Cover Story
NEW NORM: A man walks amid destruction in the northern city of Aleppo on April 10.
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
NEW NORM: A man walks amid destruction in the northern city of Aleppo on April 10.

Turning Syria inside out

Middle East | With foreign fighters invading the rebellion, millions of Syrians fleeing civil war, and a brutal president determined to hang on, good guys and workable solutions are disappearing in a country no longer itself

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

In northeast Syria the grass rises high, lush, and vivid green as spring turns to summer. The fertile valley of Hasaka province, nursed by the Khabur River and wedged between borders with Turkey and Iraq, grows most of Syria’s wheat, rice, vegetables, and even cotton. Neighbors are so close, and both borders so historically fraught, they hover like unwelcome shadows.

But this is northern Mesopotamia, once a stronghold of churches and Christian centers of learning among the oldest anywhere. From here came the oldest Syriac liturgies still in use. From here went the earliest missionaries, carrying Christianity to central Asia, India, and China.

Hasaka province is also home to some of the oldest cities in the world—marked now by excavations of vast tells with names in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Christians preceded the Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds in the province, and for centuries the groups have lived alongside one another. More recently, starting in the 1950s, discoveries of petroleum reserves made Hasaka strategically important, home to Syria’s small but lucrative oil industry.

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Resource-rich and demographically diverse, Hasaka this year has become a pivotal battleground in Syria’s two-year-old civil war. Rebels since February have taken over significant portions of the province—including oilfields essential to the survival of the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad. 

As they’ve done so they are demonstrating the problems for the United States in funding the opponents of Assad: Just which ones? 

Armed fighters who began in 2011 as the Free Syrian Army have fractured into dozens of militant groups. They include the Farouq Brigades, a jihadist group of defectors from the Syrian Army that emerged from the historically Christian city of Homs early in the fighting. And jihadist forces from outside Syria have grown: 

• Two Saudi-backed groups under variations of the name Jabhat al-Tahrir al-Souriya al-Islamiya mount a force estimated at 40,000. 

• A third group of about 15,000 named Ahfad al-Rasoul is supported by Qatar. 

• Perhaps the most dangerous, the al-Nusra Front, draws support from al-Qaeda in Iraq and has been designated by the U.S. State Department a foreign terrorist organization (meaning it’s capable of exporting terror to Western targets). These aim to put in place an Islamic jihadist state following an anticipated overthrow of Assad. 

As bloody battles and Islamic stridency unfold in the northeastern cities of Hasaka, Christian churches and homes are targets. In the town of Ras al-Ayn fighters burned homes and destroyed churches in March. Al Nusra set up Sharia councils to carry out extremist Islamic laws. Christian families now regularly receive threat letters warning them to leave or be killed. The result: Religious cleansing that threatens to empty longstanding Christian villages. Hasaka church officials say the province had at least 300,000 Christians less than a year ago and now has less than 180,000.

Hasaka province, then, is a snapshot of the vicious devolution of what began in 2011 as one of the more peaceful and organized “Arab Spring” uprisings. It also illustrates the complex questions facing U.S. and other Western leaders under increasing pressure to do something to diffuse the chaotic fighting that has displaced an estimated 5 million Syrians—nearly a quarter of the population—according to the latest UN figures. 

It’s increasingly difficult to determine who—if anyone—deserves Western support. Yet Western intervention to many seems inevitable, with over 70,000 killed, mostly civilians, and threats growing of loosed chemical weapons and a wider war in the Middle East. 

Like Hasaka province itself, the prospects of a future under either Islamist rebels or the government with its cruel authoritarianism hem in Syrians from both sides.

Bassam Ishak is well versed in what it’s like in Hasaka to run out of options. When he was 11 years old the government confiscated all the land owned by his Syriac Christian family—over 1,200 acres in Hasaka province. Overnight his father lost his business and all his possessions: “We had to move to a new town, change our home and schools, and borrow money to survive.”

Now 52, Ishak remembers taunts and threats to his family from the newly ruling Ba’ath Party. For 22 years his father Said Ishak was a member of Parliament, widely known as a devout Christian and as an opponent of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party—even before it seized power in 1963 and Hafez al-Assad took charge in 1970. The father of the current president began nationalizing property, targeting and imprisoning political opponents.

The family survived for a time in Damascus but emigrated to the United States in 1981. “In Syria if you choose opposition you either go to jail or you leave the country,” Ishak told me. 


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