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.
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.
In America Ishak worked as a civil engineer. He and his wife had three children and became active in the Washington, D.C.–area Church of the Apostles, an evangelical Anglican congregation. But the desire to see a pluralistic democracy in Syria ran deep: When Hafez al-Assad died and his son Bashar became president in 2000, Ishak sensed an opportunity for a new era. He returned to Damascus, opened a Christian bookstore on Straight Street in Damascus’ Old City (and later one in Hasaka) and became an outspoken advocate for minority rights and greater freedom. He became director of the Syrian Human Rights Organization and joined the Syriac Unity Party, formed largely to protect the rights (and land) of the country’s ancient Christian population.
At the time observers viewed the younger Assad, then 34, as mild-mannered, studious, and open to reform. Few realized the young president—groomed for over six years by his father—would prove as ruthless a dictator. Already, the Assad regime in 2000 was the longest-lasting in the post-World War II Middle East.
Hafez al-Assad survived by crushing opponents and holding fast to an alliance with the Soviet Union. But his was a secular regime that involved minorities and came down hard on Muslim extremists. A 1983 massacre by Assad’s army of Sunnis in the city of Hama left an estimated 25,000 dead, mostly civilians. Intentionally, Assad left behind crushed buildings and bodies buried under layers of concrete—along with thousands of homeless—to remind the rest of the country of the destruction destined for anyone he considered opponents. The Assad creed: “Fight a hundred wars, demolish a million strongholds, and sacrifice a million martyrs” to consolidate power.
Thirty years later that creed is playing itself out in an unrelenting civil war. It began with a brutal crackdown on street demonstrations in early 2011, with Assad forces using teargas and firing on demonstrators from helicopter gunships. By July the Free Syrian Army formed under defected Assad commanders, and by August the leading political opposition met in Turkey to form the Syrian National Council (SNC).
Bassam Ishak was one of the SNC founders. He now admits to naïvely advocating a negotiated transition to democracy—but learned Assad “has no real political tools … only force.”
Ishak lived under surveillance and a travel ban, along with several hundred human rights activists, for five years. State security suddenly lifted the ban in 2011 under so-called “reforms” in the early days of the uprising. But then Ishak received threatening phone calls, essentially ordering him to leave the country. Did you fear for your life? I asked. “No, I feared for my freedom,” Ishak said.
He fled Damascus in September 2011, traveling only with a briefcase containing his laptop, and leaving behind his family. He lives in a neighboring country he does not want disclosed and “travels around a lot,” he told me.
An insider to a civil war overtaken by outsiders, Ishak has a growing concern over Islamist groups in Syria. During early Assad years, he said, under the name of land reform many Christians lost their land to Muslims. Today, he said, “the revolution is treating us no better as gangs targeting Christians with kidnappings and ransoms have forced the Christians to run out of the country.”
Still a member of the SNC, he is reluctant to support its umbrella group formed last year (with tacit U.S. support) called the Syrian National Coalition. It represents all opposition groups and has won recognition as the legitimate power in Syria from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and others.
“They are not home to us,” Ishak said. The Coalition seeks to marginalize Syria’s Christians (who number more than 1.5 million), he believes, and “doesn’t have legitimacy with Syrian people but with countries outside.”
Six months ago Ishak became president of the Syriac National Council, a new organization representing Christians in Syria and among the diaspora in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere: “We want a new Syria that’s tolerant of pluralism, based on rule of law, with all identities respected equally. And we want the historic land of Christianity to keep its land.”
The Syriac National Council represents a break by minorities from the jihadist-leading Coalition. Its members are seeking recognition of their own. In April Ishak and other Council leaders met in Washington with lawmakers and officials at the State Department. Now that the U.S. government has committed to humanitarian aid to rebel groups, the Syriacs are requesting aid for Syriac Christians along with a security force and provision for Christian medical facilities and charities.
At the same time, the Syriac group opposes special asylum status for Syrian Christians to take refuge in the United States or elsewhere. Ishak believes the push to allow Christians to leave Syria is part of the Islamist groups’ religious cleansing agenda. “Our ancestors have lived there for thousands of years. This is a new form of invasion to us,” he said.
Granting a higher profile to Christian and other minority groups, the United States could find common ground with an otherwise foe on Syria: Russia.
Russian Orthodox Church leaders are pressing Moscow to do more to support Syria’s Christians, according to Lauren Homer, who heads an international law firm in Washington with extensive work on religious liberty cases in Russia and the Middle East.
Agreement on protecting minorities can be the start of a political solution, said Homer, and U.S. officials indicated it was a point of discussion in Secretary of State John Kerry’s May visit to Moscow.
For now, a negotiated political solution is opposed by many in Congress and by analysts who call for a “military transition government.” But any military solution, or military aid, is likely to involve Saudi-backed and other jihadist groups.
“We made huge strategic mistakes by allowing Islamist groups to be set up in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Homer. “If that happens in Syria it will become an Islamic state. Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel will have myriad new problems, if they can continue to exist.”
And Syria’s Christians, and their heritage, also will be threatened with extinction.
Video of Al-Nusra targeting residents in Damascus:
Not all Syrian Christians believe, as Bassam Ishak does, in engaging the political process to oppose President Bashar al-Assad. Behind the brutality of Assad’s regime and his father Hafez, Christians found a level of freedom and protection. Assad himself is a minority, an Alawite, and has cracked down on Islamic extremists who persecute Christians elsewhere in the Middle East.
Many Christians also don’t believe loyal Syrians in the opposition who want democracy can prevail against outside jihadist factions. “Politically the rebels and regime opponents want good for average Syrians,” said one Christian in Aleppo, not named for security reasons. “Practically and logically, if you want something good for your family or relatives, you should first show it and practice it, not come with guns and rockets to say that you love me and are interested for my good life and future.”
Christians stand to suffer inordinately among Syria’s many ethnic and religious groups, with untallied deaths and displacements of up to half the population in Hasaka province and elsewhere, and particularly in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
Many Christian leaders have been kidnapped, mostly by rebels, and a leading Greek Orthodox priest was killed outside Damascus (while trying to secure the release of a kidnap victim).
In April two leading clergymen in Aleppo–Greek Orthodox archbishop Boulos Yazigi and Syrian Orthodox archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim—were kidnapped and are still believed held by rebels. They were on a mission to gain the release of other Christians also captured by rebela. Christians find themselves “in a very unique and frightening” situation, said Aidan Clay, Middle East analyst for International Christian Concern, when they don’t openly support either rebel groups or the Assad regime.
“While many Christians have publicly denounced the brutality of President Assad and by no means support the regime, most Christians see little hope in an alternative government which, they fear, will be led by Islamists,” Clay said.
In Aleppo—with nearly a quarter of its population Christian—rebel forces have particularly targeted Christian enclaves. Those areas for months have been without electricity, telephone and other services. Hospitals mostly run by Christians in the city have been shelled. Regular mortar fire continued into May—damaging Christian homes, killing dozens, including Christians who came to Aleppo after losing their homes to rebels fighting in surrounding villages.
Despite the dangers, Christians in 11 cities, including Aleppo, Damascus, and in Hasaka, gathered on May 11 for a special day of prayer. Turnout was significant, despite thunderstorms and rocket fire that preceded the services—and for the first time brought together believers across many denominations.
“I am not sure how long those ‘good guys’ [opposition groups] will keep dealing with the American regime. I am sure one day the Lord will hear our voices and prayers,” said the Aleppo resident. —M.B.
The number of Syrians who have fled their homes seeking safety elsewhere is reaching nearly a quarter of the country’s population. More than 5 million are displaced, reported UN emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos in May. In some areas—including many neighborhoods in the largest city, Aleppo—more Syrians have left than remain behind.
The UN estimates 1.3 million have sought refuge in other countries, and as many as 4 million have been forcibly relocated inside the country. Reports abound of Syrian families, particularly in Hasaka province and other areas of the north, leaving villages under attack by jihadist militants for “safety” in larger towns—only to be victims of rocket and mortar attacks there, as fighting grows between government and rebel forces.
Delivering aid within the country is very risky business. Between Damascus and Aleppo (a distance of about 190 miles) are 50 checkpoints, according to Amos: “We can’t do business this way.”
Outside the country, Turkey has set up 17 camps for refugees along its border with Syria (at a cost of $700 million). Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq all have established refugee camps where the UN is registering arriving refugees and some aid groups have programs to assist them. Groups working in the camps and in other ways to aid Syrians include:
- Barnabas Fund
- Christian Solidarity International-USA
- Mercy Corps
- International Rescue Committee
- Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF)
- Save the Children
- World Vision
- World Relief
- World Help
These organizations’ websites provide detailed information on their work with Syrians. The UN news outlet Irin News and UNICEF also post regular updates helpful to those who want to help. But Amos pointed out the biggest necessity: “What we need is an end to the violence.” —M.B, with reporting by Amy Derrick