“Certainly, Christians don’t want to see Turkish troops entering Syria given the past brutal history of the 1915 massacres of Christians carried out by the Turks,” says Chaldean Catholic Father Samir Kanoon of Qamishli, Syria.
Northeast Syria is known to be a pluralistic safe haven for religious and ethnic minorities in a country ravaged by war since 2011. As we mark five years since the brutal genocide campaign against the Yazidi minorities in Iraq, it is critical that America continues to play a strategic role in protecting the advances for religious freedom east of the Euphrates.
Officially known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), a unique and inclusive system of governance has allowed for Christians, Yezidis, Muslims, Kurds, Arabs, Turkomans and Assyrians to co-exist without fear. Yet the fate of NES continues to be uncertain. Regional powers like Iran, Turkey and Syria under Bashar Assad are unlikely to allow the area—controlled by majority of Syrian Kurds—to go unharmed.
Iranian-backed militias aligned with the Assad regime continually intrude on the southern edges of NES. Only the NES military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), stands against these intrusions.
Inside NES, pockets of the Islamic State continue to exist, threatening local communities and farmlands despite Daesh’s many defeats. To the northwest of NES lie Turkish-backed militants, and the Syria-Turkey border region has witnessed an increase of Turkish military build-up threatening to invade and dismantle the peaceful region.
In those parts of Syria outside of NES, Christians continue to be targeted, especially converts from Islam, whose conversions are banned by Syrian law. Advocacy groups reported “societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or leave the country to practice their new religion openly.”
In contrast, Christians are valued in NES. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an on the ground freelance journalist who has visited the region on many occasions, explains that “northeast Syria is one of the few places where there is religious freedom even for converts to Christianity, as shown by the church in Kobani.” He further writes that “there is a Syriac Christian fighting force affiliated to the Syriac Union Party called the Syriac Military Council.” He also notes that in other parts of Syria, “some Christians in the area are with Assad out of fear or sectarian reasons,” and adds that some “churches are under Damascus’s control.”
According to the U.S. government’s 2018 International Religious Freedom report, Syria as a whole is home to many Sunni Muslims, which make up 74 percent of the population, which includes Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens and Turkomans. Other Muslim groups, such as Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia constitute 13 percent of the population, and the Druze represent 3 percent. The U.S. government reports that 10 percent of the Syrian population remains to be Christian, but the number may be dramatically lower since the start of the civil war.
A Syriac Military Council member urges “Christians in the U.S. to ask that the U.S. Army that is present in North-East Syria will not allow the Turkish army and jihadists to invade North-East Syria. Will the U.S. Army stand by idly while we are killed?”
Another targeted religious group is the Yezidi minority of Iraq, who have found safety in NES. But in 2014, it was a different story as Daesh waged genocide, “Yezidi men were rounded up and shot then dumped in mass graves. The women were taken to be sold in Isis’s slave markets, many passed from fighter to fighter, who inflicted physical and sexual abuse.” Today, NES has given a space for the Yezidis to develop a strong sense of community.
Vice president for policy at the Family Research Council Travis Weber explains that “no other social compact, which recognizes the God-given rights of all human beings, exists elsewhere in the Middle East, perhaps with the one exception of Israel. Where religious freedom thrives, economic growth and stability also thrive. If we care about countering the instability perpetuated by Iran and its allies, we should care about religious freedom.” It is important to add that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is also known for its religious tolerance and protection of minorities in the region.
However, NES is at risk of losing its hard-fought stability due to threats of invasion from its neighbor to the north: Turkey. Tens of thousands of religious and ethnic minorities face danger. A humanitarian crisis could quickly take hold, as nearly 15,000 to 20,000 remaining Daesh terrorists could see an opportunity for revenge across Iraq and Syria, the Kurds will be forced to invest their resources towards fighting Turkey while still holding 8,000 Daesh terrorists in makeshift prisons.
A potential military invasion by Turkey against NES continues to be a threat. A Turkish military intervention will not only prolong the Syrian civil war, but will also mean a longer U.S. military presence in the country. The United States must not give in to Turkish pressure based on false information. If America wishes to play a leading role in protecting ethnic and religious minorities around the world, it can start in northeast Syria. U.S. President Donald Trump has an opportunity at the U.N. General Assembly to make it clear to his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that attacking northeast Syria will not be tolerated and will be seen as a red line.
Diliman Abdulkader is an advisor to Freedom to Believe and the director of external relations at Allegiance Strategies, LLC. Follow him on Twitter: @D_abdulkader