Not long after the defeat of the Islamic State in the area, Syrian Christians warn that US military withdrawal from the Kurdish-controlled region, announced yesterday by President Donald Trump, will expose them to danger.
“The expected military invasion [by Turkey] and the possible confrontation with the Kurds might oblige Christians of the region to leave,” said Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon. “This means one more tragedy to the Christian presence in Syria.”
Seeking to honor his campaign promises to extract America from “endless war,” Trump yielded to Turkey’s demand to establish a “safe zone” along its southern border with Syria. Since August, the United States and Turkey administered a joint buffer zone patrol in the Kurdish-majority area.
Turkey’s objectives are two-fold. First, to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. Second, to clear the border of Kurdish fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), deemed a terrorist entity by both Ankara and Washington. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to establish a 20-mile corridor unilaterally, frustrated by US cooperation with Kurdish fighters belonging to the PKK.
Kurds number approximately 30 million, located primarily in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They are one of the largest stateless people in the world, though within Iraq the constitution has designated Kurdistan as an autonomous region.
“It is very possible that the American withdrawal from the region will lead to the extinction of Christianity from the region,” said Ashty Bahro, former director of the Evangelical Alliance of Kurdistan, in Iraq, noting the safety there for Christians and other minorities.“How can another country [Turkey] enter the pretext of liberation from terrorism? Will the target be only terrorism or ‘undesirable people’? Leaving the area without proper care will lead to another disaster.”
The Kurdish-controlled area of northeast Syria stretches 300 miles from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border. Approximately 750,000 people live there, including estimates of between 40,000 and 100,000 Christians.
Over 700,000 Christians have fled Syria since 2011. And while some warn of further displacement, others fear a greater threat.
“Turkey aims to kill and destroy us and to finish the genocide against our people,” said a statement issued by the Syriac Military Council, a Christian component of the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), as reported by the Christian Broadcasting Network. “We hope and pray that as we have defended the world against ISIS, the world will not abandon us now.”
The Christian community of Qamishli, on the border with Turkey near Iraq, issued its own statement.
“The Turkish regime is based on armed extremist and radical groups that commit crimes against civilians and humanity,” said Sanharib Barsoum, the co-chair of the Syriac Union Party. “Such threats endanger the life of Syriac people in the region.”
Following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Kurds created People’s Protection Units (YPG), which eventually became the backbone of the SDF. The SDF coalition was assembled by the US in 2015 to fight ISIS. In 2017, the US began arming the YPG directly, enraging Turkey.
The largely successful campaign against ISIS cost 11,000 SDF lives. The SDF says it holds 2,000 ISIS fighters from 55 nations, including 1,000 Europeans. Trump has said Turkey will take responsibility for them. The Kurds promise to resist the Turkish incursion, making them unable to continue guarding the prisons.
Christian voices are also keen to preserve the unique peace achieved between Kurds, Arabs, and Christians. Since 2014 a social charter has ensured democratic governance, women’s rights, and freedom of worship.
The town of Kobani, on the Turkish border, hosts a Brethren church composed of converts from Islam. Around 20 families worship there, and the church’s pastor, Zani Bakr, arrived last year from Afrin, displaced by an earlier Turkish incursion.
One Syrian Christian leader issued a plea to President Trump.
“Please, seek God, ask God before you make your decision, so that Christianity is not eradicated from Syria, and from historical Mesopotamia,” Bassam Ishak, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council Representation in the USA, told CBN News, following Trump’s February threat to withdraw US forces. “We don't want a country where citizenship and rights are based on ethnic identities or religious identity. We want all Syrians to be equal.”
Ishak and his colleagues across faiths have received the support of the Family Research Council in the US. Tony Perkins, though an evangelical advisor to the White House, tweeted his opposition to Trump’s decision, warning it would “endanger the prospects of true religious freedom in the Middle East.”
His colleague Travis Weber, vice president for policy and government affairs, told the Christian Post that the region can serve as a safe haven, preventing the flight of the persecuted to Europe and the United States.“Not only will our withdrawal destabilize the region,” he said, “but it … signals to the world that we don’t care about the religious freedom they have built.”
Other American evangelical critics include Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson, who warned Trump risks losing “the mandate of heaven.” Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham joined Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in condemning Trump’s move.
And the bipartisan US Commission for International Religious Freedom tweeted its “deep concern.” Trump responded to criticism by citing his “great and unmatched wisdom,” warning that if Turkey does anything off limits, he will once again destroy its economy.
US economic sanctions were part of his high-profile efforts to secure the release of pastor Andrew Brunson, held two years in Turkey on terrorism-related charges.
In Defense of Christians, a nonpartisan organization committed to the preservation and protection of Christians in the Middle East, expressed great concern about the future of Christians and Yazidis, but was encouraged by Trump’s threat.
“President Erdogan has surely not forgotten the economic ramifications of sanctions,” said Toufic Baaklini, president of IDC.
This would be the third Turkish military incursion into Syria since 2016. Turkey defended its policy, saying local Kurdish leaders appreciated the support.
But critics accuse Turkey of engineering demographic changes to dilute the Kurdish population on its border.
The international community has not issued support for the Turkish plan for resettling Syrian refugees. The United Nations insists first on a comprehensive political agreement, and for refugees to return to their original locations.
Similarly for Kassab, based in Beirut and overseeing evangelical communities in Syria and Lebanon, territorial integrity is vital. “The US administration finally decided to leave the Kurds in the Turkish hands,” he said. “But Syria must be left in the hands of the Syrians, and a concerted action by the international community is the only way to put an end to this ugly war.”