Dec 2018 revisited: Interview with Bassam Ishak on what Turkey’s threats mean for Syrian Christians

This article was originally published by The Region on 25 December 2018. The original article can be found here.

Nearly two weeks ago, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to invade SDF-controlled northeast Syria at a Turkish defense industry conference. The threats were followed by the announcement that the United States would be withdrawing all of its military personnel from Syria, in a move soon revealed to be part of a deal with Turkey that would allow Turkish forces to enter SDF-held regions— putting the pluralistic and democratic project that the people of northeast Syria have built at risk.

Turkish officials have directed their threats against the region’s Kurdish population, threatening to ‘bury terrorist Kurds in their ditches’ and to hand Kurdish-majority areas over to Sunni Arab rebel groups. Yet a potential Turkish operation would pose an existential threat for all of northeast Syria’s ethnic and religious groups— notably the area’s Christian population.

Christians who have participated in the development of the region’s self-administration and its self-defense forces have warned the world about the consequences of a Turkish invasion for their people— and for the political project within which they have worked to build religious freedom for all the peoples of Syria.

Bassam Ishak, the president of the Syriac National Council of Syria (SNCS) and a diplomatic representative of the Syrian Democratic Council in the United States, described how Syriac Christians first became a part of that project and the influence that they have had on its development.

“The cooperation between Syriac Christians and Democratic Union Party (PYD) began as a negotiation between different political parties in Northeast Syria, about a social contract that addressed their need to articulate how they want to live together as indigenous groups and ­how they can protect themselves and their region from extremists groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS,” Ishak told The Region.

“The outcome of these negotiations was a social contract that fulfilled the majority of Syriac Christian aspirations regarding official recognition of their identity, language and culture. In addition, the social contract guaranteed religious freedom for all people in the region— which is an antidote to religious extremism and would allow for a peaceful future for the Syriac Christians in their homeland. In summary, the new arrangement allowed the provision of security needs, and provided a political structure that addressed our aspirations for a model based on pluralism, power sharing, gender equality, and religious freedom.”

Part of the security agreement involved the creation of the Syriac Military Council (MFS), a Christian militia that was a founding component of the SDF. MFS General Command issued a statement to this end this week, warning that “Turkey’s mercenary troops, who fought with al-Qaeda and ISIS, are waiting to get the green light to move into Syria, so that they can kill all “infidels” of the region. That means Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and other minorities.”

“There are still more than 100,000 Syriac Christians living in Northeast Syria. There is a serious risk of the end of the presence of Christianity in this region if we do not have security in place when the U.S. leaves. [This week], we freely celebrated Christmas. If Turkey invades, our churches and our people will be gone,” the MFS cautioned.

Ishak echoed the sense of urgency in his own assessment of the danger that a Turkish invasion posed to Christians. “The Christian communities in Northeast Syria are the children and grandchildren of the Christian communities that were ethnically cleansed by Turkey in 1915. For them, the Turkish threats to invade triggers memories of what their own people suffered a hundred years ago at the hands of the Turks,” he explained.

“The Turks repeated in Afrin in March of this year what they did to their Christian communities a hundred years ago. The Turks and their Syrian armed proxies vowed to kill the Christians of Afrin, which forced them to leave. Consequently, and according to what Turkey and its proxies did in Afrin, the Christian presence in Northeast Syria will come to an end if Turkey and its jihadi proxies invade.”

In Afrin, Christians and other religious minorities, like Alevis and Yazidis, faced forced conversions and the destruction of their religious sites, as Turkey-backed rebels undertook campaigns of Turkification, Islamification, and ethnic cleansing in the areas that they occupied. Officials and organizations across Northeast Syria have warned that the destruction seen in Afrin would be repeated in other areas if Turkey were allowed to invade.

Ishak says that, on the ground in Syria, opposition to Turkish threats transcends religion, ethnicity, and politics. “There is an overall rejection by all ethnic and religious groups and political groups, and even by political opposition groups, of a Turkish invasion,” he emphasized. “Northeast Syria has been peaceful, and was spared the destruction of the civil war because of the defense of the Syrian Democratic Forces and because of the political administration of the Democratic Self Administration.”