The Assyrians' challenge in a post-IS Syria

The Assyrians' challenge in a post-IS Syria
In-depth: Assyrians of the Khabbur plain were targeted in the jihadists' assaults, and relied on the support of Kurdish and Arab fighters to keep extremists away, reports Sylvain Mercadier.
6 min read
13 July, 2018
Christian churches were destroyed by IS during their occupation of Assyrian villages [Sylvain Mercadier]
Assyrians of the Khabbur plain in northern Syria suffered greatly during the the peak of the jihadists' assaults. But thanks to the support of Kurdish and Arab fighters, they managed to repel the Islamic State group away from their land.

But this Christian minority is still dispersed by the fighting and struggles to return to a normal life. In some rural areas, many villages were emptied of their population, including the children and young adults, who now prefer to remain in the cities.

We are welcomed by Aras at the entrance of Tel Tall. His head leaning, the old man in a khaki suit guides us through the streets of an almost deserted village. This Assyrian was assigned to maintain security here. He would seem harmless if he didn't hold a Kalashnikov under his arm everywhere he goes. The area is now secure, with IS expelled further south, the group only remaining in any great numbers in a few towns in the south-east of the Syrian desert.

But their time in Tel Tall has left its scars. Four years ago, they blew up the church on Easter Sunday. "The inhabitants had to flee by crossing the river and found shelter thanks to the Assyrian militia's outpost that was still preparing to retaliate to the Islamists' attack," Aras recalls.

The local Assyrian militia was unable to protect the villages along the Khabbur river, which joins the Euphrates further south. In this region, the fundamentalists threatened the Christians who would collaborate with the Kurdish militias - who they believed held an "atheist theology" and were thus considered heretical. The IS group imposed a tax, the Jizya, on all non-Muslims who decided to stay, and destroyed all Christian symbols such as crosses and places of worship.

In Tell Tamr, a multicultural town further north, the advance of the jihadists was finally halted. Alongside the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), an Assyrian militia, the Natoro Forces, managed to start a campaign to retake their ancestral homelands.

"Our forces were created in 2011 and started to deploy themselves in the Khabbur plain immediately," says Robert Isso, the current leader of the Christian militias.

"Our objective was to defend the Assyrian population wherever they stood. At that time, we had to confront self-proclaimed Sunni militias that had committed many thefts and kidnappings. Many became radicalised and eventually joined the Nusra Front [al-Qaeda's former franchise in Syria], and then the Islamic State group.

"But with the help of Kurdish militias and their Arab allies with whom we joined forces in 2013, we were able to expel them."
Although the threat of jihadists reemerging as a powerful force here seems unlikely, the remote villages of the plain are struggling to find a new balance in their demographics

The Assyrian community has since been slowly healing its wounds, trying to resume a normal lifestyle in a country still plagued with conflict. Although the threat of jihadists reemerging as a powerful force here seems unlikely, the remote villages of the plain are struggling to find a new balance in their demographics.

Few people have returned since the instability. In Tel Tall, empty houses outnumber inhabited homes. The almost ghost-town has lost its hustle and bustle. Most buildings have not been maintained since the jihadists left; some hide improvised explosive devices.

In some of the former family homes, inscriptions left by the militants are still clear: "The Islamic State will remain" or "There is no Divinity other than God" - two common IS slogans. Most of the homeowners have found shelter in relatives' properties in Hassakeh or Qamishi, or in IDP camps. Some have been able to emigrate to foreign countries including Australia or Canada.

Few seem willing to return to the small villages in the outskirts of the Assyrian territories.

This reality is troubling many Assyrians we met here. The military battle against the Islamic State group has been won. But it will be harder to achieve real victory, and to convince people to come back, to live on their land of their forefathers and to continue their existence in a multicultural and pluralistic Syria.

"Many of the younger generation have had a taste of the life in the cities and do not wish to come back and stay in the villages. One must admit that there is not much to do here apart from farming," admits Myriam, an inhabitant of Tel Tall, who we met in one of the village's empty streets.

"Although I fled when the Islamists came, I returned as soon as the village was liberated to resume my work in the fields. This is our land, I cannot imagine living elsewhere. Our young ones do not share the same attachment to the earth, which explains their choice to remain in the cities where there are more modern activities and services."
We are on good terms and all share a common sense of belonging to the Syrian nation

In northern Syria, the self-proclaimed "Northern Federation" of Kurdish-led governance has given birth to new institutions that offered Assyrians and other minorities a share in the political system.

Shimon Yunan, a member of the Assyrian Democratic Party (ADP) told us his community was well represented in this new entity, and that collaboration with the other ethnic groups was fruitful and constructive. "We are on good terms and all share a common sense of belonging to the Syrian nation," he explained.

"The federal model that was set up is satisfying as we feel sufficiently represented. But we are going to need some help to rebuild our houses and give incentives to the IDPs and refugees to move back to their homes."

The international community is little to promote the return of these minorities. "There are international charity associations that are raising funds to start a reconstruction process. That includes organisations led by members of our diaspora. But altogether, it doesn't provide sufficient aid to offer a satisfying lifestyle to the younger ones in the rural areas. Hence they prefer to remain in the cities or camps for now," said Shimon.

Robert Isho reflected on his people's history. "Our community has greatly suffered and faced many massacres throughout its history. Today again, some Assyrians are being threatened in Afrin and in the north of Syria by hostile militias... But we have always supported dialogue and reconciliation. We hope for a future of peace where religious issues would not interfere with the political debate."

Assyrians, like all communities of Syria, are the hostages of an endless war still witnessing massive human tragedies. The uncertainty of the future is deeply affecting their choices and encourages many to leave the region. Assyrians want more guarantees regarding their security and stability for the future.

As the Syrian conflict enters its eighth year, following the Turkish offensive in Afrin and the Ghouta takeover, it will be difficult to convince minority groups that coexistence will prevail any time soon.

Sylvain Mercadier is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @Sylv_Mercadier