A conversation with Yawsef Beth Turo

AUGSBURG, Germany – The European Syriac Union organized an information session on the current situation of the Syriac people in Syria at the community center of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Augsburg, Germany. The information session was hosted by SuroyoTV presenter and journalist Yawsef Beth Turo.

The information session began with a moment of silence in remembrance of the civilian martyrs of the Syrian civil war and the martyrs of the Syriac Military Council (MFS). Also remembered were the two abducted Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Melkite bishops of Aleppo, Their Eminences Grigoriyos Yuhanun Abrohom and Mor Bulus al Yaziji.

After a word of welcome from the chairman of the church board and the Syriac Cultural Association in Augsburg, and in the attendance of interested Syriacs, clergy, and Syriac social organizations, Beth Turo explained the current situation of the Gozarto (al-Jazeera) Region of Bethnahrin (Mesopotamia) before and after the Islamic State, the political position of the Syriac people, and the situation after the invasion of Turkey of the Democratic Autonomous Administration North and East Syria (DAA).

SyriacPress spoke with Mr. Beth Turo at the event.

SyriacPress: How would you describe the current situation in the Gozarto Region?

Yawsef Beth Turo: Sad. Very sad. As I said in the presentation, overall the situation in Syria is very bad. There are millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Millions of IDPs. Hundreds of thousands have died. And now Turkey and its fanatical Islamists have invaded the Autonomous Administration causing many people of the Gozarto to be displaced. Hundreds have died in the invasion.

Turkey’s war rhetoric targeting the Democratic Autonomous Administration was not new. But last year Turkey has acted on its words and invaded North and East Syria for a second time in as many years, with the aim to remove the DAA. Such a project, one of local governance built on democratic principles, gender equality, and cultural and religious respect, in progress right under her its nose is viewed as unacceptable to an increasingly undemocratic Turkey.

Is that the reason why Turkey invaded North and East Syria?

The Turkish government sees this project as a threat. Not only with regards to us Syriacs but also with regards to Kurds and Arabs. Turkey does not want to see a system of ethnic and religious unity succeed on its doorstep; it fears it might excite the disenfranchised peoples within its own borders. This is why today we see the Turkish state do all it can to tear down what has been built in the Gozarto.

Turkey also doesn’t want to fully accept Kurds and Arabs, with all the rights of complete citizenship. For Turkey complete citizenship is a threat that would affect and excite the peoples within her borders. That is why the Turkish state wants to take down what is built in the Gozarto in Syria.

You make it sound the Autonomous Administration solved all problems?

When comparing the achievements of the DAA with governance in other parts of Syria, it did well in providing security from jihadist and nationalistic sleeper cells and was able to ensure descent living conditions – as much as is possible given the conditions of the surrounding war in Syria.

We must keep in mind that it is a project in progress. It has imperfections and still needs to mature. However, the path chosen, the level of local acceptance, and progress made to date indicate that the DAA is heading in the right direction.

Road signs and street names are written in three languages: Suryoyo (Syriac-Aramaic), Arabic, and Kurdish. All three are official languages for the school curriculum in the DAA; the only system in all of Syria where this is the case. The civil offices and ministries of the DAA are populated by men and women from all three peoples, and other minority groups, from various religious and political backgrounds. The DAA has made important steps to achieve peaceful communal living for its diverse population. And it doesn’t mean there are no issues or problems. Again, it has imperfections and still needs to mature.

Many Syriacs didn’t accept the Administration and stayed loyal to Syria’s ruler. Did the Autonomous Administration succeed in overcoming issues and divisions between the peoples?

No, it did not in full. And it doesn’t mean all issues and divisions are solved or that there are no problems. And indeed, segments of the population do not participate in the Autonomous Administration and/or don’t support it. One reason is their belief that such a project is doomed to fail. It is difficult to erase centuries of division and authoritarianism from people’s mind. Remember the Sayfo [the genocide of 1915 where hundreds of thousands Syriacs (Chaldeans-Arameans-Assyrians) were massacred by Ottoman-Turks and Kurdish tribes]. Nobody can deny the bloody role of the Kurds in the genocide of 1915. Recovering from such a trauma and regaining trust takes time. How long the recovery takes depends on how strongly the Kurds acknowledge their negative role in the genocide of 1915. That is to say, how strongly and how sincere. The stronger and more sincere, the sooner the Syriac people can overcome this trauma.

People and a religion who looked upon us as sheep, as “Dhimmi people” cannot easily accept that Suryoye (Syriacs) are treated as their equals, let alone sit in positions of local authority and that they take a place at the table amongst them and other peoples. There will always be people with this negative thinking who will continue to keep acting and looking upon Syriacs in the way they always have. However, as a principle and basis for inclusive democratic governance, these divisive mentalities cannot be accepted.

What is your message to our Syriac people with regards to the Autonomous Administration – where your movement partners with Arabs and Kurds – a very sensitive topic for Syriacs?

Let’s elaborate on the thought that Kurds and Arabs accept us as their equals. How much do we Syriacs see ourselves as equal persons to them and as an equal people? The question I don’t hear asked is why we still see ourselves subjugated and weak compared to our regional neighbors. The very idea that Syriacs, as a people, can be equal to Kurds and Arabs seems unbelievable. Hundreds of years of oppression have left us feeling inferior and small. This is why Syriac support for the DAA is low. We retreat. We are afraid. We don’t believe that a system that includes us as equals will last. However, without our involvement and support, we are ensuring that the system will fail.

We need to learn to put aside our fear and step forward as the equals of Kurds and Arabs. Fear is why in the Kurdish Region in Iraq the Barzani’s are good, in Syria Baathists are good, in Turkey Erdoganist are good and in Iran Shiites are good.

Just as we have our imperfections, so do the Kurds and Arabs of the Gozarto have their imperfections. However, if we want to live together, and we must, we need to be accepting of one another, to be good to one another. Else life will be hell.

How can the Syriacs ascertain their rights independent of which party dominates, or which family rules – as is so common in the Middle East?

The basis of the Autonomous Administration is the Social Contract. In the Gozarto Region of the DAA, official and public offices are divided equally between the components according to their number when the DAA was established [from the presentation: Arabs: 850,000, Kurds: 350,000, Syriacs: 180,000, Armenians: 20,000]. The Social Contract is the foundation of the democratic and political decentralized federalism of northern Syria.

That is what we and our partners in the DAA have committed to and keep committing to.

A Social Contract on paper sounds good but how can Syriacs be convinced that they are really acknowledge, not only as a Christian people, but as an indigenous people?

Like I just mentioned, and which I also tried to emphasize in the presentation, Syriacs are officially recognized in the DAA. Syriac is one of the three official languages. Our colleagues from the Syriac Union Party are representatives in the legislative and executive bodies of the Administration. They hold co-positions with executive powers.

We have Syriac educational organizations which improve and enhance the level of Syriac education for the approximately five-thousand Syriac students in the Gozarto, so that it can operate in full in the DAA education system.

The Sutoro [Syriac police] and MFS [Syriac Military Council] are fully part of the DAA police and the MFS is fully part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The spokesperson of the SDF is MFS-spokesperson Kino Gabriel.

And at this very moment the MFS is stationed in Tel Tamr and the Khabur valley and is defending its Syriac-Assyrian existence there.

In your presentation, you also spoke about the Syrian regime. What is your message to the Syrian regime?

Simply the same. The DAA model is the democratic, decentralized, and constitutional model we want for Syria as a whole. The Autonomous Administration is part of an undivided Syria.

Accept us as an indigenous people of Syria. Accept us as full Syriacs and not only as Christians.

Would you like to make any concluding remarks?

We need to learn not to be fearful. Learn to be full Syriacs. In the Gozarto Region of Bethnahrin, we are trying to be just this. We are trying to be full Syriacs and on an equal basis with the other people in the Gozarto.

For us Syriacs, we should be prepared to defend ourselves if necessary, but it will never ever be beneficial to go to war and fight on the behalf of others. Dialogue is the only way forward. Only in this way can we understand and solve our problems. The Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is not perfect. But it is a system based on our equality and is worth keeping. What we need to work on is making the Autonomous Administration more professional as there are some shortcomings in this field.

Because of Syrian war, the Syriac population of the Gozarto has gone down from 180,000 in 2011 to approximately 70,000 now. Many are internally displaced. Others have fled to Europe or the USA. If we want to keep our numbers from further decreasing and if we want to create a safe place where to the displaced can return, we need to work hard. However, if we don’t lift a finger to make it better, if we keep criticizing and attacking it in the strongest words without trying to improve it, it will fail and along with it our best chance to live in our homeland in peace.