World

As Turkey Invades Northeast Syria, Christians There Are on the Brink

A convoy of Turkish military vehicles in Tal Abyad, Syria, October 23, 2019. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)
America, Russia, and the Syrian government are standing down. The Armenian genocide of last century turns out to be only the beginning.

After decades of stalling because of objections from Turkey, the U.S. House has recognized the genocide of the Armenian Christian population of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In the resolution’s text, other Christian populations are referenced who were targeted in the genocide: Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans, and Maronites. Each is a unique community with a unique history. Even as the ink is drying on the resolution, one of those communities, in northeast Syria, faces a familiar existential threat, again.

Despite an alleged ceasefire between the United States and Turkey and, separately, between Turkey and Russia, the Turkish onslaught in Syria continues.

Turkish-backed forces are moving into a string of villages, along the Khabur River, that provided refuge for Assyrian Christians who fled Turkey over a hundred years ago. Their descendants are at risk of disappearing. The Syriac Assyrian Military Council, made up of local Christians, has successfully defended the area from the latest incursion, but how long will that last without support from putative allies? Before 2011, the Assyrian population of the Khabur was spread over more than thirty villages stretching from just south of the city of Ras al-Ayn to Hasakah, the provincial capital. In the center of the villages, the population of Tel Tamr was mostly Kurdish and Arab but with a significant Assyrian minority.

The Assyrians of the Khabur are almost exclusively members of the Assyrian Church of the East, which has a fascinating history, largely unknown in the West. They are descendants of the Christians of the Persian empire, dating back to the earliest days of the church. When thinking of Christianity’s origins, we tend to stress the Roman empire and its political climate. While the faith was being disseminated across the Mediterranean of antiquity, however, it was also spreading throughout the territory of one of Rome’s main rivals, the Persian empire to the east. The Christian community there largely spoke Aramaic/Syriac and used it as their liturgical language. Their particular dialect of Jesus’s native tongue is still spoken today in these villages along the Khabur River. In a week’s time, it may not be.

In a.d. 424, the Christians of the Persian empire broke from the rest of the Church, forming the Church of the East. They sent missionaries eastward, and today the world’s largest concentration of Christians of the Syriac tradition live in southern India. Bilingual inscriptions in Syriac and Chinese date to the Middle Ages. The traditional Mongolian script, an adaptation of the Syriac alphabet, is a fruit of a Christian missionary effort that has received scant attention here in the West.

The Mongolian invasions of the Middle East in the 13th century were particularly damaging to the Christian communities that had survived centuries of Islamic rule. The communities shrank. By World War I, Assyrian Christians were concentrated largely in southeast Turkey and parts of Iraq. In 1915, the collapsing Ottoman empire, having decided that the territory that would become Turkey should be rid it of its Christian population, began to pave the way for an ethnic Turkish state, in an area that was once confoundingly diverse. Turkey’s ongoing oppression of its Kurdish population is an attempt to finish what it started when it eliminated the country’s Christians.

After the genocide, which claimed upward of 2 million lives in the various targeted communities, Christians fled. Many ended up in the United States. Assyrians fled largely to Iraq, but they soon encountered problems there as well. Although some fought for the British army that was then occupying the country, Britain did not support their dream of an independent Assyrian state. After a massacre of Assyrians in Simele in northern Iraq in 1933, many crossed the Tigris to French-controlled Syria, where they were settled along the Khabur River. There the community has lived since, preserving their dialect of Aramaic.

Assyrian Christians in Syria are a minority within a minority. Most Christians in Syria, who were less than 10 percent of the country’s population before the current war, are ethnically Arab. Even the Syriac community (cousins to Assyrians) in northeast Syria has a larger population. The approximately 15,000 Assyrians living along the Khabur River before 2011 were one of the largest remaining concentrations of Assyrians in the world.

On February 23, 2015, after nearly a century of stability for the Assyrians, ISIS fighters swept down from the Abdul Aziz mountains to the southwest, seized control of about half of the Assyrian villages in the area, and kidnapped about 250 residents. Three were killed on video, to send a message that the community had better pay, which they did after raising money from Assyrians worldwide. The hostages were returned except for one girl. Residents think that an ISIS emir took a liking to her and kept her for his own. Her fate is still unknown. In villages under their control, ISIS deliberately destroyed churches and on homes and businesses painted graffiti extolling the Islamic State.

ISIS held the southwest bank of the Khabur River for about three months before being pushed back by the Kurdish YPG (People’s Defense Units) and local Christian factions. The YPG and these Christian factions eventually joined to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by American airpower. Between the kidnapping, the fighting, and the ISIS threats, most Assyrians fled. Assistance to the Assyrians of the Khabur came primarily in the form of visas, to nations including Australia, Sweden, Germany, and the United States. By 2019, only about 700 or 800 people remained scattered throughout the villages. Those who did remain were determined to rebuild and continue. After four years of relative stability, some Assyrians had already returned, at least part-time, to plant and harvest their wheat and barley crops irrigated from the Khabur.

Over the past few days, Turkish-backed militants have begun to encroach on the Assyrian villages of the Khabur. Residents there see history repeating itself. Videos continue to emerge of Turkish-backed Islamists committing atrocities against civilians elsewhere. Christians fled the cities of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn as Turkey’s proxies stormed in shouting Allahu akbar, backed by Turkey’s military might. In Tel Abyad, militants filmed a scene inside the town’s church, saying that it had been desecrated while it was under Kurdish YPG control the past several years. Turkey’s proxies allege that the YPG displayed there a picture of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is based in Turkey and Iraq. I find that claim to be highly implausible, having visited about a dozen churches in northeastern Syria over the past year, often unannounced. In all probability, after Armenian Christians evacuated the town in anticipation of the fighting, Turkish-backed militias desecrated the church and then filmed it to blame their enemies. Since 2011 the Christian community in Syria’s northeast has been divided between those who stuck with the government and those who backed the Kurdish-led SDF, but all are united in their opposition to the Turkish invasion and their fear of the jihadist Syrian groups that Turkey has used as proxies in the conflict.

Given the history of the past hundred years, it is understandable that the Christians of northeastern Syria refuse to live under Turkish rule. In early 2018, Turkey took over the largely Kurdish area of Afrin in northwestern Syria. A community of former Muslims who had converted to Evangelical Christianity fled to Kobani, a city on Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Turkish-backed militias desecrated Yazidi religious sites and looted archaeological sites — most recently, a historic Maronite church.

There is no reason to think that Turkey’s proxies will act differently in the northeast, where they are now encroaching on the Assyrian villages of the Khabur. Recognition of a genocide a century ago is important but will do nothing to prevent the current onslaught, which could bring the Assyrian community of the Khabur to an end altogether. American troops were preventing such an outcome until they pulled away from the border and allowed Turkey in. The Syrian government and Russia said they would stop the Turks, but the Turks continue to advance. Christians have already left Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. The Khabur could be next. After that, thousands of other Christians as well as Kurds, Yazidis and others throughout northeast Syria face the threat of violence and destruction, unless Turkey is stopped.

Sam Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East.

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