Original op-ed by RIC’s Thomas McClure, Providence, 26 October 2020
Extremists are slowly extinguishing of some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, while the world remains largely silent.
The Syrian regime first repressed religious and ethnic minorities’ culture, and then genocidal attacks targeted these groups—most famously ISIS’ genocide against the Yezidis in Sinjar, but also kidnappings, slaughter, and forcible conversions that Turkish-controlled proxy militias now conduct against Christians and Yezidis in Syria. Across Iraq and Syria, ancient Assyrian, Syriac, and Armenian Christian populations once numbering in the millions are dwindling to a fraction of their former number.
At the same time, the Kurds of North and East Syria (NES) have won global support for their struggle against ISIS, and are implementing bold new forms of democracy and women’s rights. The Kurds’ new political project has provided space for Kurds, Arabs, Christians, and Yezidis to struggle together for a new, secular, democratic society, creating a tentative roadmap for peaceful coexistence in the Middle East. Whoever is president next year must take a number of steps to preserve and protect these vulnerable minorities.
Turkey almost never allows independent journalists, rights monitors, or humanitarian observers into the regions it occupies, and it violently crushes civilian journalism and activism within these areas. The White House should insist that Turkey allows an independent fact-finding mission including UN observers as well as independent journalists to enter Turkish-occupied regions and conduct a thorough assessment of the rights violations being conducted against Christians and Yazidis there. Christian faith leaders from the US as well as representatives of the Yazidi diaspora should accompany this delegation.
The delegation would witness what the UN has comprehensively documented: atrocities including systematic rape, kidnapping, extortion, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, Arabization of the population, and socio-political Turkification, conducted by primarily Sunni Arab militias on the Turkish payroll, often using the language of jihad to justify their actions.
These violations particularly affect Christian and Yezidi minorities—with perpetrators forcibly converting some Yezidis to Islam or killing them if they refuse, desecrating religious sites and churches, and abducting and detaining Yezidi women in black sites run by jihadist groups. Virtually all Christians and Yezidis have been forcibly displaced.
The fact-finding mission should make a parallel visit to border regions still defended by the United States’ military partners in the struggle against ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It should conduct a comparative assessment of the situation for minorities in these regions.
The situation here could not be more different. The withdrawal of the Assad regime in 2011 and subsequent victories against ISIS and al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra led to the declaration of autonomy in the Kurdish-majority regions popularly known as “Rojava.”
The new political movement in NES doesn’t seek a nation-state of its own, but a decentralized political system that embraces the cultural and political rights of all people. This fact, coupled with subsequent victories against ISIS in Arab-majority cities like Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor, led to the creation of what is now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), with the region ceasing to use the Kurdish word “Rojava” as a gesture of ethnic inclusion.
Per Berivan Khaled, co-president of the AANES Executive Council, “leaving behind suspicions fueled by centuries of ethnic conflicts and including diversity was one of the objectives with which the AANES was [founded].” AANES promotes coexistence in a “democratic nation,” wherein all different religious and ethnic groups must have space to organize and be represented at all levels of decision-making, but without receiving privileged status. As such, along with Arabs, Kurds, and other ethnic minorities, NES’ Christians and Yezidis are guaranteed proportional political representation from local “communes” right up to the highest political offices.
Special laws protect the property of Christians who fled as ISIS and Turkey advanced. Kurdish and Syriac have become official languages alongside Arabic, allowing hundreds of thousands of pupils to study their own language for the first time. Religious leaders teach a new form of “democratic Islam,” reaching conservative Sunni Muslim communities still under the influence of ISIS’ ideology and encouraging them to adopt a more secular and tolerant approach.
Meanwhile, the AANES is encouraging religious and ethnic minorities to set up their own political, civil, and military bodies, both as part of SDF and AANES and independently, to lobby for minority rights. These range from all-female Christian fighting units to the Mala Yezidi (“Yezidi House”), which helps rescue and rehabilitate Yezidi women and children kidnapped by ISIS.
Establishing a new political consensus amid a bloody civil war has not been without its difficulties. In particular, some members of the Christian community have disagreed with the AANES’ introduction of a new, secular education program and the use of land left vacant as people fled ISIS’ advance. However, thanks in part to strong community lobbying by Christian civil-society organizations, both of these issues have been resolved through dialog to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
As such, the US should offer support to minority organizations within NES—both those linked to the AANES and civil-society organizations, such as the new Armenian Council, that align themselves as independents. Strengthening these organizations will enable them to play an advocacy role both internationally and as a check and balance against AANES.
Concretely, this support could constitute financial support for civil society and humanitarian programs, invitations to speak before international forums such as the UN, and—most importantly—invitations to participate in formal discussions over the future of Syria as official representatives of the Christian and Yezidi communities.
Turkey’s proxy militias are an army of mercenaries, conducting atrocities against Kurds, Christians, and Yezidis to achieve Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s goals of territorial expansion, threatening jihad as Turkey ships them to Armenia to assault another ancient Christian community there. Successive Turkish invasions have resulted in the forcible imposition of an often-radical interpretation of Sunni Islam in regions previously noted for their longstanding religious diversity and newfound culture of secularism and tolerance under the AANES. A democratic, secular opposition does remain in Syria, and indeed controls a third of the country as the AANES. Yet as of now, Turkey’s proxy militias enjoy political representation in official negotiations over Syria’s future, while AANES is totally excluded.
By encouraging the Christian community in NES to engage with the AANES political project, and simultaneously strengthening independent minority organizations capable of holding the AANES to account, the US can strengthen a genuinely democratic alternative to both the Assad regime and Turkey’s proxy militias.
Now Erdogan is threatening a third assault against NES. Urgent action is needed to ensure a future for Syria’s Christians and Yezidis in their ancestral homeland, and the AANES is the only actor in the region taking such concrete action. Any further Turkish operation against NES will threaten the political project and humanitarian infrastructure that has provided a uniquely safe haven for minority groups throughout the Syrian conflict.
The US should prevent another catastrophic Turkish invasion by exerting diplomatic pressure on Erdogan, including the preemptive threat of financial sanctions. Only by reining in Turkey can the international community halt the drain of Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities out of their ancestral homeland, and give the nascent project of democratic coexistence in the northeast space to mature.