What a US Troop Pullout Means for Syria’s Christians

NEWS ANALYSIS: U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide accused the president of quitting the fight to vanquish ISIS before it had been won.

A Syrian girl walks in the mud near makeshift shelters following heavy rains, at a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in Syria's mostly rebel-held northern Idlib province Jan. 8.
A Syrian girl walks in the mud near makeshift shelters following heavy rains, at a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in Syria's mostly rebel-held northern Idlib province Jan. 8. (photo: AAREF WATAD/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump recently announced plans for a rapid U.S. troop pullout from Syria, the news ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill and prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide accused the president of quitting the fight to vanquish ISIS before it had been won, and betraying Syrian Kurds, a stalwart U.S. ally that would be left unprotected. And the White House was forced to extend the time frame for the drawdown of 2,000 U.S. troops to four-six months.

On Jan. 6, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CBS’ Face the Nation that Trump was “re-evaluating his policies in light of … three objectives: Don’t let Iran get the oil fields, don’t let the Turks slaughter the Kurds, and don’t let ISIS come back.”

But what has yet to provoke an equal level of concern is the likely impact of the pullout for Syria’s embattled Christian community, whose numbers have dwindled amid seven years of civil war.

The vast majority of Christians in Syria live in the government-held cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, and thus are expected to be relatively unaffected by the departure of U.S. troops from northeast Syria — territory controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish coalition. But there are also conflicting estimates on the number of Christians in this area, so troubling questions persist about the consequences of Trump’s decision.

Nina Shea, a leading advocate for persecuted Christians and the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., told the Register that she was very worried about the likely impact of Trump’s pivot on Syria.

“Trump has said the U.S. shouldn’t be the policeman of the world, but we do have interests in the region that need to be considered, including the protection of Christians, and the Kurds, who were faithful allies in the fight against ISIS,” said Shea.


Complex Dynamics

The U.S. bishops have yet to issue a formal response to Trump’s plan. However, a well-placed U.S. source, with ties to the White House and Catholic aid groups in the Middle East, suggested that advocates for persecuted Christians were “split” on this question.

Some downplayed the fallout from a U.S. troop drawdown, arguing that American forces were relatively small in number and far from “Christian areas,” said the source, who spoke off the record because of the sensitivity of the issue and the need to minimize friction between Christian institutions and the Assad government.

At the same time, he emphasized that the “optics” would be much more troubling if the White House had announced a troop drawdown in Iraq, where the U.S.-backed Kurds still provide significant security for many Christian families.

“If the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, it would hand the keys of Nineveh” to anti-Christian forces, said the source, referencing the Nineveh region of Iraq that is an ancestral Christian homeland.

“But the president hasn’t done that: He went to Iraq in December and said, ‘We aren’t leaving.’”

Indeed, U.S. religious-freedom advocates are still celebrating the landmark passage of H.R. 390, the bipartisan U.S. aid package signed into law last month that will benefit Iraqi Christian and Yazidi communities threatened with genocide by the Islamic State group (ISIS).

Yet even as there are hopeful signs of progress for Iraqi Christians, the conflict in Syria grinds on, with major global powers — Turkey, Iran and Russia — jockeying for position. This complex dynamic makes it even harder to predict what will happen next.

In 2011, Syria was engulfed in a brutal civil war that pitted the iron-fisted Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad against rebel forces inspired by the “Arab Spring” and later backed by Washington. When ISIS exploded onto the scene in 2014, Washington and its coalition partners began a campaign of airstrikes against the terrorist organization, and the U.S. footprint in Syria grew to 2,000 soldiers by 2017.


Trump’s Course Change

Trump finally signaled a change of course in late December.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” tweeted the president.

The decision reportedly followed a conversation between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who views Syrian Kurdish fighters as a terrorist  force working to destabilize his country. Erdogan immediately vowed to begin an assault on the Kurds, a pledge that raised the stakes for the policy debate that continued into 2019.

Yet only a handful of experts have grappled with matters of particular concern for Christians, like the benefits they have reportedly received under the system of governance worked out by Kurdish, Arab and Syrian Christian militias serving in the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast part of the country.

There, the SDF has forged a social contract that largely respects the religious freedom and identity of Christians, and the Kurds’ supporters claim that this work will be endangered if the U.S. leaves and Turkish forces consequently are emboldened to launch an attack.

The Syrian Kurds “have governed a population of about 2 million people with a degree of respect for religious freedom, gender equality and minority rights unknown in that part of the world,” said French philosopher and human-rights advocate Bernard-Henri Lévy and co-author Thomas S. Kaplan in an opinion column for The Washington Post.

Amy Austin Holmes, an associate professor at The American University in Cairo and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, went even further, arguing in a column for The Hill that the pullout posed an explicit threat to the survival of  an estimated 100,000 Christians in northwest Syria.

In an email exchange with the Register, Holmes cited Bassam Ishak, the president of the Syriac National Council of Syria and a diplomatic representative of the Syrian Democratic Council in the United States, as the source for her estimate of Christians living in northeastern Syria. In a statement released Dec. 25, Ishak also noted that Christians in this part of the country had “freely celebrated Christmas.”

“If Turkey invades, our churches and our people will be gone,” he warned.

The White House appears to have heeded his concerns, with a nudge from U.S. lawmakers.

On Jan. 6, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, told reporters that the  pullout would not begin until  Washington received sufficient assurance that Turkey would not strike Kurdish forces in Syria.


Displaced Christians

Meanwhile, it is difficult to independently verify Ishak’s official numbers for Christians in SDF-held territory, given that tens of thousands of Syrian Christians have been displaced internally or forced into exile during the civil war.

Joop Koopman, a spokesman for Aid to the Church in Need, said that the agency’s sources placed the number of Christians in the area at about 30,000, with “120,000 Christian families registered in Syrian churches” across the country.

“Previously, Christians made up 5.2% of Syria’s population of 22 million,” said Koopman. “Today, the overall population has dropped to 18.2 million, and 3% are Christians.”

And though he could not provide a detailed portrait of Christian communities in the northeast, he noted that  Archbishop Jacques Behnam Hindo of Al Hasakah-Nisibi, a prelate in the area, had recently attacked the Kurdish-majority local government for instituting policies that led in the closure of several church schools.

At the same time, Koopman emphasized that his agency “did not have an official position” on the U.S. troop drawdown.

“Our main objective is to create conditions that will allow Christians to stay and flourish in the Middle East,” he said, shifting the subject to express strong satisfaction at the passage of the U.S. aid package that is helping underserved religious minorities in Iraq rebuild their ancestral communities.

And will these vital funds reach Christian communities in Syria as well as Iraq?

“For the moment,” he said, “this new aid pipeline does not apply to Syria.”

It was a further reminder that Washington has adopted separate policies for Iraq and for Syria and that U.S. advocates for persecuted Christians must double down on their campaign to keep hope alive across the Middle East.

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.