Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Assyrians in IS sights

Assyrian villages in Syria were within range of Islamic State fighters for a year before this week’s attacks, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The attacks by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group on villages and hamlets inhabited by Assyrians, or Syriac Christians, in northeastern Syria were characteristically swift and brutal this week.

While the casualties were minimal since most of the villages were vacated months ago, IS fighters still abducted 250 Assyrians in their recent offensive. Thousands more were immediately evacuated from surrounding villages.

The Syrian opposition denounced the attacks as further brutality against minority communities in the country and accused the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Iran of colluding with the extremist group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq.

An international coalition has singled it out for an aerial campaign that has mostly stopped it in its tracks.

In the wake of this week’s attacks on the Assyrian villages, Syria’s Assyrians have called on the international community for help, but have thus far received mostly rhetorical support.

Negotiations have started for the release of the Assyrian prisoners. Uncharacteristically, IS has started releasing a small of number of them, without asking for anything in return.

Sympathy has been immediate from Europe, which has offered sanctuary for the displaced Assyrians. Lebanon, too, has said that its borders are open to the Assyrians, a remarkable gesture since the Lebanese have been trying to seal their borders to other Syrian refugees.

The Assyrians, also called Syriacs or Suryans, are a Christian community living in both Iraq and Syria and are believed to be the descendants of the ancient nation of the same name that lived in Mesopotamia millennia ago.

They are credited by historians with inventing the alphabet and speak a form of Aramaic, the language that was once the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean.

Jamil Diarbakerli, with the Assyrian Democratic Organisation, a local group, said that the Kurds had tried to defend the Assyrian villages.

“Those who tried to defend the villages were just a few local Assyrian young men, and the main defence has been provided by Kurdish People’s Protection Units,” he said. The Kurds were on standby in the region for fear of IS “advancing to take more villages,” he added.

Bassam Ishaq, chairman of the Syriac National Council, a community organisation, believes that the international coalition should take steps to repulse IS. “There is a dire need for intervention by the international coalition, like what happened in Kobani. Otherwise, the tragedy will be unthinkable,” he said.

But why has IS waited a year before making its move on the lightly protected villages that were always within striking distance?

The group wanted “first of all, to exact revenge on the Assyrians for defending their land in cooperation with the Kurds. Secondly, it wishes to use the captives, including women and children, as human shields. Thirdly, it wants to use this area as a corridor to the city of Hasakah,” Ishaq said.

US analysts suggest that IS wants to distract the coalition by dragging it into a new confrontation in the hope of delaying plans to retake Mosul.

Soliman Youssef, an Assyrian political activist, believes that IS was reacting to attacks by Kurdish forces on its positions. It wants to use the Syriac Christians as a negotiating card, in the hope of stopping a major offensive by the coalition against its forces, he said.

Youssef noted that the Syrian army is no more than 20 km away from the villages taken by IS, but that it made no attempt to stop the fighters.

Syrian opposition figure Sayeed Moqbil said this was the first time Kurdish forces had confronted IS in an area not inhabited by Kurds. The Kurds had destroyed “other villages close to the Assyrian villages but inhabited by Muslims,” he said.

Moqbil’s claim has been independently confirmed by the National Coalition of Syrian and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), an umbrella group.

“The Kurds have an interest in killing and displacing Christians from the region because these villages are part of the country that they aim to create,” Moqbil said.

“It must be borne in mind that what happened to the Assyrians in Syria is exactly what happened to them in Iraq when the Kurds were trying to seize the northern parts of the country during the Iraq War.

“The Kurds expelled the Assyrians and annexed their villages,” Moqbil said.

Syrian opposition figure Fawaz Tallo is concerned that the international community is taking an interest in atrocities related to IS attacks on Kurds and Assyrians, but is ignoring the fate of millions of other Syrians.

“Nothing is being said about the crimes committed against the Syrian people as a whole, especially the Sunni majority, by IS, the regime, Iran, the Kurds and Shiite militia,” he said.

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