Raqqa, Syria — The soldiers of the Syriac Military Council sit on a rug in an abandoned home in the urban wreckage of the caliphate’s capital, perhaps 200 yards from ISIS, drinking tea and chain-smoking. The predominantly Christian unit is a small but symbolically important part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have encircled ISIS and are slowly closing in.
The Syriac officers point out that those who’ve joined their ranks — including Muslims, both Arabs and Kurds, foreigners, and other Christians — are a symbol of the Syria for which they are fighting: a federated Syria, an alternative to Baathism and Islamism. “For the first time in our history, we are fighting for each other,” says one Syriac commander. A few moments later, a Muslim soldier in the Syriac unit enters the room, unfurls a prayer rug, kneels toward Mecca in the south, and prays. He then rises and sits beside the interpreter, and a lengthy debate about the interpreter’s unruly hair ensues. Their tension-relieving banter doesn’t even pause for the small-arms fire and artillery outside; they take no notice.
The Syriac officer points to the interpreter, Ibrahim, as another example of their diversity. Ibrahim, like the late caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is originally from Iraq. Ibrahim is a convert to Christianity, but he was born into one of the last Jewish families of Baghdad — a community that numbered well over 100,000 in 1948. His ancestors arrived in Mesopotamia 26 centuries ago, when thousands of Jerusalem’s citizens were taken into captivity in Babylon, modern-day Iraq. The Psalms recall the heartbreak of that exile: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept.”
One of the last exiles of that captivity, Ibrahim, sits with his comrades, Muslim and Christian, in Raqqa, near the shores of the Euphrates, waiting for an order to attack that could be hours or months away. Linear time, like reason, is often elusive in the Middle East. And though there is much to lament, there are no tears. Millions of young people like these will never again see anything resembling the world into which they were born; they’ve instead grown accustomed to the destruction of places like Raqqa. For Ibrahim, the only constant is exile. Like his ancestors, sojourners for most of their history, he must adapt to his surroundings to survive.
The presence of Jews in the Arab world is often as much a revelation to Americans as is the presence of Christians. Until recent decades, Jews and Christians were vital cultural components of the Middle East mosaic. The decline of both communities has coincided with the rise of extremism and the reduction of much of the Middle East to rubble. An Iraqi priest, tending to Christians displaced by the ISIS conquest of the Nineveh Plain, put it succinctly two years ago: “Before us, they attacked the Jews.” The priest was from the same Baghdad neighborhood as Ibrahim. There, Jews and Christians lived together, as urban minorities often do. The priest’s sentiment is similar to one heard from secular-minded Muslims throughout the region: “If the Christians are driven out, we will be next.”
The exodus of more than half a million Arab Jews began in 1948, most often the result of government coercion or mob violence, though in a few instances it was voluntary. Like their coreligionists in Europe, who had regarded themselves as Germans, Hungarians, and Poles, Arab Jews were thoroughly woven into their communities in such places as Tripoli, Sanaa, and Baghdad. Their sudden persecution was a response to the establishment of the Israeli state, and in fact the number of Arab Jews displaced after 1948 is roughly equivalent to that of Palestinians displaced by the establishment of Israel. It should be noted, however, that the past 70 years have been the aberration: Jews have traditionally been safer in the Middle East and North Africa than in Europe, even before the last century. In Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon, and other countries across the region, small Jewish communities survive. But too much of the Arab world looks like Libya, where no Jews are known to remain; the small Christian community there is of course a target. The Jews of Syria are thought to be fewer than 20; in Iraq, fewer than ten. Many Christians of the Middle East now tread the same path, toward exile and extinction.
An Iraqi priest, tending to Christians displaced by the ISIS conquest of the Nineveh Plain, put it succinctly two years ago: ‘Before us, they attacked the Jews.’
The Christians of Iraq and Syria, roughly 3 million just before 2003, are perhaps a third so numerous today. The ethno-cultural diversity that once made Aleppo, Alexandria, and Baghdad, for example, popular tourist destinations has all but disappeared. The high culture of the Eastern Mediterranean that for centuries had been a moderating influence throughout the region — where the Arab world met Athens, Rome, and even Jerusalem — is all but gone. That higher culture has been replaced by the primitive, violent, and regressive culture of the Gulf Arabs, whose Wahhabi ideology has set the entire Middle East back centuries, if not millennia.
The conflict in the Middle East is not principally between Sunni and Shia, or between the Middle East and the West; and despite conventional thinking among many Westerners, it has little today to do with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The struggle is simply between civilization and savagery — and those manning the ramparts for the former are increasingly few in the Middle East. The great powers of the past, both European and Middle Eastern, understood that the minorities of the region were essential to the stability of the polities they ruled. In their public culture, even the Ottoman Turks, who later carried out ethno-religious genocide, once valued Jews and strategically placed Christians in Muslim communities to assuage sectarian tensions. That age is long gone. America, for its part, has pursued unsuccessful policies to placate enemies while hastening the decline of regional minorities, everywhere failing to apprehend its true allies and interests. Northern Syria will be America’s next test.
The Christians of Syria, like millions of Christians in the region, have historically been a contingent people, throwing themselves at the mercy of the sovereign. The Syriac Christians of the SDF seem different. Though numerically small, they offer perhaps the best hope for pluralism in Syria. Unlike the Free Syrian Army — a collection of thugs and Islamists, whom the last American administration armed in an act of consummate imprudence — the SDF appears to be genuinely moderate, the Syriac unit especially so. The Christian commanders speak of the need for reconciliation with Sunni Arabs, amnesties for ISIS conscripts, and building federated governance structures once ISIS is defeated. Time will tell whether this coalition will survive in the months ahead. Both Assad and Turkey’s Erdogan will watch northern Syria closely — and America’s commitment there.
Ibrahim and the Christians fighting in Syria are at the mercy of forces beyond their control, like so many minorities and exiles before them. Civilizations and empires have risen and fallen over the centuries across the Middle East; in the short lifetimes of these men, states have disintegrated and caliphates arisen. But it may be for precisely this reason that they believe something new may be forged from the dust and ash of the caliphate.