Turkey’s Syria Offensive: A Christian Perspective
NEWS ANALYSIS: The Christian communities of northeastern Syria massively support the recently signed cease-fire deal, which calls for the Assad regime’s takeover of the whole area.
President Donald Trump’s unexpected decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria on Oct. 6, which enabled Turkish President Recep Erdogan to launch an offensive against the Kurdish YPG forces belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), aroused a worldwide wave of indignation.
Deserted suddenly by their U.S. and European allies, who made no move to fill the breach left by the U.S. departure, the Kurds had to withdraw from the territories they have seized during Syria’s protracted civil war, in virtue of the cease-fire deal signed by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and representatives of the Erdogan regime on Oct. 17. The subsequent Oct. 22 Russia-Turkey agreement, which granted Turkey and Russia de facto control of the Syria-Turkey border, seems to have definitively put an end to the Kurds’ dream of a political autonomy in the region.
Many voices were raised throughout the Western world to condemn what is considered a betrayal against a strategic ally in the face of the greater threat thought to be represented by President Erdogan, who makes no secret of his regional imperialist ambitions. Furthermore, the Kurdish troops’ fierce battle against jihadists since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011, with the support of the West, has earned them strong support ever since from Western news media reporting on the complex Syrian conflict, as well as from a number of Western governments.
But according to informed sources who spoke with the Register, the Syrian Kurdish forces are very different than they have generally been represented in pro-Kurdish accounts published by Western news media. Indeed, the Kurds’ heroism in the face of ISIS terrorists obscured the mistreatment they inflicted to the inhabitants of the territories they controlled over the past few years, especially the Christians, who have been continuously suffering the Kurds’ vexations and intimidations.
“The problem with the Kurds in Syria is that they are dominated by the PKK — everyone knows that it is a totalitarian party,” Fabrice Balanche, a French political geographer and leading expert on Syria who recently published the paper “Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War,” told the Register.
In fact, the PKK as a whole continues to be formally designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and by the European Union. But its Syrian branch, the PYD, is supported by those same Western countries.
An Outgrowth of PKK
Balanche was in the region during the Turkish offensive preceding the cease-fire and witnessed the deployment of the Syrian army. While acknowledging the fact that, partly because of the Western presence in the area, the PYD’s YPG militia definitely granted more freedom to local populations than did the Islamic State group (ISIS) when the Islamist terrorist organization also controlled territories there, Balanche denounces the massive media propaganda that contributed to strengthening and maintaining the romantic image surrounding these Kurdish fighters in the eyes of the international public.
“The various trips to which politicians were invited in the region could be likened to tourist visits in the Soviet Union,” he said. “They would show us all-female villages, a 25-year-old woman co-president of a municipality, rather than the 45-year-old PKK agent with a mustache, who really holds the power.”
According to him, there was duplicity on the part of the West, which has been using the Kurds against ISIS.
“We knew from the beginning the PKK was behind. We accepted the smoke screen because we needed them against the terrorists, as well as against Bashar al-Assad and Iran,” he said, considering that the West pretended to suddenly discover that the Kurdish fighters were affiliated to PKK when they no longer needed them.
According to a report published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Oct. 22, the Turkish military operation has caused the death of 275 SDF Kurdish fighters,196 among Syrian factions loyal to Ankara and pro-Turkey fighters, 10 Turkish soldiers and five members of the Syrian government’s forces. The conflict also killed 120 civilians and caused the displacement of more than 300,000 people.
“The attacks the Kurds have undergone this month is of unbridled violence; the Turkish army itself took part in real massacres in the region, which include various beheadings,” Alexandre Goodarzy, head of mission for the humanitarian association SOS Chrétiens d’Orient in northeastern Syria, told the Register.
According to Goodarzy, the Kurds badly miscalculated by linking their destiny to forces belonging to NATO, of which Turkey is also an important member.
“It is very sad because they are suffering a huge cruelty, worse than what they did to local populations in recent years, and they really fought like lions against ISIS in Kobanî; but at the same time, it must not be forgotten that they heavily contributed to the exodus of Christians in northern Syria,” he said.
The Jazira Region and more specifically Al-Hasakah Governorate, which are part of the territory occupied by the Kurds since 2012, used to be one of the main Christian bastions of Syria, as they represented 20%-30% of the regional population before the civil war. And while half of Syrian Christians are estimated to have left the country since 2011, the exodus is even greater here, amounting to more than three-quarters of the Christian population in Jazira.
And if the ISIS threat and the deleterious economic conditions were initial triggers for this hemorrhage, the persecutions Christians suffered on the part of the Kurds dramatically worsened it.
Since they established a de facto autonomous territory in the region in the thick of the war, the Kurds have been trying to officially create a homogeneous Syrian Kurdistan, which led them to turn against the Arabic-speaking citizens, especially Christians.
The subsequent threats and intimidations the Christians have been suffering since then have been regularly denounced by Church officials, such as Syriac-Catholic Archbishop Jacques Behnam Hindo, the archbishop emeritus of Hassakeh-Nisibis.
“The day I arrived in Jazira in 2015, as I was attending Mass, a man entered into the church crying, asking the priest to help him, as his son had just been kidnapped by the YPG Kurds and would be conscripted by force into their army if no ransom was paid,” Goodarzy told the Register.
In fact, inhabitants of Jazira who already performed their mandatory military service in Syria are now required to undertake another Kurdish military service in order to be able to stay in the region. This requirement is reportedly the cause of many departures from Christian communities. “The Kurds ask Christians to die for a Kurdistan, but the Christians don’t want that, because they have a strong sense of national belonging [to Syria],” Goodarzy said.
Schools have also been a principle means of coercion used by Kurdish authorities against Christians. The closing of several private Christian schools in 2018 — along with 100 public schools because of their refusal to apply new mandatory “Kurdishized” curricula — gave rise to a general outcry from local Christian leaders, which forced the Kurds to back down from closing the Christian schools.
Many Christians also found themselves dispossessed of their lands and agricultural equipment, which allowed them to earn a living.
If Christian authorities have been fearing an anti-Christian purge policy under the Kurds, it is also for historical reasons. Indeed, Kurdish hostility toward Christians is not recent. Kurdish sultan Saladin led the Siege of Jerusalem against the Crusaders in 1187. The Kurds, together with the Ottoman Empire, also actively took part in the 1915 Assyrian Genocide, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Christians. They then continued ethnic purges against the Christians during the 20th century in southeast Turkey, northern Iraq and Syria.
“The Christians haven’t forgotten; the Kurds’ attitude is less violent than it used to be in the past centuries, but it echoes it anyway,” Goodarzy told the Register, recalling that the Christians originally built all the small cities and villages located at the Syria-Turkey border.
“These Christians are the descendants of the genocide survivors, and they saw the descendants of their torturers come back in the region as nomads and fight over the lands they patiently cultivated; and the Kurds confiscated everything,” he said.
Support for Assad
Thus, although a small minority of Christians have been supporting the Kurdish political project — especially some Syriac Christians who consider themselves discriminated by the Syrian government, which doesn’t recognize Syriac as an official language — the vast majority of the Christians in northern Syria have remained loyal to the Damascus-based Assad regime.
“If you visit the office of Syriac-Orthodox archbishop of Hassakeh, Maurice Amseeh, you’ll find a portrait of Bashar al-Assad; it used to be the same in Archbishop Hindo’s office,” Balanche told the Register, adding that the bishops have impatiently awaited the Syrian army’s impending resumption of control over the region.
Contacted by the Register, Archbishop Amseeh confirmed these sentiments and expressed his satisfaction over Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria. In his opinion, the “sickness comes from outside the country, not from the inside,” and Syrian people should just be “reunited under one flag, the Syrian flag, like before 2011.”
Therefore, he concludes the Kurdish territorial claims go against the nation’s best interest. “I don’t support the fact that the Kurds create a government within the government, and no neighbor country needs a Kurdish country or government,” he said.
Christian loyalty toward the Syrian regime is explained by the fact that, before the war, it has always ensured protection for religious minorities in the country, allowing them to live in peace.
“Bashar al-Assad has always been defending our Christian communities,” Archbishop Amseeh said, noting that Syria’s parliament is currently headed by a Christian, Hammoudeh Sabbagh. “People flee Syria because they are scared about war, for their children, but no one is scared about the government; and if our communities have been resisting until now, it is because they are all under the government’s umbrella,” he said.
Syrian President al-Assad happens to be the big winner of the Turkish’s military operation and the cease-fire deal on a local point of view, as he is about to regain control of no less than one-third of Syria without having led any military operation.
Thus, with the prospect of a full reconquest of Syrian territories by the Damascus regime, Christians in northern Syria hope they can fully regain their rights and restore commercial links with Damascus and Aleppo. But it will be a difficult process, as so many of them have left already and may not be so eager to come back, as the future remains uncertain. “If ISIS provoked Syrian Christians’ exodus through terror,” Goodarzy said, “the Kurds consolidated it through the looting of their properties.”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.