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Christians Killed on Syria’s Front Lines

While Trump defends US withdrawal, advocates fear “Turkey will complete the work that ISIS tried to do, in eradicating Christians from this region.”
Christians Killed on Syria’s Front Lines
Image: Burak Kara/Getty Images
Ras al-Ain, Syria

Three Christians have been killed in Turkey’s assault on Kurdish-held areas in northeast Syria, reported In Defense of Christians (IDC), citing their sources on the ground.

In Qamishli, a Syriac Christian and his wife died, while in Ras al-Ain an additional Syriac Christian civilian was killed. Ten civilians were injured in the attacks.

“People were so scared, they were telling me, ‘They are bombing us right now!’” Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, told NPR. “We think this is a message to the Kurds and Christians there to leave, so Turkey can move refugees there. We think it’s a form of ethnic cleansing.”

The Turkish operation focused initially on a 60-mile stretch of land between the two Arab-majority cities of Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, a sparsely populated area known as Syria’s breadbasket, reported BBC. IDC, which advocates for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, said that this area has large concentrations of Christians.

In total seven civilians were killed, including two children, reported Channel 4. Retaliatory Kurdish mortar fire into Turkey killed six people in several towns. Turkish President Erdogan stated 109 Kurdish fighters were killed. Video footage showed tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the area, shouting against both Erdogan and US president Donald Trump.

On Monday, roughly 50–100 American troops evacuated their observation posts in Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad. By Wednesday, the Turkish incursion had begun, including airstrikes with US-purchased F-16s. The Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) had previously dismantled their heavy artillery positions when the US agreed with Turkey to set up a buffer zone along the border.

US military officials told the Washington Post that Turkey mostly targeted Kurdish military facilities, likely destroying US-supplied weaponry. But other airstrikes hit populated areas, they said.

Ishak, monitoring from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, said residential areas were targeted, putting 40,000 to 50,000 Christians at risk.

The Syriac component of the SDF published a video of Christian soldiers at prayer in a church. The headline said, “Our duty is to protect our land.”

Their land is a diverse area. Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, and Chechens comprise an area that makes up about one-third of Syria. An Assyrian Christian, Sanharib Barsom, is co-president of the Democratic Federation.

“Our heritage was attacked, the city was destroyed,” said his colleague Abdulrahman Hasan, following the earlier Turkish incursion in Afrin. “Villages were plundered, women and girls were taken hostage, men are missing. Also several churches were destroyed and church members arrested.”

Residents are afraid the same will happen to Ras al-Ain.

“Just one artillery [battery] can destroy hundreds of houses,” 62-year-old Um Shirvan told al-Monitor. “We don't want to find ourselves on the streets; we want peace.”

Facing significant criticism from political allies and opponents alike, Trump defended his policy, despite calling Turkey’s decision a “bad idea.”

Entering the Middle East militarily was “the worst mistake the United States has ever made,” Trump said. “We’re now acting as police, doing jobs that other countries should be doing.”

Turkey and the Kurds have been long at war, and it is not in the US interest to be there, he continued. Furthermore, the US-Kurdish alliance is not that deep, compared to those who fought at Normandy. Nevertheless, “we like the Kurds,” Trump said, and Turkey must not go too far.

“I say hit Turkey very hard financially, and with sanctions if they don’t play by the rules! I am watching closely,” Trump tweeted. US officials interpreted this to mean red lines of ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations. Trump specifically mentioned protecting Christians and other religious minorities.

US senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, pushed for bipartisan sanctions immediately. They would freeze the assets of top Turkish officials, including Erdogan, and ban them from entering the US.

Erdogan is scheduled to visit the White House in November.

The sanctions would also hit the defense and energy sectors of Turkey’s economy, and force implementation of the penalties required when Turkey accepted a Russian-made missile defense system. Trump has yet to implement the law, and until now, Graham also supported a delay.

The IDC, which previously took comfort in Trump’s threatened sanctions, called for swift action.

“If the United States and the international community do not act to stop Turkey’s indiscriminate assault, in some cases with Islamist militias, Turkey will complete the work that ISIS tried to do, in eradicating Christians from this region,” said Toufic Baaklini, IDC president. “It was only by the sacrifice of the US military and their Kurdish and Christian partners that ISIS was stopped.”

Turkey is calling its incursion Operation Springs of Peace, and published an op-ed in the Washington Post saying Erdogan agreed with Trump to accept the transfer of leadership in the fight against ISIS. Kurdish areas would be governed in the interim by Kurdish local councils, as previously established following Turkish incursions in Afrin.

Turkey said the timing of the operation was significant, as it fell on the 21st anniversary of the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by both Washington and Ankara. But aligned with the Democratic Union Party (YPG) and its militias, it received US support in the fight against ISIS.

The SDF reported that one Turkish missile hit a prison where ISIS soldiers are being held. The Kurds have said they will be forced to move their troops to the front lines, rather than continue to guard detainees.

In 2015, several thousand Arabs fled Tel Abyad to Turkey when the PYD militias drove ISIS from the town. Despite desiring to return, they have been prevented under allegations they collaborated with the so-called caliphate.

Erdogan desires to repopulate a 20-mile deep “safe zone” along the border with Syrian refugees in Turkey. But most of these come from other areas, and the United Nations insists refugees return to their place of origin, once a political settlement has established peace.

Catholic News Service reported that an Erdogan-supporting Turkish newspaper issued a stark warning: “Go and tell the unbelievers that the army of [Islam’s Prophet] Muhammad is back.”

“The Turkish invasion is expected to be very harsh, not only on the traditional Christian community,” Ishak told the Catholic newspaper, “but also on the Kurds who have converted in recent years to Christianity and were allowed to openly practice their faith by the self-administration.”

Emanuel Youkhana, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East who administers Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq in Dohuk, expects a new wave of refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan.

He accused Erdogan of seeking demographic change, forcing out Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis in favor of Sunni Muslims. “It’s crazy, this northeast area was the most peaceful of all of Syria,” Youkhana said. “Now Turkey has come to destabilize all of that, this is clear.”

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