By Engy Magdy, Special to the Tablet
CAIRO — There appears to be no end in sight for the suffering of Christians in North Syria, as Turkey and its allies in the region continue military escalation and bombardment, pushing remaining Christians to flee and preventing others from returning to their homes and properties.
On Oct. 13, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country would “do what is necessary for its security.” Those comments raised fears of more shelling since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that his Ankara-based regime is determined to eliminate “threats” originating in North Syria.
Tension between the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) on one hand, and the Turkish forces and Islamic factions backed by Ankara on the other, resulted in a spate of attacks since August. But the Assyrian leaders in Syria and observers in Washington say Turkish escalation is targeting Christians and other minorities.
“Forced displacement of minorities in northern Syria” is certainly a priority for Turkey. There are methods used by Turkish-backed extremist groups to prevent the return of Christians and other residents to northern Syria.
“These groups have seized homes, land, and other property of residents who fled nearly two years ago when the Turkish military invaded the region in 2019,” Sanharib Barsoum, president of the Syriac Union Party, told The Tablet. “This is a systematic displacement … In the presence of these groups, nothing encourages the displaced people to return to their homes.”
“We know Turkey’s policy of demographic change. It has already been done before in Afrin and other cities … Now it is being implemented in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain through [Turkey’s] proxy groups,” Barsoum continued. “This is Erdogan’s policy of demographic change and Turkification of these areas as part of his larger project for the complete occupation of northern Syria.”
Speaking to The Tablet about the situation in North Syria, Nadine Maenza, chair of the United States Committee for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said: “The Turkish occupation of territory across northern Syria remains a serious threat — not only to the vulnerable religious minorities of that area, but also to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria itself. USCIRF has praised AANES for fostering positive religious freedom conditions that allow Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and others to openly practice their religions and even change religious identities.”
“Turkey and allied, or Turkish-backed, groups have specifically targeted Christians and Kurds to change the demographics of northern Syria,” Maenza added. “In September of this year, members of Syria’s Christian community expressed concern over attacks on a Christian-majority town, Tel Tamer, which targeted civilians. In July 2021, the U.S. State Department announced sanctions against Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a group involved in looting private property from civilians and barring displaced Syrians from returning to their homes.”
USCIRF has applauded the U.S. State Department’s decision, reiterating that the Turkish-backed group has barred citizens from returning home based on religious and ethnic lines and is directly complicit in “abuses against religious and ethnic minorities, including the trafficking of Yazidi women and children.”
Before the civil war of 2011, there were more than 130,000 Christians residing in North Syria, a number that has been dramatically reduced to hundreds or a few thousand people. Some villages are controlled by Turkish-backed extremist groups, such as Jaysh al-Islam and the Hamza Division of the Syrian National Army militia, and Division 20. They have all become devoid of Christian presence.
According to Barsoum, there were 100 families in the city of Ras al-Ain and 120 families in Tal Abyad before 2019, but all these families were displaced to the cities of Qamishli and Hasaka, or other cities.
Thirty-five Assyrian Christian villages along Al Khabour Valley have become deserted. In 2015, ISIS took control of the villages in Al-Khabur and the countryside of Tal Tamer, displacing the entire population of these villages. Some of the villagers returned and settled, some stayed in the surrounding towns, and others migrated outside Syria.
According to USCIRF chair Maenza, “there is overwhelming evidence that Turkey’s discriminatory policies towards religious minorities [and] Christians in northern Syria, including the deliberate targeting and forced displacement of religious and ethnic populations, violates international law. Both local rights groups and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria back this view. It is stunning that Turkey continues to target Syriac-Assyrian villages in Syria, forcing some of the last remaining residents who survived genocide from ISIS to flee.”
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, told The Tablet: “The Erdogan government has been either negligent or complicit in the crimes against humanity perpetrated by its Islamist proxies in northern Syria. Many of the Islamist militants who are on Ankara’s payroll have a history of serving under violent jihadist groups during the earlier phases of the Syrian civil war. As the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported, these proxies have been responsible for hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, rape, and pillaging, among other crimes.”
YPG and PKK
Turkish President Erdogan’s regime aims to weaken the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include the YPG (Kurdish forces), who are U.S allies and who helped defeat ISIS in Syria. Ankara views the YPG as a branch of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey regards as terrorists.
“It is ridiculous that the Turkish government and military are using the past ties between the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the U.S.-designated terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as an excuse for these attacks. The U.S. has a strong relationship with the AANES security force, as part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” Maenza said.
On Oct. 7, U.S. President Joe Biden issued a Notice of the Continuation of National Emergency in respect to the situation in and relations to Syria. It says activity by the government of Turkey in northeast Syria “undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region, and continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
In separate agreements with Moscow and Washington in 2019, Turkey halted its offensive in northeast Syria in exchange for the withdrawal of YPG militants 30 kilometers south of its border. But Turkey has since repeatedly complained of violations and accused both the U.S. and Russia of not keeping their promises.
Withdrawal of U.S. Forces
In an interview with CBS News last September, the Turkish president called on the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Northeast Syria. Observers warned against pulling out the 900 U.S. troops who remain in Syria, as it would result in a risky power vacuum.
“The presence of U.S. forces in northeast Syria is the most important deterrent preventing an attack not only by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, but also by Erdogan’s Islamist proxies,” Erdemir said.
“In the event of a U.S. withdrawal, the ensuing humanitarian tragedy could match the one caused during the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign in the region. Furthermore, the power vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of U.S. forces would also be exploited by Islamic State militants and al-Qaeda affiliates to regain ground and continue to persecute the region’s vulnerable minorities” Erdemir warned.