By Engy Magdy, Tablet Special
CAIRO – There does not appear to be an end in sight for the suffering of Christians in northern Syria, as Turkey and its allies in the region continue military escalation and bombing, prompting remaining Christians to flee and preventing others from returning to their homes and properties.
On October 13, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that his country “will do what is necessary for its security”. The comments have raised fears of further bombing since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged his Ankara-based regime is determined to eliminate “threats” from northern Syria.
Tensions between the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) on the one hand, and Turkish forces and Islamic factions backed by Ankara on the other , have resulted in a series of attacks since August. But Assyrian leaders in Syria and observers in Washington say the Turkish escalation targets Christians and other minorities.
âThe forced displacement of minorities in northern Syriaâ is certainly a priority for Turkey. There are methods used by Turkish-backed extremist groups to prevent the return of Christians and other residents northern Syria.
“These groups seized homes, land and other property from residents who fled almost two years ago when the Turkish army invaded the area in 2019,” Sanharib Barsoum, chairman of the Syriac Union Party. âThis is a systematic displacementâ¦ In the presence of these groups, nothing encourages the displaced to return to their homes.
âWe know about Turkey’s demographic change policy. This has already been done before in Afrin and other citiesâ¦ Now it is implemented in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain through [Turkeyâs] proxy groups, âBarsoum continued. “It is Erdogan’s policy of demographic change and Turkification of these areas as part of his larger plan to fully occupy northern Syria.”
Speaking to The Tablet about the situation in northern Syria, Nadine Maenza, chair of the United States Committee for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said: minorities in this region, but also in the Autonomous administration of northern and eastern Syria itself. USCIRF commended AANES for fostering positive conditions of religious freedom that allow Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others to openly practice their religion and even change religious identities.
âTurkey and groups allied, or supported by Turkey, have specifically targeted Christians and Kurds to change the demographics of northern Syria,â Maenza added. âIn September this year, members of the Christian community in Syria expressed concern over attacks on a predominantly Christian town, Tel Tamer, which targeted civilians. In July 2021, the US State Department announced sanctions against Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a group involved in looting the private property of civilians and preventing displaced Syrians from returning to their homes.
USCIRF applauded the US State Department’s decision, reiterating that the Turkish-backed group has banned citizens from returning home on the basis of religious and ethnic criteria and is directly complicit in “abuses against religious minorities and ethnic, including trafficking in Yazidi women and children. “
Before the 2011 civil war, there were over 130,000 Christians residing in northern Syria, a number that has been drastically 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 a Christian presence.
According to Barsoum, there were 100 families in the town of Ras al-Ain and 120 families in Tal Abyad before 2019, but all of these families have been moved to the towns of Qamishli and Hasaka, or other towns.
Thirty-five Assyrian Christian villages along the Al Khabur valley have become deserts. In 2015, ISIS took control of the villages of Al-Khabur and the Tal Tamer countryside, displacing the entire population of these villages. Some of the villagers returned and settled, some stayed in the surrounding towns and others migrated out of Syria.
According to USCIRF President Maenza, âThere 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, violate international law. Local rights groups and the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria support this view. It is astonishing that Turkey continues to target Syriac-Assyrian villages in Syria, forcing some of the last remaining residents who survived the ISIS genocide to flee.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and former member of the Turkish parliament, told The Tablet: âThe Erdogan government has been either negligent or complicit in crimes against humanity perpetrated by its proxies. Islamists in northern Syria. Many Islamist activists in Ankara’s pay previously served in violent jihadist groups during the early stages of the Syrian civil war. As reported by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, these proxies are responsible for hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, rape and looting, among other crimes.
YPG and PKK
The regime of Turkish President Erdogan aims to weaken the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG (Kurdish forces), which are allies of the United States and which helped defeat ISIS in Syria. Ankara considers the YPG as a branch of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers terrorists.
âIt is ridiculous that the Turkish government and military are using the past links between the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the US-designated terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as an excuse for these attacks. The United States maintains close relations with the AANES security forces, as part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, âMaenza said.
On October 7, US President Joe Biden issued a notice of continued national emergency regarding the situation and relations with Syria. He says Turkish government activity in northeastern 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 deals with Moscow and Washington in 2019, Turkey halted its offensive in northeastern 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 United States and Russia of breaking their promises.
Withdrawal of American forces
In an interview with CBS News last September, the Turkish president called on the United States to withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria. Observers have warned against withdrawing the 900 remaining US troops in Syria as it would lead to a risky power vacuum.
“The presence of US forces in northeastern Syria is the most important deterrent to prevent an attack not only from the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, but also from Erdogan’s Islamist proxies,” he said. said Erdemir.
âIn the event of an American withdrawal, the humanitarian tragedy that would ensue could correspond to that caused by the genocidal campaign of the Islamic State in the region. In addition, the power vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of US forces would also be exploited by Islamic State militants and Al Qaeda affiliates to regain ground and continue to persecute vulnerable minorities in the region, âwarned Erdemir.