Purging the Christians of Syria
The US role in the purge of Syrian Christians was apparent from the first months of 2011, but warnings came earlier. In 2005, CNN’s Christine Amanpour, closely linked to senior Washington officials, told Syrian President Assad, “The rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you.”
At about the same time, Iraqi Christians, fleeing into Syria had warned Syrian Christians, “You are next!” They believed that Syria was next in line for “regime change” and that “Christians, in particular, would be targeted in a planned sectarian war – just as in Iraq.”
They were indeed targeted by the proxy terror armies which former Vice President Joe Biden and General Martin Dempsey acknowledged in 2014 had been funded and armed by US allies.
Sectarian violence was apparent from the beginning of the dirty war on Syria, as the slogan “Masehi la Beirut wa alawi altabut” (Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave) was reported from sectarian Islamists in Homs city over April – May 2011. And indeed, while the western media blamed all violence on the Syrian Government, Alawis were murdered while many Christians did flee to Beirut. The internationalized assault on Syria displaced half the country’s population, creating the world’s largest refugee crisis.
Yet, in 2011, it was well reported that Syria’s Christians had more faith in President Assad than in the US, Saudi, and Qatari-backed armed ‘opposition’. In 2011, the US media knew very well and acknowledged that both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria protected Christians. Wingert and Hoff in their book ‘Syria Crucified’ document the suffering of many Christian families “at the hands of radical terrorists” supported by western countries.
In 2014, Jabhat Al-Nusra terrorists (called ‘moderate rebels’ by the NATO media) from Turkey attacked the mainly Armenian-Christian town of Kesab, in NW Syria, kidnapping, murdering, and desecrating churches, with graffiti which reminded the Armenian residents of the Ottoman massacres a century earlier. All 14 churches were burned and vandalized. In December 2021, Kesab Mayor Sebouh Kurkjian told this writer, “we know the Turkish language … they are talking together in the Turkish language … the Turkish government helps them.” Priest Father Nareg Iwisyan said the gangs had robbed valuables and graves, and then destroyed all the religious artifacts and books, leaving sectarian graffiti and even human excrement in his church.
ISIS, ported in from Iraq, also terrorized Syria’s communities, until Iraqi and Syrian forces backed by Iran and at great cost in lives, drove them out.
Assyrians and other Christians in NE Syria formed their Sootoro militia, armed by and allied to Damascus, at first to defend the Christian communities from ISIS. The Syrian government also armed the Kurdish groups but these began looking for outside support, to serve their own regional agenda.
When Washington began to arm and rally popular support for the romanticized ‘Rojava’ Kurdish homeland project in Syria, western histories were rewritten to erase the other minorities of North and Eastern Syria, in particular the Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, and other Christian groups.
A key focus became Qamishli, near the Turkish border, a city founded by Christian refugees fleeing the Ottoman Empire’s massacres of the early 20th century. Kurdish groups, mostly Muslim, did not suffer from Ottoman persecution but did face repression under the modern Turkish state. As a result of that conflict in Turkey, combined with Saddam Hussein’s repression in Iraq, and the purges by ISIS, NE Syria received many Kurdish immigrants from Turkey and Iraq.
Yet Kurds never dominated the populations of NE Syria. Near the end of the French occupation, the colonial power carried out a census of Qamishli and Hassakeh, the core of areas claimed by western states to be some sort of natural Kurdish homeland. The table below shows Kurds to have been a small minority in the region’s major cities, but a slight majority in the countryside of Qamishli. Yet in the region, as a whole, Kurds had been about 31%, while Christians were 40% and Arabs 28%.
In other words, in a region which since the 1940s has been a governorate or province of Syria – but which Washington and its military occupation in about 2015 designated as the heart of an ‘autonomous administration’ to be handed over to separatist Kurds – Christians had historically been the largest group.
Many recent western media accounts falsely paint Kurdish separatism in Syria as a heroic ‘indigenous’ movement, criticizing the Syrian government for alleged ‘abuses’ against Kurds. However, Damascus granted citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurdish immigrants in early 2011. Most likely they had come from Iraq and Turkey. Nevertheless, with around 15 million Kurds in neighboring Turkey, Syria would always place limits on immigration.
The US aim of dismembering Syria and using parts as a springboard for Turkish-led Kurd agendas was both an illegal blow to the territorial integrity of the Syrian nation and a direct assault on the Christian communities of Syria’s northeast. After fighting the US-Saudi sectarians of ISIS, a discriminatory Kurdish project fell upon the Christians and Arabs of the NE region.
In early 2015 Amnesty International accused the Syrian “Kurdish fighters” and their militia, the YPG, of the “forced displacement and home demolitions” of “Arabs and Turkmens.” Several US media reports called this the Kurdish “ethnic cleansing” of these other groups. Yet there was no mention of the purging of Christian communities.
The Amnesty report also claimed that Kurds had been “subject to long term discrimination and human rights violations” in Syria before 2011; in particular by “restrictions on the use of Kurdish language and culture” and being “denied the rights enjoyed by Syrian nationals.” The report later admitted that “the Syrian Government [in April 2011] granted nationality to most of these Kurds.”
Preparations for a 2015 US land invasion of north and east Syria made use of the ‘Kurdish Card’. In October 2014, Kurdish forces had gone from Erbil in north Iraq across into north Syria, via Turkey, supposedly to bolster YPG efforts against ISIS; and the US began airdrops of weapons to the YPG. In March the US sent trainers to assist the YPG, and by August, US firepower was reportedly used in support of what they had converted into another anti-Syrian Government militia. The ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF or QSD in Arabic) were formed from a YPG base in October 2015, including a draft constitution that contained a unilateral separatist Kurd declaration.
After direct US intervention had bolstered this SDF/QSD, Amnesty said no more about Kurdish “forced displacement and home demolitions”. Yet Christians still faced expulsion from Qamishli. This SDF was nominally (but not practically) wider than Kurdish separatists, as Washington knew there were precious few Kurds in the cities of Manbij, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor, key centers which were to be included in Washington’s SDF-led ‘autonomous’ region, carved out of Syria.
In October 2021, this writer visited Qamishli and its Christian community. Suheil and George from the former city council told me that the Christian community in Qamishli had been 62,000 before the war, but was down to about 50,000. This followed ISIS terrorism and the seizing of many properties by the US-backed SDF/QSD.
Because of its US military backing, QSD controlled most but not the entirety of the northern city. The Syrian Arab Army still protected the airport, the main hospital, and several military and ‘security zone’ areas, which included residences and schools. The Christian militia Sootoro had checkpoints in several adjacent areas. Yet all these facilities faced obstruction from QSD. The Council still operated in the ‘security zone’ and Christian areas, and to some extent outside. An uneasy peace had been in place for some months, with few direct clashes.
One visible feature of life in the occupied cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh was the large number of students attending Syrian schools. Many thousands of children flocked into the ‘security zone’ schools, every day. We were told and could see, in some cases, that QSD had closed many of the provincial schools. The Kurdish curriculum schools were few and had not been well accepted.
In both Qamishli and Hassakeh cities, I was told by school teachers that some QSD leaders were sending their children to secular Syrian curriculum schools. Director of Education for Hassakeh Province, Ms, Ilham Sourkhat, showed us three overcrowded schools in Hassakeh city and told me that, of the 2,189 schools in Hasakeh Province, most were now closed, with many used for SDF/QSD militia purposes. However, Syria was running 145 schools, including 22 large ones in Hassakeh City and 20 in Qamishli City. One primary school we saw had over 4,000 students
Christians in Syria were thus attacked and purged in the west of the country by US and NATO-backed sectarian Islamists (‘moderate rebels’) and in the east by the death cult ISIS. As Father Elias Zahlawi wrote, in the name of “Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights” Washington “declared war on my home country, Syria, and drove to it, from a hundred countries … jihadis, haunted by the evil of money, blood, avarice, and power.” After that the SDF proxy militia in the northeast seized many non-Kurd properties, adding to the exodus of more Christians.
How Australia helped purge Iraqi and Syrian Christians
Under the guise of assisting ‘persecuted minorities’, US allies like Australia and Canada helped this purge. In late 2015, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott won praise for announcing 12,000 new ‘humanitarian visas’ for ‘persecuted groups’ in the Middle East. They would mostly come from Iraq and Syria and were mostly Assyrian Christians. Yet at the same time, Abbott said that the Australian military would join in US “airstrikes” against ISIS.
In fact, in September 2016, the Australian Airforce, alongside that of the US, attacked and killed more than 120 Syrian soldiers at the mountain behind Deir Ezzor Airport. That carefully planned attack, which allowed ISIS to take control of the mountain, was dismissed by the then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a “mistake”. Yet evidence showed this to have been a well-planned operation, designed to assist ISIS in its efforts to take Deir Ezzor City.
There had been more than 40,000 Assyrian immigrants in Australia, the biggest group in the Fairfield suburb of Sydney. A new wave came after the US attacks and ‘sanctions’ on Iraq in the 1990s. Frederick Aprim’s book ‘The Betrayal of the Powerless’ charts the displacement of Iraqi Assyrians after the 2003 invasion. Initially most came from Iraq but, after 2015, many also came from Syria.
In January 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told US President Donald Trump, in typical servile style, “we will take more, we will take anyone that you want us to take.” Of Turnbull’s program to bring in “12,000 Syrian refugees, 90 percent … will be Christians … it is a tragic fact of life that when the situation in the Middle East settles down — the people that are going to be most unlikely to have a continuing home are those Christian minorities.” Of course, it was Washington’s successive war projects which deprived them of their homes. In this way, collaborators helped Washington with its ‘New Middle East’ project.
Behind the shallow declarations of Christian values and the cynical use of ‘humanitarian intervention’ claims as pretexts for wars of aggression, Washington has been the central engine behind the purging of the world’s oldest Christian communities in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. Let’s not remain naïve.
Tim Anderson was a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney for 20 years. Now he is Director of the Center for Counter Hegemonic Studies. He researches and writes on development, rights and self-determination in Latin America, the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. He has published many dozens of chapters and articles in a range of academic books and journals. His latest books are Land and Livelihoods in Papua New Guinea (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2015), and The Dirty War on Syria, Global Research, Montreal, 2016. (see below).