Christian Communities in Northeast Syria Are the Target of a Turkish Attack for the First Time in Over a Century

Matthew Petti

Church bells rang out across the plains of northeast Syria, warning villagers to seek shelter from incoming air raids. It was the first time in a century that the Christian communities in the region were forced to take shelter from a Turkish attack.

The Syriac-Assyrians and Armenians of northeast Syria have been divided on their feelings towards the Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) that took control of the area after the defeat of ISIS. But they remain united against the prospect of a war between Turkey and the Kurds, which is now beginning to wreak havoc on their homeland.

“They want to finish the job started a hundred years ago in the Seyfo,” said Bassam Ishak, using a Syriac-language term for the 1915 genocide of Christians in present-day Turkey. “There is a solidarity among Syriacs and Assyrian political parties in condemning the attack, because of the history, for one thing, and second, because nobody wants to see a neighboring country come and attack their homes and force them out.”

Ishak, an SDC diplomat of Syriac-Assyrian origin, said that indigenous Christian ethnic groups used to be one-third of northeast Syria’s population, but many left during the Arab nationalist regimes of the twentieth century. There are no reliable statistics today, but Ishak estimates that there are only forty or fifty thousand Syriac-Assyrians left in the region.

In February 2015, ISIS attacked the Khabour Valley, destroying churches and taking hundreds of Syriac-Assyrians hostages. According to the Assyrian Policy Institute, the campaign “effectively end[ed] the Assyrian presence in the Khabour Region.”

“For Assyrians, history is repeating itself—again and again. That realization is crippling for a people that has experienced immense suffering and is still affected by the lasting consequences of the events of 1915,” said Assyrian Policy Institute director Reine Hanna.

European Syriac Union member David Vergili told the National Interest that Syriac-Assyrian villagers in the border region are now fleeing for al-Hassaka and the southern neighborhoods of al-Qamishli, two cities founded by survivors of the 1915 genocide. (Syriac-Assyrians sometimes refer to al-Qamishli as Beth-Zalin.) “If the conflict continues in this way, I'm sure that the Syriac people will also leave these big cities,” Vergili said.

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