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Christians in northeast Syria fear Turkish invasion

HASAKAH, SYRIA
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Turkey apparently wants to rout the Kurds across the border, but Syriac population is in the middle.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke at the dedication of a Syriac Orthodox church outside of Istanbul this past week. But is Erdoğan at the same time overseeing a military operation that could lead to the decimation of a Christian community in northeast Syria?

That is the fear that many Christians, both in the Middle East and in the U.S., are expressing, as Turkish troops and military equipment mass along the border next to northeast Syria.

Their target seems to be Kurdish troops that, according to Turkey, represent a terrorist threat.

“Turkish leaders have vowed to destroy the Kurds, made up of more than 30 million people scattered over four nations and the world’s largest people group without a country,” wrote religion reporter Julia Duin at GetReligion.

It was the Syrian Kurds that helped defeat the Islamic State group on the battlefield after receiving U.S. equipment and training.

But, as Lara Seligman explains in Foreign Policy, Turkey charges that the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militant group—the PKK—which both the United States and Turkey have designated a terrorist group.

Kurdish-led victories against ISIS have left the SDF in control of much of the border area, a Washington Post article on Sunday pointed out. They are also guarding prisons full of ISIS fighters and argue that if they have to defend themselves against a Turkish invasion, they will no longer be able to hold the roughly 8,000 Syrians and Iraqis and 2,000 fighters from other countries.

If that’s not complicated enough, the area is home to tens of thousands of Christians. Conflict between Turkey and the Kurds could make ancient Christian communities sitting ducks, or force them to leave the area.

Sunday’s Washington Post article explained that the U.S. proposal to Turkey includes a “joint U.S.-Turkish military operation to secure a strip south of the Syria-Turkey border that would be about nine miles deep and 87 miles long and from which the Kurdish fighters would be withdrawn.”

Turkey has already rejected those parameters, insisting on a “safe zone” at least 20 miles deep and expressing a preference to control it alone. The Turkish government is also looking to establish areas that would allow the safe return of some of the more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

The 20-mile safe zone that Turkey wants would include many more Christian communities. And many of them are wary of the heirs of the Ottoman Empire, which slaughtered thousands of Armenians and Assyrians a century ago.

In July, the Christian Syriac Military Council, which makes up part of the SDF, appealed for help  from the Trump administration against a possible Turkish attack on the eastern Euphrates River region in Syria, according to Catholic News Service.

“Turkey has been amassing troops at Ras al-Ayn, where there is no U.S. military presence,” Syriac Christian political leader Bassam Ishak told CNS. “But anywhere these troops come inside northeast Syria will be tragic, like in Afrin,” he said, referring to a northwest Syrian town where, in March 2018, Turkish troops and their rebel allies, including ISIS and al-Qaida-linked fighters, attempted to rout Kurdish militants. They scattered the mainly Kurdish inhabitants, some of them Christian converts, and thousands of internally displaced Syrians from other parts of the country seeking shelter.

If Turkish forces enter the 20-mile zone, said Ishak, who graduated from the Catholic University of America in Washington, “the expectation is that they will push out the inhabitants and turn the region over to extremist jihadist groups that they support, just like they did in Afrin a year ago.”

Syriac Military Council member Aram Hanna told Kurdistan 24 TV that he hopes a U.S.-led coalition would protect northeast Syria because Islamic State “sleeper cells still pose a threat.”

Lauren Homer, a Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer familiar with the situation, also cited Afrin. During the U.S. State Department Ministerial on Religious Freedom taking place in mid-July in Washington, she told CNS that if Turkey invades, “it will be a repeat of Afrin in any territory they seize, bringing targeted genocide, ethnic cleansing, rapes and trafficking of women.”

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