SYRIA – CHAOS UNLEASHED; CHRISTIANS IMPERILLED, BUT STEADFAST
Turkey and Russia have agreed what they say is a “historic” deal aimed at keeping Kurdish forces away from Syria’s border with Turkey. It comes during a pause in Turkey’s offensive to drive Kurdish forces out, creating a “safe zone” in the area. Under the deal, Syrian and Russian forces will immediately oversee a withdrawal of Kurdish forces. The deal sets out plans for joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the border next week. The agreement was announced after six hours of talks on Tuesday [22 October] between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian host, Vladimir Putin, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. A ceasefire brokered by the US was set to expire on Tuesday evening and Turkey had threatened to re-launch its offensive against the Kurdish fighters. It said there was now “no need”. (BBC News)
In July 2012 the Syrian government withdrew its armed forces from the north-east so it might concentrate its war effort in the west, in particular, the north-south Damascus-Aleppo corridor. As explained in the book, After Saturday Comes Sunday: “the Syrian Kurds exploited the opportunity afforded them by the SAA [Syrian Arab Army] withdrawal to carve out an autonomous region in the north-east. President Assad made no effort to rein in the Syrian Kurds, not simply because he was focused on securing the west, but because he knew that Kurdish empowerment would threaten and distract nemesis Turkey which was hosting rebel bases, arming and training rebel fighters and facilitating their entrance into Syria to fight the Syrian government.” In short: Damascus permitted Kurdish empowerment as a bulwark against belligerent Turkey. However, when the US (under the Obama administration) decided in 2014 to use the Kurds as proxies against the Islamic State (IS) – thereby further empowering the Kurds – Turkey was furious. Turkey – which has facilitated the entry into Syria of thousands of transnational Islamic jihadists from its side of the border – was never going to tolerate the presence of PKK-linked Kurdish nationalist militants on the Syrian side of the border, on the grounds that it would pose a threat to Turkey’s national security. And thus, the US was left in the middle of a fight (between two “allies”) that really is not their fight at all. It might seem unpalatable, but it was inevitable!
The Kurd-Arab-Christian Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is dominated by the YPG which, as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is Kurdish nationalist and anything but democratic [see RLPB 477, Assyrian Crisis in Iraq and Syria, 17 Oct 2018]. While there is no chance of a Kurdish state materialising any time soon, that is not stopping Kurdish nationalists from making every effort to change realities on the ground through ‘divide and rule’ (sowing division among the Assyrians), colonisation (occupying the lands of displaced Assyrians) and hegemony (dominance/control over Assyrians). The Syrian Christians of north-east Syria want the Syrian government back, they trust the Kurds as much as they trust the Turks and Islamic State! They do, however, trust the Alawite (minority)-led government and the Russians.
Turkey has been talking about invading northern Syria for well over 18 months. When the mostly Kurdish city of Afrin, about 45km north-west of Aleppo, fell to Turkish forces and their jihadist allies in March 2018 it was quickly ethnically-religiously ‘cleansed’ of all Kurds and Christians in Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’. At that time, Turkey’s President Erdogan expressed his intention to extend his control “all the way to the Iraq border” (see RLPB 447 – 21 March 2018). Mr Erdogan then set his sights on Manbij, 90km north-east of Aleppo. In order to stop the Turkish advance, the US brokered the ‘Manbij Roadmap’, in which the US agreed to facilitate the removal of all YPG elements from the strategic city of Manbij. The deal, however, was never implemented. Now, 18 months down the track, the Battle for Manbij – stage one in the war for northern Syria – appeared set to commence.
On Saturday 5 October, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened that, since the US has not fulfilled its promise to remove Kurdish YPG ‘terrorists’ from Manbij, Turkey will take matters into its own hands and launch a unilateral invasion east of the Euphrates “as soon as today or tomorrow”. On Sunday 6 October US President Donald Trump issued a statement clarifying that the US “will not support or be involved in the [Turkish] operation”, adding that, if Turkey invades northern Syria, it will then be “responsible for all IS fighters captured over the past two years”.
Turkey’s threat set up a scenario in which US troops would find themselves positioned in between their anti-IS proxies (PKK-linked Kurds) and their belligerent NATO ally (terror-sponsor Turkey). On Monday 7 October, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of the roughly 50 US troops stationed in observation posts on the Syrian border. In the coming weeks around 1,000 US troops will be withdrawn from Syria, leaving some 150 US soldiers stationed in the southern base of Al Tanf near the borders with Jordan and Iraq. According to reports, some residual US troops have also been positioned south of Manbij. President Trump made it clear that if Turkey behaves badly, the US will respond with crippling sanctions. On Wednesday 9 October, Turkish troops crossed into Syria, launching ‘Operation Peace Spring’.
Turkey shelled border towns – from Kobani to Qamishli – knocking out infrastructure, killing and wounding while displacing hundreds of thousands of residents. Images emerged showing Turkish-backed Islamic militants executing civilians, including journalists and Kurdish female politician Hevrin Khalaf (35 years-old). Responding to the carnage, US President Donald Trump ended talks on a US-Turkey trade deal he valued at US$100 billion and re-imposed tariffs of 50 percent on Turkish steel.
By Monday 14 October, Russia had brokered a deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government which immediately deployed the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) north to “confront the Turkish aggression”. After more than seven years, the Syrian government is back in the north-east. Images have emerged of Kurds and others welcoming the SAA troops. By Monday night [14 October] the SAA was in Manbij to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a battle against the Turkey-backed jihadists amassing around the city in preparation for war. Russian troops patrolled the territory separating the Turkish-backed militants from the SAA-backed Kurdish troops. Turkey’s moves threatened to drive a wedge between Ankara and Moscow and ultimately led to negotiations between the two in Sochi. As one analyst observes: ‘Turkey stands in splendid isolation’ and will soon be ‘joining Saudi Arabia as a fallen angel in the Beltway’.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
According to Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, Turkey’s shelling of border towns put the lives of some 40,000 to 50,000 Christians at risk. Christians were killed in Ras el-Ain and Qamishli. As Ishak rightly notes, this is “pure ethnic cleansing” as Turkey’s plan in setting up its ‘safe zone’ is to replace the Kurdish and Assyrian population with some two million Syrian Arab refugees currently resident in Turkey (it is important to note that the international community has not issued support for the Turkish plan for resettling Syrian refugees. The United Nations insists first on a comprehensive political agreement, and for refugees to return to their original locations). According to Dale Gavlac (15 October), “Christians and other religious minorities said they feel particularly vulnerable as Turkish artillery targeted a predominantly Christian neighbourhood in Qamishli, the largest city in north-eastern Syria.” The Turkish bombing has already created a humanitarian crisis; in particular, the A’louk water station is now out of service, leaving some 400,000 residents without water.
With no choice but to confront the Turkish invasion, SDF fighters are abandoning their posts at key prisons and camps housing some 12,000 IS fighters, some 4,000 IS women and over 8,000 children. Amidst Turkish bombardment, prisoners attacked guards at the Ain Issa camp (55km north of Ar-Raqqah), enabling 785 relatives of IS jihadists to escape.
Christians in Syria’s far north are today imperilled not only from an aggressive Turkish military and its jihadist proxies, but also from a resurgent IS (itself a reportedly Turkey-Saudi creation). Thousands of Christians are again on the move. Emanuel Youkhana, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East who administers Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq in Dohuk, told Catholic News Service that he is expecting a new wave of refugees as Assyrians flee east from Syria’s Hasakah Province to Iraqi Kurdistan.
In the midst of gross insecurity and an unfolding humanitarian crisis, many Christians are opting to remain in the war zone rather than flee to Aleppo or Damascus. They are choosing to remain precisely so they can, through their churches, assist and minister to those in need. Jayson Casper writes in Christianity Today(18 October) that the Alliance Church of Qamishli held a meeting in which it was agreed that only eight families would leave, the rest would remain to minister, witness and ‘maintain the presence of Jesus’. The Presbyterian Church of Aleppo has three sister churches in the war zone; while members are staying to help and minister, they have no funding. While some Christian aid groups will also remain, Syria’s local churches will bravely and sacrificially carry out the bulk of the aid work. This has also been the case in northern Iraq.
This is an issue for serious prayer. Sociologist Rodney Stark has written on the way in which the early Church’s response to plague and other disease epidemics helped change the religious demography of the Roman Empire. Instead of fleeing, locking themselves away or discarding the ill, the persecuted Christians demonstrated sacrificial love following the model of Christ. Not only did Christians nurse one another, thereby increasing their survival rate, they also ministered to their neighbours in an act of powerful witness. The Christian response was unnatural, counter-cultural and high-risk, but because it was love-driven, hope-filled and communal it played an enormous role in Christianity’s growth throughout the Roman Empire. In fact, Stark opines that ‘had classical society not been disrupted and demoralised by these catastrophes, Christianity might never have become so dominant a faith’. [The Rise of Christianity, by Rodney Stark.]
- For the political agreements to hold and Turkish aggression to end
- For the Lord to intervene to protect, preserve and sustain his precious Church in Syria and across Mesopotamia
- For the Lord’s Kingdom to be advanced in the region and the plans of the enemy to be thwarted
* Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).
 After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016, p 151