With the possibility of Turkey perpetrating a genocide against the Kurds in northern Syria, Arab Christians are intensely concerned that Erdogan’s aspirations to resurrect the Ottoman Empire may include another genocide perpetrated against Syrian Christians. A demonstration last week brought together Jews and Christians in Jerusalem.
An insider perspective was given last Saturday night when Amit Barak, the co-founder of the Jerusalemite Initiative, spoke with Metin Rhawi, Head of Foreign Affairs of the European Syriac Union who is the contact person to the official Christians in Northeastern Syria.
Barak: Please describe the cooperation between Christians and Kurds in Northern Syria.
Rhawi: “I will focus on your question from a current perspective, since the war began in Syria in 2011. The various ethnic groups with different religious backgrounds have lived side by side not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East. Of course, there have always been tensions due to historical events and injustices. Since that time, groups and political parties worked to find partners to protect their people and their rights as people.
“We, the Syriacs / Assyrians / Chaldeans / Arameans (the Christians), the Kurds, Arabs and other ethnicities found each other with political and military agreements. We formed the Syrian Democratic Council and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have defended about 30% of Syrian territory and about 5 million Syrians for several years. Our cooperation is based on the social contract that guarantees all ethnicities, religions and cultures equal political rights from the military aspect, SDF that has defended our territory, which is Northeastern Syria.”
“Of course, we are at war with the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups as well as regional military forces, that is Turkey. That being said, we have had a very good relationship despite being at war with all that this entails. Kurds, Arabs and the Christians have distributed political as well as military power. Throughout the process, we have allowed each other as different people to be able to discuss and handle unique issues for ourselves in our own way and with our own initiative. We, the Syriacs, have always been clear that we should have our sovereignty in this cooperation, as we believe that others should be able to do as well”.
Barak: Is there any kind of relationships between Christians and Kurds in addition to political cooperation?
Rhawi: “Our relationship with Kurds and Arabs as well as other ethnicities are both political and military. I mentioned above that we are co-founders of SDC and SDF. We also have several social projects and collaborations in everyday life that were very safe and secure before Erdogan and his paid jihadists began to attack us. Erdogan himself has called his jihadists The Army of Mohammed, The Warriors of Allah, who will kill the unbelievers which includes us and anyone else who does not believe like him.”
Barak: How many civilians live in northern Syria today and with what background?
Rhawi: “There are currently just under 5 million, including are Christians belonging to different denominations, Muslims belonging to different denominations, as well as others, like the Yazidis and Druze. The people of northeastern Syria are mainly Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs and other smaller ethnicities”.
Barak: How many Christians live in northern Syria?
Rhawi: “100 – 120 000 thousand Christians live in northern Syria. In total, we are around 1,200,000 Christians who live in Syria.”
Barak: Is there political representation for all kinds of Christian denominations living there?
Rhawi: “Those who sat in various deciding positions were in the majority of the Syriac Orthodox Church, but there are also few who belonged to the Syriac Catholic Church. Some belonged to the Assyrian Church as well as some Armenians who belonged to the Armenian Church”.
Barak: Where do Christian communities live in northern Syria?
Rhawi: “Most Christians live in the Al Hasake region, Al Qamishly region, Al Malikiye region, and a few live in the Ras Al Ayn region. The vast majority of Christians live in the Syrian inner land in the ‘Christian Valley.’ Most of these belong to the Melkite Church / Rome Orthodox Church”.
Barak: Which communities have been attacked so far?
Rhawi: “Qamishly, Ayn Isa, Tell Abyad, Deirzor, Al Malikiye and several other cities. Erdogan has used aircraft, helicopters and tanks as well as other heavy weapons. Of course, it is his Jihadists on the ground who are going to take street battles and these we are ready for but not if we are shot from the air”.
Barak: What is the damage?
Rhawi: “It has been quite a limited scale since [Erdogan] has had the eyes of the world community to some extent. What he promised to do was to repeat what he did in Afrin but did not get the opportunity.”
“The damage is quite limited as I said, but the greatest damage has been to the democratic development that we have achieved in our region. Where different ethnicities and religions with their denominations have recognized and respected each other. We had security and balance in everyday life, goods and services in shops and on the streets. Social services that took care of citizens.”
Barak: How many Christian casualties have there been so far?
Rhawi: “I have unconfirmed information since we are still at war. There were reports of a dozen injured (as of Monday October 14th). I must say that many more Kurds were killed. Most of the injured were fighters who fought the Turkish Jihadist, but there also civilians who got killed.”
“The reports are of injuries that have been caused by the firing of armored vehicles and airplanes with grenades as well as bullets”.
Barak: What is the current situation with the churches and schools?
Rhawi: “Of course, our churches have suffered damage, but not to a greater extent than other prayer places and other buildings at the moment. despite one case, In Al- Malikyah/Derek one church was targeted”.
“The forces led by Erdogan fire at everything. Most civilians are in the cities but on the front are soldiers as well as civilians, including people who have demonstrated peacefully. Most civilian homes have been damaged.”
“Some schools have also taken damage, but we cannot claim that they have targeted schools more than other buildings. The schools are, of course, closed”.
“A couple of hospitals have been targeted for shelling and there have been civilian casualties.”
Barak: What role has the priesthood taken?
Rhawi: “Of course, we expect the priesthood to bless and pray for us as people, both civilians and military. We do not require our churches and their leaders to fight or lead the people politically this is our task as people, for them it’s risky and we want to protect them as well. Priests suffer same as others, none of them was targeted or under any specific threat.”
“We hope that other people’s churches condemn Turkey’s attacks, aggression and invasion attempts by northeastern Syria”.
Barak: Christians take part in the fighting forces against Turkish militia and ISIS?
Rhawi: “We have independent Christian units of the Assyrian-Syriac Military Council and we fight alongside YPG and YPJ the Kurds units. WE fought against ISIS together. We know our bad history with the Kurds who took part in the genocide against us in 1915. But we need to move on, we look to the future, so we stand together now. We never forget what they did but we forgive them. All forces fighting under one command of the SDF – Syrian Democratic Forces which was Founded by Arabs, Christians (Syriacs, Assyrians, Armenians and Chaldeans) and Kurds.”
“The Syriac Military Council is co-founder of SDF Syrian Democratic Forces. Our political branch is co-founder of SDC Syrian Democratic Council, which means that we have participated on all fronts against ISIS and others who have threatened our territories. MFS which is Syriac / Assyrian military branch and Sutoro who is our police and security unit are responsible for checkpoints in our areas. I would also like to mention our Women’s Federation which has a military alliance (Beth Nahrin Women’s Union Protection Units) HSNB that has also participated in the war against ISIS and controls checkpoints.”
“We fought for years before and we are fighting now. We are fighting in order to protect our communities. We took actions, took part in fighting against ISIS in 2015-16 during Khabur Valley operations, when Christian villages were under attack of ISIS. We that time received assistance from the coalition forces and the US of course, we received some help from the Kurds as well but that battle was our, we leaded that one and won. We took responsibility on our security. And we send our troops to all frontlines to aid other forces as well. In the fighting against the Turkish militias we are involved of course. We need to defend our communities.”
“We are independent and make our own decisions, of course, because we are part of the SDF, so we must relate to joint decisions.”
“When we defend front lines, we group ourselves based on needs and conditions.”
“We have our own commanders and decide for ourselves within the framework of our cooperation with our Arab and Kurdish partners”.
Barak: What exactly is the humanitarian civil situation?
Rhawi: “As you understand, there is always a shortage of supplies during wartime which is also the case in Syria. Of course, it was worst when the war broke out in 2011, but as SDC and SDF ruled our territory, it became better both in terms of security and access to food, electricity, water and other goods and services. Again, I want to clarify that Syria is at war and therefore there was a lack of most things in relation to peacetime.”
“We had all the necessary supplies, but of course to a certain level and that due to the cooperation with international coalition, during the war against ISIS and even after that we had good functioning borders against Iraq to some extent.”
Barak: Are there any Kurdish and Christian citizens leaving the area?
Rhawi: “Of course, many have fled the region and the country, but the majority of those in our region felt safe until Erdogan’s attack as people began to move into villages and places further away from the Turkish border. They became internal refugees”.
Barak: Are they be able to move freely on the roads, are there any obstacles and checkpoints for the Turkish forces?
Rhawi: “SDF and the Americans and the international coalition on ISIS patrolled the border with Turkey. Now that the US withdrew, we had to stand alone and face Erdogan’s invasion and aggression. Obviously the highways have become transport means for militaries and are very dangerous right now.”
“Since the USA has withdrawn, we have light weapons in our hands and Erdgoan uses NATO’s full weapons arsenal against us such as aircraft, battle tanks and other heavy weapons. The fight is not honest at all, what he did in Afrin he wanted to repeat in the Northeast regions; luckily the international community has reacted differently this time which made him slow down his attack on us.”
Barak: Is there any humanitarian assistance in this area?
Rhawi: “We get almost no help at all from the outside world such as the UN this because everything stays with him. The UN and Red Cross stopped in Damascus. We don’t get anything of it.”
“The help we get is from civil society humanitarian aid organizations from the western world. The aid that provide particular for Christians comes from our communities in the west. Due to unconfirmed information that I have all humanitarian aid will not be able to enter Syria from now on, everything must go via Damascus from now on”.
Barak: What kind of humanitarian aid is needed in communities?
Rhawi: “We need everything, from food, to medicine”.
Barak: How is the situation with the refugees?
Rhawi: “Right now, the number of internal refugees is increasing more than they are fleeing the country, hundreds thousand fled home already, both Christians and Kurds. These refugees have lost everything they own and have. We must not forget those who remain and have not left the country are determined to stay. These will remain even in more difficult circumstances as the war creates today”.
Barak: What is the world generally expected to do?
Rhawi: “We are disappointed. The world did nothing much so far. We want all democratic forces, whether political or military, to stand up to Erdogan and his sons, those whom Erdogan calls Mohammed’s army. We want the world to respond forcefully to stop the invasion and help us create dialogue and a political solution. We hope the world will take more sanctions that are economical. I will enclose our social contract between the people groups in northeastern Syria. We have a new agreement with Syria, military agreement, The Syrian army going to protect its border. We will help them and they will help us to prevent the genocide of the “Army of Muhamad” as Erdogan declared. Kill the infidels, that’s what he said. We had no choice. It was or be slaughtered or sign this agreement.”
“We don’t feel that we have lost everything in Syria, things can still change. Russia is involved, we need to see what steps they are going to make. Fighting against Turkey is very big, An army armed with NATO. When we fight Turkey we fight NATO, The knowledge, education, equipment, technology. A giant force.”
“Next talks with the Syrian regime we will have to function political and human right issues. Our (SDF) ideas must be present in the talks for the future of Syria.”
Barak: What do you think the State of Israel can do?
Rhawi: “Israel need do nothing more than we want other countries to do to, we need everyone to help us create peace and dialogue between the fighting parties. Israel must do what they can with cooperation with others. The people of Israel, the diverse Israeli society can be a good model for Syria in the future. We know and all should remember that Christians here, especially Syriacs, have common values and roots with the Jewish people.”
“The last thing I want to say to you Jews and Israelis is ‘Protect Your Borders!’. We live in Jihadi Middle East, and beware from Erdogan as well”.
Barak: What would you expect from Christians in Israel in general and the Aramean-Syriac Christians in Israel in particular to do in order to help? In which ways?
Rhawi: “Christians in Israel should raise their voice for us and against Erdogan the father of ISIS, They should protest and pray. We saw the demonstration in Jerusalem attended by Christians from Jerusalem and the prayer of Israeli Christians at the Church Of The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem organized by the ‘Jerusalemite Initiative’ and we are thankful for that. The Aramean-Syriacs should remember that they are children of survival of the genocide; I expect them to defend each other not fight over small issues pray and support their sisters and brothers in Syria”.
Barak: What do you expect from Jews around the world?
Rhawi: “All Jews or other influential people must use their strength and political power to stop the war and begin dialogue”.
Barak: What is the European Syriac Union?
Rhawi: “European Syriac Union has been operating under a few different names but since 2004 we have been lobbying around Europe focusing on the European Parliament and the US. We are established in 7 countries in Europe”.
How many Christian Syriacs live in Europe?
“I would estimate that we are close to 700,000 in Europe. Not Only syriacs but Assyrians and Chaldeans as well”.
Which countries and where did they come from?
“We are originally from Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and we live more or less all over Europe”.
Barak: When did Syriacs and other Christians fled from the Middle East to Europe and why?
Rhawi: “We started migrating shortly after the conflict between Turkey and Greece on Cyprus. 1974-75 we as Christians had to endure hatred and threats because the Greeks are Christians. Of course, there are many other and deeper underlying causes that come from the same origin. As Christians we have been persecuted in Turkey and the 1915 genocide known as the Sayfo “sword” killed about 600,000 of our people. This genocide decimated us to the number of being extinguished. Sayfo has created a big trauma amongst us as community that still lives in our everyday life”.
Barak: What are the expectations of the patriarchs and church leaders in the various streams in the world?
Rhawi: “All Pastors, Christians leaders, political or church leaders, Patriarchs, monks, Bishops priests, community leaders, we expect them to speak! We should hear their voice and their support. If they feel they are on the right side, they should raise their voice. We should all pray in the name of God for all of us.We expect all Christians worldwide to stop the war in Syria, regardless of whether it is aimed at Christians or Muslims, against Syriacs, Kurds or Arabs. The Churches will not survive without Christians in the Middle East. We should all pray in the name of God for all of us”.