U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Turkey must withdraw from North and East Syria areas

WASHINGTON – In a panel discussion on Wednesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) hosted several experts to discuss the economic, political, and social situation in North and East and the policies of the Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) which administers the region.

One of the made points made by the Commission and the experts on the panel was that the Turkish invasion of the region has been catastrophic for the religious plurality and tolerance and called for the immediate withdrawal of Turkey and its proxy forces.

In its recently published report on international religious freedom, USCIRF called for several actions to be take in regard to North and East Syria:

    1. The withdrawal of Turkey and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) from northern Syria to end the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the regions under its control.
    2. The implementation of Caesar’s Law – the upcoming sanctions passed recently by Congress targeting the Assad regime – must not affect DAA areas.
    3. International organizations should undertake programs to develop the areas in North and East Syria without affecting the transparency of the work of the DAA.

In her testimony before the commission, U.S. researcher Amy Austin Holmes stated that it was the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that stopped and defeated the genocides committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) in North and East Syria.

During the period in which ISIS held control of large swaths of Syrian territory, the group made a concerted effort force the Syriac-Assyrian Christians from their homes and persecuted the Armenian and other Christians living south east of Deir ez-Zor along the Euphrates River.

Under the Turkish occupation that because with the invasion of the region in October 2019, the Armenian people of Tel Abyad have been forced to leave. Deep concerns have arisen since Turkish and Turkish-backed forces have been trying to end the Christian presence in Dayrik (Al-Malikiyah) and Tel Tamr, where kidnappings for a ransom have increased in the latter. Approximately 175 Christian families were forced to leave their villages due to the Turkish invasion. Thirty-five Christian villages are located near the line of contact between Turkish forces and the SDF.

Schools, roads, and electricity must be rebuilt and reconstructed to facilitate the return of Christian families to Tel Tamr. Holmes called for the U.S. to exert effort to secure a seat for the DAA at the negotiating table in Geneva.

Sarah Kayali, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, spoke about the harshness of the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies in suppressing the Syrian people, in addition to the impact of the coronavirus upon the Syrian people. Kayali also discussed the impact of Turkey’s cutting off water from the Alouk Pumping Station. The station services half a million Syrian residents in DAA areas.

Michael Rubin, a former U.S. Defense Department official and researcher at the U.S. Enterprise Institute, talked about his experience traveling to North and East Syria and was briefed on the DAA work regarding the preservation of religious freedoms. He mentioned that the Trump Administration and Congress should put pressure on Turkey to preserve religious freedoms. He also called for the exception of the DAA from the Treasury Department’s Syria sanctions.

Nadine Maenza, Vice Chair of USCIRF, stated via Twitter, “Because of the Turkish occupation of North and East Syria areas, many have been killed, disappeared, kidnapped, raped, subjected to forced religious conversion, detained and held for ransom until their families pay exorbitant sums of money to secure their release.”