, Qamishli, and the city of Hasakah. David translates for the commander, a grim but gregarious fellow, whose youthful countenance is contrasted by graying hair — not the only soldier whose hair has grayed prematurely. He pulls out his iPhone to show me photos of a church destroyed by al-Nusra and uses Google Earth to show me detailed mapping of battlefields — somewhat ironic in the midst of the routine power outages that last for hours at a time. “We are fighting to protect our people,” says the commander. “We survived the Ottomans. We will survive Qaeda, ISIS, and Nusra.”
The commander speaks of the battle of Tal Hamis, where he says ISIS ambushed a truck full of soldiers en route from Al Hasakah. “Some escaped. Some exploded themselves rather than be captured,” he explains, adding that they took many ISIS with them. “The regime says that they are retaking Tal Hamis, but these are lies. The regime is letting others do the fighting — the Kurds and the Syriac Military Council.” Attitudes toward the regime, while officially hostile, are in reality more complicated. In our quarters, once a hotel, there hangs a photograph of Bashar al-Assad with his wife and infant daughter. Yet among many “Syriani,” as the Christians are known in Syriac, the Assad government is regarded as oppressive. “The regime uses Christians as a card in his hand,” says one man, who likens the war to a film that the regime is watching from afar.
In early 2013, government forces largely withdrew from the area, giving the predominantly Kurdish Al Hasakah region quasi-autonomy. The principal enemy of late has been less the regime than the foreign extremists — al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and ISIS, a faction too extreme even for al-Qaeda. While these terrorist organizations have a seemingly endless supply of men and weapons and funds from the Arab Gulf states — a problem that antedated the Arab Spring — there is no such support for the Christians.
“People are dying from not getting enough medicine,” says Paul, a Christian who is affiliated with an international organization committed to nonviolence. “There are no doctors left. They all went to the U.S. and Europe,” he adds. “The hospitals are closed. The only border option is controlled by ISIS, who are targeting Christians.” Humanitarian shipments are often intercepted by Islamists at the Turkish border, where al-Nusra and others come and go freely. Even the military commander, who desperately needs weapons, says that humanitarian concerns are paramount for the people here. “We need medical supplies,” he says. Voicing frustration with aid from the U.S. and Europe in particular, he adds, “It doesn’t find its way to those who need it.”
Paul’s views toward nonviolence are representative of those of millions of Christians in the region. In Iraq some days before, a Christian had explained that it was not for prudential reasons that the Christians had refused to take up arms. “It is for their faith, I think,” he said. But some Christians have come to believe that only by taking up arms can they protect their people, now targeted by the Islamists. Yet even the Islamists are seen to have served Assad’s purposes.
The military commander claims that the government has maneuvered to assist the Islamists in Hasakah recently so as to maintain the precarious balance of enemies slaughtering one another, a rumor that has gained traction in recent weeks — and one consistent with the Byzantine machinations of the region. “Assad is afraid that united Kurds and Christians would mean a loss of control over this part of Syria,” he says. The alliance between Kurd and Christian is rooted not only in shared interest but also in common values.
“The Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” according to a local saying. The Christians, however, are natural allies, both here and in Iraq, separated by borders that are more a vestige of the colonial era than reflective of sociocultural and political reality — as if the nation-state paradigm exists to give Westerners some framework for comprehending the region, without which they would be lost. Like the Kurds, who have a distinct ethnicity and language, the less numerous Christians have no independent political status. Like the Kurds, they are secular in their politics and more progressive socially. And like the Kurds, the Christians have women serving in their militia. As is true elsewhere in the Middle East, non-state and quasi-state actors, such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, may command more power than nation-states; the emirs of tiny petrol fiefdoms may pour their funds into the bankrolling of Islamist combatants, while internationally recognized governing bodies are often thoroughly impotent.
#ad#In a few days, Paul would be leaving Hasakah to visit his fiancée in Aleppo. “Life in Aleppo is hard,” he said. “No food. No fuel. ISIS.” He tells the horror stories now commonly heard in Syria — of Sunni children made to kill by the Islamists, to cut the heads off their fellow Syrians, violence reminiscent of Cambodia’s killing fields. That week a man was said to have been beheaded by Islamists after they saw a crucifix around his neck.
The incomprehensible horrors visited upon other parts of northern Syria have been sufficient to prompt many Christians to take up arms. Others, like Paul, follow their consciences on a path of nonviolence. Among Syria’s Christians there is mutual respect and tolerance for diverse views, notions altogether foreign in places governed by al-Qaeda affiliates. It is against these terrorists that the Christians fight, alongside their Kurdish allies, though they are outnumbered, outgunned, and outspent by their Islamist foes. They are the remnant of an ancient community that once thrived here. Some, like David, have left behind the comforts of Europe to master weaponry — and a nearly dead language — to protect their people. “We are not afraid,” David said with gentle confidence. For every David, there are scores of Islamists. He and his brother and sister soldiers fight on, undeterred.
— Andrew Doran served on the executive secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State.