Can Christians and Others Survive in Northeast Syria?
15 May 2020
Tel Tamir, Syria
Thank you for praying for us and helping us help those in need on this last mission to Syria. We could not do this without you and we thank God for you being a part of this team.
The war in Syria rages on. In Idlib, western Syria, Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces are on one side attacking Turkish-supported terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra, and jihadi-affiliated groups such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Both sides rely on terror and the slaughter of civilians to achieve their aims.
Caught in the middle are civilians, over 700,000 of whom have fled north into the countryside. Barred from entering Turkey, they crouch against the Turkish border wall and live in tents and shelters scattered across the countryside. Over 2,000 people have managed to flee into northeastern Syria and into the territory controlled by the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This area is one of the few relatively safe areas of Syria and the only one with any form of democracy.
However, in October 2019, the US broke its promise to the Kurds, Christians, Yezidis and Arabs of this area and allowed the Turks and their jihadist proxies, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to invade and displace over 200,000 people. This was an act of ethnic cleansing as Turkey drove out the Kurds and Christians and brought in Arabs from other parts of Syria. The disaster in Syria has become worse but we believe God has a way and that it is not too late to take corrective action. Our recommendations are below.
During our recent mission in January and February 2020, we went back to northeast Syria to give help, hope, and love. After providing relief for people fleeing Idlib, as well as follow-up care for some of the over 200,000 people displaced by the Turkish-led invasion of northeast Syria, we were asked by the Syrian Christian community to help them. The Christians of northeast Syria used to number over 200,000 and now, due to the attacks first of ISIS and then the Turkish-led forces, only about 60,000 remain. In the area of Dereck (northeastern corner of Syria) over 90% of the population used to be Christian, but now less than 30% are.
“My grandfather was one of three in his family who survived the Turkish massacre of Armenian Christians in 1915 and he fled here to Syria. Now we have had to flee again, first from ISIS then now the Turks. We are forgotten and abandoned. Will America help us? Will they keep their promise? We joined them in the fight against ISIS and they betrayed us. They told us that if we worked with them, they would not let the Turks attack us. But instead, they ran away and let the Turks in. Why? What did we do wrong? What did we do to deserve this? Can you tell me?” pleaded a Christian farmer.
We told them we were sorry and agreed that what the US did was wrong. We love our country and we prayed for a change to US policy. We stood with them in the cold wind and prayed, our hope in God who changes hearts, and leaders in America who can find a better way.
As we drove along the Syrian-Turkish border, we passed through empty villages that used to be full of Christians. Even the villages that were still populated only had a few families left. All are afraid of another Turkish invasion and the Christian militia is too small and under armed to stop it. The Christians are appealing to the international community to help prevent another Turkish invasion that would sound the death knell of Christians here.
They are also afraid of the Assad regime taking over as many will be arrested for their stand for freedom with the self-administration government of northeast Syria. Many Christians we met had been jailed and tortured earlier by the Assad regime and fear their return. Along with imprisonment, the Assad regime keeps a tight control over the Christian population and bans the use of the ancient Syriac language the Christians use. While Christians in the Assad-controlled area would rather have the Assad regime in charge than ISIS or the Turks, what they really want is to live with more freedoms, as many do now in northeast Syria.
On the border, we joined a group comprised of a local Syriac Christian NGO, the Syriac Cross and Syriac Military Council, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is the US and coalition partner against ISIS.
Turkey has threatened to increase the area of their invasion zone of October/November 2019 and the remaining Christian communities in this zone are under direct threat. The Turkish military has shelled their villages, chased thousands from their homes, and killed those who dared to stay.
We drove along the border close to the wall the Turks have put up and passed by empty or near-empty villages. We visited eight manned outposts of the Syriac Military Council and saw how they had nothing to stop Turkish armor or air attacks.
The soldiers asked us, “How can we stop anyone from attacking us? Actually, we do not want to be soldiers. We only are because no one will defend us. Please tell our story and help us. We trust in God and we will not give up.”
Syria: Recommendations, Actions, and Reasons
We recommend the U.S. maintain the three points of strategy already declared for improved stability in the region: enduring defeat of ISIS, support of democracy, and limiting destructive foreign forces such as Iran. These are all connected: the enduring defeat of ISIS in Syria requires social, religious, relational, educational, political, economic and military action only possible in a stable and democratic NE Syria.
Actions the US can take
- Politically recognize the Autonomous-Administration of North and East Syria as a state in the future Syria and lift sanctions from this jurisdiction. They have a functioning, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual democracy with freedom of religion, justice, and opportunities for all people. This has been attacked, the area of democracy diminished, and its existence threatened by the invasion of Turkey and Turkish-led proxies. This has strengthened Iran, Assad’s Syria regime, and the Russians. A strong and whole NE Syria limits these forces and gives the U.S. a strategic partner and friend in the region.
- Establish a no-fly zone over NE Syria and work with Turkey so that the Turkish forces and their proxies, such as the FSA, immediately leave the zone they invaded in October 2019. Secure this border instead with U.S.-supported Christian, Kurd and Arab SDF forces. Facilitate the return of over 200,000 Kurds, Christians and Arabs who were displaced by the Turk/FSA invasion.
- Provide relief assistance to displaced people who come or are already present in the SDF area. Work with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and SDF to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance and to support the rebuilding of the destroyed infrastructure and cities in NE Syria. This will provide jobs, improve the quality of life, give hope and create places the old and new IDPS can settle in.
Reasons to support these actions
- It is a way to right the wrong of our broken promises to the people of northeastern Syria and the SDF. To rebuild our relationship with SDF and the Kurds, Christian, Arabs, Yezidis and others who are part of it and whom are suffering because we allowed them to be attacked. It is a way to make friends with these people, to show we care and develop new relationships.
- Puts the US in a morally strong position from which our enemies will respect us more and our friends trust us more.
- Limits Iranian, Russian, and Turkish power and limits Assad’s power.
- Dilutes and stops the spread of ISIS, the FSA, HTS and other jihadist forces.
- It is a way to strengthen the SDF who are of great tactical and strategic to US interests.
- Creates a viable reason to redeploy US troops where needed in northeast Syria.
- This is a way that Christians would be protected and the Christian refugee communities, who fled first ISIS then the Turkish attacks, would have a place to return to.
- The people of the Idlib area are in desperate need. It is a moral imperative to help them and the US has the ability to do so. Love is never crazy or wasted and has deep and far reaching rewards for all.
- Creates a true safe zone in northeast Syria that helps people and protects democracy and allows it to grow. This is in contrast to Turkey’s zone of invasion and Assad’s zone of death and destruction.
- Thank you all who pray for us and help the people here. Please pray for policymakers as they try to help.
God bless you,
Dave, family, and FBR