“Our modern history began with the sword:” how the Assyrians, Syria’s forgotten and ancient minority, survived the country’s civil war

Wednesday 13 March 201905:51 pm
As the ongoing battle by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to dislodge the Islamic State (ISIS) from its last pockets in Eastern Syria continues to rage – and amid mounting speculation revolving around Turkey’s plans to counter Syria’s Kurds by establishing a “safe zone” on its southern borders – the spotlight of international media has been firmly focused in recent times on the fate of Syria’s Kurds. Yet hidden within the unremitting chaos of Syria’s ongoing multi-dimensional war, is the destiny of a small minority which inhabits Northern Syria: Syria’s forgotten Assyrian community. “We are Syrian’s original inhabitants,” declares Yaqoub Lahdo, the presenter of an Assyrian television programme on the predominantly Kurdish satellite channel Ronahî. Indeed, the very title of the state which has for so long marginalised his people, he reminds us, originates from their very name. The ancient Assyrian homeland was once known as Beth Nahrain – a region in Syria “between the two rivers” (i.e. the Tigris and Euphrates), from which they spread up to the borders of Armenia. The numbers of Assyrians and their geographical spread would however experience a dramatic decline during the early twentieth century – a direct consequence Lahdo says of the persecution of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of the Middle East at the time. Following the events of the First World War, the Assyrian community centred itself in Northern Syria, particularly in the regions of Qamishli, Al-Hasakah, Ras al-Ayn, Al-Malikiyah (also known by its Kurdish name, Dêrika) and Al-Rumailan. A smaller Assyrian presence continued in the south of the country, mainly in the Qalamoun mountain range (bordering Lebanon) and the suburbs of Damascus – whilst regionally, a smaller number of Assyrians continue to live outside of Syria, notably along the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges. However, a large number migrated and settled in Europe. Despite simultaneously taking place alongside the Armenian genocide, the mass killing of Assyrians by Ottoman authorities between 1914-1915 (during World War I) is less renowned globally, despite the number of its victims ranging between hundreds of thousands, to several million. It is this painful past in the not-so-distant memory which prompts Milad Korkis, a journalist in the Syriac Union Party (SUP), to sombrely declare: “our modern history began with the sword.” The origins of the Assyrian community (alternatively known as Syriac, its spoken language) can be traced back to the Arameans, an ancient Middle Eastern civilisation. Assyrians pray in Aramaic (the ancient biblical language from which Syriac derives), and the vast majority are followers of the Eastern Christian church. The community is split into both Orthodox and Catholic denominations, which together form an approximate 15% of Syria’s total Christian community (which in turn numbers around 2.2 million individuals). Recent reports, however, indicate that only 30,000 Assyrians remain in the country. The adherents of Syriac Christianity can be divided into membership of three main churches, all of which possess their separate and distinct traditions: the Assyrian (Catholic) Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Chaldean Catholic Church. According to the Orthodox priest of the city of Al-Malikiyah (Dêrika), Joseph Musa, the Syriac Orthodox Church (the largest of the three churches in terms of membership size) can be classified as apostolic, by virtue of the identity of its founder: St. Peter, one of Jesus’ famed disciples. Its original headquarters were based in Antioch (modern-day Turkey) – however, following the massacres of the First World War it was moved to Homs in central Syria, and eventually to Damascus – where it continues to reside today. Indeed, Musa points out, one section of the church (albeit separate administration-wise from the main branch in Damascus) can even be found as far away as India. According to the executive director of the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights (an independent NGO which oversees the situation of Christians in the Middle East, and aims to preserve Assyrian culture), Jamil Diyarbakirli, Syria’s post-independence period from French colonial rule initially witnessed what he calls “a golden political and economic age for Assyrians.” Indeed, Diyarbakirli tells Raseef22 of a little-known fact: in 1951, an Assyrian would even reach the Presidency – albeit only for 24 hours – when Sai’d Ishaq temporarily assumed power following the resignation of Hashim al-Atassi. It was under the rule of the United Arab Republic (UAR, a short-lived merger between Egypt and Syria which existed between 1958-1961), however, that Diyarbakirli places the start of modern discrimination against the Assyrian community – which he attributes to the state’s “security policies and economic mistakes” at the time. This reality continued under the rule of the Ba’ath party (the governing party of Bashar al-Assad, which first assumed power in 1963). The Ba’athists, Diyarbakirli says, “nationalised the schools and factories of the Assyrian community and their agricultural lands, and attacked Assyrian nationalists and attempted to Arabise them – whilst working towards obscuring Assyrian culture and confining the teaching of the [Syriac] language to the church, which caused the exile of many of them to Europe.”  

The Assyrians and the ‘Autonomous Administration’

After the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) exerted control over wide swathes of North Syria in 2012, declaring an ‘Autonomous Administration’ in the areas under its control. Amongst its foremost allies in this endeavour was none other than the Syriac Union Party (SUP). Hanna Taghlat, a member of the central committee of the SUP (who also serves as the vice-president of the Cultural Commission for the province of Jazira, on behalf of the Autonomous Administration), explained the attraction of the Kurdish alliance to Raseef22. “The idea of a democratic nation formed a social contract between the autonomous administration and Assyrians,” he says.   Taghlat points out that the new reality which the region found itself in from 2012 (following the withdrawal of the Assad regime from wide swathes of Northern Syria, and the subsequent assumption of control by the Kurdish PYD) presented the Assyrian population with new opportunities – enabling them to participate in the Autonomous Administration as well as establish their own military and security forces. The underlying ideology driving this pursuit, he says, can be ascribed to the ideas of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan: one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla group which has been at war with Turkey for more than three decades (and designated as a terrorist organisation by various Western governments). Imprisoned in Turkey since 1999, Öcalan’s political theories evolved whilst behind bars – notably building on the concept of ‘democratic confederalism’, which Taghlat says stresses equal representation for different ethnic and social components, and which the PYD claims to be applying in North Syria. Indeed, the current alliance with the PYD – widely-recognised as the Syrian branch of the Turkey-based PKK – can be sourced back to the beginning of the Kurdish-Turkish armed conflict. Taghlat points out that Assyrian insurgents fought amongst the ranks of the PKK under the banner of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic party (BNP) – an Iraqi Assyrian party which aims to establish an autonomous Assyrian region. The SUP is the Syrian affiliate of the Bet-Nahrain National Council (alternatively known as the Mesopotamia National Council), a coalition of regional Syriac parties headquartered in Europe. As with the trajectory of the PYD/PKK, Taghlat says that his party has abandoned its more nationalistic streak in favour of the concept of autonomous coexistence. This he asserts is reflected in the makeup of the Autonomous Administration, which he claims enjoys the support of most Assyrians.

The Assyrians’ new armed forces

Despite being largely tied to the example set by the Kurdish PYD of trying to avoid large-scale fighting with the Assad regime (by contrast to the opposition Free Syrian Army), the regime’s preoccupation with fighting rebel forces elsewhere nonetheless provided Assyrians with the space to form their own armed formations. In the words of the commander of the Syriac Military Council, Kino Gabriel: “We were born out of the womb of the Syrian crisis.” The Syriac Military Council was founded as the armed affiliate of the Syriac Union Party in 2013, two years after the outbreak of protests against the Assad regime. The Syriac Military Council would later join the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an anti-ISIS military coalition which would receive significant support from the US-led International Coalition, and conquer vast territories in the process (the SDF reportedly controls a quarter of Syrian territory, including the bulk of the country’s oil fields). The Kurdish YPG (the military wing of the PYD) forms the backbone of the SDF – however, other factions such as the Syriac Military Council as well as various Arab groups also play a role in the coalition. Gabriel highlights the Syriac Military Council’s role in helping to “secure Assyrian villages,” as well as its participation in battles against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria). Amongst the most notable battles the group would participate in were those of Al-Tabqa and (the former ISIS capital) Raqqa, in which Gabriel says the group “lost more than 40 martyrs.” The other key Assyrian armed formation is the Sutoro (meaning “protection”): a local police force formed after the example of its Kurdish equivalent, the Asayish. The Sutoro’s spokesman, Akkad Henna, told Raseef22 that the brief of the Sutoro is to “protect the society’s political and moral values, and safeguard people and property.” The makeup of the “internal security force” was primarily Assyrian, he added, and was based inside the Jazira canton (‘cantons’ are the administrative name given by the Autonomous Administration to describe the highest territorial division in their substate, and is roughly equivalent to province) – particularly in Al-Hasakah, Qamishli, Tel Tamer, Al-Qahtaniyah, and Al-Malikiyah (Dêrika). As with the Syriac Military Council, the force also commenced its work in 2013 – and its members according to Hanna receive a mixture of ideological, organisational and security training courses. A key aim of these is to train members to fight crime as well as safeguard religious commemorations. Hanna lists the other main tasks undertaken by the Sutoro as manning the entry and exit checkpoints of towns and cities, as well as participating in security campaigns both inside and outside of Al-Jazira. Hanna adds that the group’s headquarters were targeted on one occasion in al-Hasakah, in an attack that left one dead and seven wounded.

The role of Assyrian women

The circumstances of the Syrian war have not only propelled the men of the Assyrian community to the forefront of events, but have also entailed a considerable social shift in the role of its women. Elizabeth Koreya is a leader in the Syriac Union Party, and also serves as the joint vice-president of the Autonomous Administration’s executive council in North East Syria. “We have a complete openness as Assyrian women,” she says, “but the society around us dressed us in a tight [constrained] fitting.” According to Koreya, the role of Assyrian women was restricted before the war to housework and raising children – whilst the Church added another impediment: “The woman could not do anything except after consulting the church,” she says. A turning point would take place in 2012, after members of the community were kidnapped. Facing the rise of ISIS – which Koreya describes as the “harshest” experience to face the community – many Assyrian women fled with their families to Europe. Others however began taking “slow and fearful steps,” in her words, to “organising themselves politically and inside civil society organisations.” These she continues embroiled themselves in the armed formations, accordingly “forming the Beth-Nahrain Women’s Protection Units to join the fight against ISIS.” So too would the initiative of a Women’s Sutoro succeed in getting off the ground – an undertaking which the head of the male branch Akkad Hanna described as “historic”. He says that the women force shares the same remit as its male counterpart, similarly tasked with “safeguarding cities” and “participating in security campaigns and courses.” Hanna doesn’t deny that the notion of women carrying arms initially faced social obstacles, but he says these barriers were overcome through “educational courses.” These courses not only aimed to instruct participants on how to use their weapons, according to Hanna, but also sought to raise awareness of the necessity of women joining the men in the “fight against terrorism.”

The Assyrian church: praying to authority

Whilst the above overview of the dominant Assyrian force to have arisen from the vacuum of the Syrian war – as constituted in the Syriac Union Party (SUP) and its military (Syriac Military Council) and security (Sutoro) wings – is useful in giving us a broad glimpse of the (much-ignored) input of Assyrians in the conflict, no complete picture can be painted without examining the role of the Assyrian Church as well as the SUP’s political competitors. We put this question to Hanna Taghlat. To start with, what were the nature of his party’s disagreements with the Assyrian church? Hanna’s response was candid: “Syriac is the language of a people, not only the language of prayers.” However, that’s not all there is to the issue. Considering the tensions which have existed throughout the war between the Assad regime and the SDF (of which the SUP is a part) on the one hand – which have sometimes escalated to the level of significant armed clashes – and the pro-regime loyalist stance taken by the Assyrian church on the other, it is safe to surmise that the dispute cannot be reduced only to a matter of cultural disagreements, but has a clear political dimension.   Explaining why his church chose to side with the Syrian regime – or the ‘Syrian state’, the term which loyalists from communities with high degrees of opposition often prefer to use – Al-Malikiyah’s priest Joseph Musa explains: “the Bible bequeaths us to pray for the present [ruling] authority.” Citing his Church’s refusal of the ‘separation’ of Assyrians from Syria and its disapproval of the SUP and its armed formations, he simultaneously outlines his rejection of any attempts to ‘politicise’ the Church – which he claims is a religious institution with no place in politics. Nonetheless, Musa says that the Church has not boycotted the SUP: “the Church is like a mother that embraces its deviant child, and therefore there is no estrangement between the two sides, for it [the Church] offers those that disobey it marriage and certification and funereal services.” It should be noted that one of the Church’s clergymen, Aleppo’s archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, was kidnapped in 2013 alongside the Roman Orthodox archbishop Paul Yazigi – allegedly by Chechen fighters. Their whereabouts remain unknown today. The divisions within the Assyrian community have manifested themselves on the ground. The Autonomous Administration’s Assyrians (who are effectively dependant affiliates of the Kurdish PYD/YPG) are not the only armed members of the community – for some Assyrians have joined the pro-regime paramilitary National Defence Forces (NDF), where they’ve earned the nickname ‘the regime’s Sutoro.’ The ‘regime’s Sutoro’ are mainly based in the central neighbourhood of the city of Qamishli – where they have in the past engaged in limited clashes with the Kurdish Asayish security forces, due to disagreements over control of checkpoints (which both sides share inside the city). There are also Assyrian critics of both the Assad regime and the Autonomous Administration. In his conversation with Rassef22, rights’ advocate Jamil Diyarbakirli charged the Autonomous Administration along with the Syriac Union Party of continuous violations against residents: accusing the forces of the SDF of forcibly conscripting Assyrian youth, confiscating the lands of residents who have fled, cracking down on critical media outlets and civil society organisations, engaging in arbitrary arrests, and extracting royalties from commercial shops and agricultural harvests.

The language question

Pastor Elya points out that there are two forms of Syriac, one spoken in church and a more colloquial form spoken on the street. The most common form is ‘Turani’ – a dialect derived from the mountainous region of Tur Abdin in southern Turkey, which previously served as a cultural and monastic centre. Efforts to transform Syriac into a taught language in schools however have constituted the “the most difficult variable in the equation,” says Hanna Jallinos, the joint president of ‘Olf Tau’ – an institute which specialises in teaching Syriac. Jallinos points to the history of Syriac schools in producing prominent scientists and translators, before the Ba’ath party transformed the language solely into a dialect for prayer, he says. Today, most Assyrian children are taught the language orally in their homes; however, the lack of the necessary knowledge of grammatical rules poses a serious issue, not to mention the recent influx of Kurdish and Arabic words into the language.   To combat this problem, Jallinos says that his institute has embarked on an effort to revitalise Syriac by aiming to produce a new generation of teachers adept at the language – a task which places Church clergymen and educators firmly at the centre of the education process. Since 2016 the institute has also assumed the sizable responsibility of producing school books for the first to ninth school grades; it is currently in the process of correcting grammatical mistakes in them, as well as adding school activities. Moreover, a central ambition of the new curriculum according to Jallinos is to promote the understanding that Syriac not only constitutes a separate language, but also an identity specifically-distinct from Arabic. The books produced by the institute have also sought to correct what Jallinos cites as examples of historical revisionism within the “Ba’ath books” (i.e. Syrian government curriculum), which include describing the ancient civilisational sites of Palmyra and the gardens of Babylon as ‘Arab’ – whilst the books also contain definitions of religious and national Assyrian celebrations.

The school ‘curriculum crisis’… a manifestation of Assyrian divisions

In 2018, the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration decided to impose the mandatory teaching of Syriac in Assyrian schools for students from the first to sixth grades. What followed was what Jallinos labels a ‘curriculum crisis’ – with a large scale of public rejection breaking out in response to the Autonomous Administration’s decision. The source of the discontent began in August 2018, when the Autonomous Administration closed 14 Syriac schools in Qamishli, Al-Hasakah and Al-Malikiyah (Dêrika). Having already introduced a new Kurdish curriculum in Kurdish schools, the authorities sought to replicate the model for their Syriac counterparts – arguing that every minority should undertake their primary studies in their mother language. Whilst the Syriac Union Party (SUP) welcomed the decision, others within the community were less enthusiastic. Demanding the retention of the Syrian government’s curriculum in their schools, members of the community went out to protest the decision – with some of the protesters raising the Syrian regime flag and chanting slogans in support of Bashar al-Assad. Whilst most members of the community recognise the importance of teaching their children their mother language, the unrecognised nature of the new curriculum – with both the Syrian government and universities outside the country refusing to accept such certificates – posed a significant stumbling block. Prime amongst the opposing parties was the World Council of Arameans [Syriacs] (WCA), which condemned the “closing of Syriac schools” and, in a statement by the council’s UN relations official Sarah Bakir, proceeded to accuse Kurdish authorities of targeting Assyrians and other minorities under their control. The statement concluded with a stark rebuke, declaring: “The people of the region have grown tired of these tyrants who violate human rights, and their backers.” Negotiations were eventually held between the Assyrian parties opposed to the new Syriac curriculum (with the Syriac Orthodox Church at their head) and the Autonomous Administration, and an agreement was subsequently reached to keep the government curriculum in Syriac schools – on the condition that these schools didn’t admit Kurdish students. Meanwhile, Syriac language lessons were increased to four per week. Journalist Milad Korkis accused the Syrian regime of instigating the crisis, saying: “the regime whipped up public opinion and sought to encourage protests.” Korkis also charged the regime with ordering teaching faculties to close some schools during the start of the new academic year, which he says was done in order to “incite strife.” Others attribute the Syriac Church’s refusal of the new curriculum to its containing of terms that emphasise the Assyrians as an independent nation, arguing that the Church refuses to implant things that encourage separation from the state.
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