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Assyrians and Kurds in Northeast Syria: Rhetoric vs. Reality
By Max J. Joseph and Mardean Isaac

The purpose of this article is to provide a critique of the Rojava project through a close examination of the discrepancies between the rhetoric surrounding the endeavour and the realities governing its implementation. By "Rojava project" we refer to the endeavour to establish Kurdish nationalist sovereignty in northern Syria by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing the People's Protection Units (YPG), later transformed into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Our substantial focus is on the ways in which Kurdish nationalist leaders and parties in Syria and Iraq have simultaneously oppressed Assyrians--revealing the fundamentally ethnocentric and nationalistic nature of the politics behind the Kurdistan project in both countries--and co-opted Assyrians in order to propagandise the supposedly ethnically-inclusive nature of their politics. We will also examine the rhetorical, political, and media strategies behind the Rojava and KRG projects, particularly in relation to Assyrians. The particular geographical focus of our analysis is "Rojava", but an analysis of Kurdish politics and the fate of the Assyrian people requires a transnational perspective. The "Dawronoye" ("Revolutionaries"), an Assyrian political movement which operates under PYD and PKK control, will be assessed as a force serving to advance Kurdish nationalist interests in Syria and Iraq and to burnish the rhetoric surrounding those interests. The participation of the Dawronoye in the Rojava project and the SDF--backed by a substantial rhetorical and media strategy--and the readiness of western governments to accept them as valid representatives in order to ethnically "pluralize" the SDF and legitimize them as an ally means a comprehensive account of the nature, operations and capabilities of the Dawronoye is needed.

Our thesis is that the policies of Rojava's Kurdish self-administration and its Assyrian proxy, the Dawronoye, are actively harming the prospects of Assyrian survival in Syria. In support of that thesis, we document a range of abuses by the Kurdish self-administration and the Dawronoye, which include:

  • Extensive harassment and intimidation of Assyrians who resist the policies of the Kurdish self-administration;
  • Physical violence committed by both the PYD asayish and the Dawronoye Syriac Military Council (MFS) security forces against Assyrians;
  • Forced conscription and parallel tax systems;
  • The imposition of Kurdish nationalist ideology through an overhaul of the education system;
  • Attempts at land confiscation and the annexation of Khabur by Kurdish nationalist forces;
  • Manipulation of rhetoric and propaganda that seek to fully absorb the Assyrian experience into the Kurdish nationalist cause as articulated by the PYD/YPG, paving the way for the long-term absence of any Assyrian representation outside or apart from the Kurdish self-administration.

We seek to illuminate these abuses in order to recommend actions that will change the outlook for Assyrians, enhancing the possibility of Assyrian survival and flourishing in Syria in the long-term. These recommendations are made clear in our conclusion. Following the conclusion, an addendum provides an itemized chronology of a some security abuses and terror attacks against Assyrians in Rojava.

The Tyranny of Optics: Kurdish Politics in Syria Under Western Eyes

There are many answers to the question of what Rojava is and is not. They have emerged largely from special interests: pragmatic state press releases designed to obscure as well as inform; unflinchingly positive reviews by Western internationalists with anarchist and leftist sympathies; wholly negative indictments made by either Syrian regime loyalists, Turkish nationalists, or their allied Syrian "revolutionaries". There is very little unweighted reportage.

For sympathetic Westerners, attachment to Rojava goes a step further than assuaging war-guilt or a pursuit of tangible "success" in Syria. It is an attachment that often feeds into and affirms their own ideological positions and projections. Rojava's actors are frequently described as radicals, feminists, anarchists, communists, and so forth. Yet the very observers of these terminologies (and members of the ideological communities they denote) rarely identify Rojavan actors as nationalists, since nationalism is viewed negatively among the proponents of all of the other labels.

The work of anthropologist David Graeber, a close follower and supporter of the Rojava project, is testament to this. Graeber is aware that some of the criticisms against the PYD are legitimate; in 2014 he stated that "clearly, authoritarian elements remain". But that awareness is insufficient to overturn a belief in not only the democratic, but also the non-nationalistic, nature of the Rojava experiment. In the context of Rojava, the notion of a "Syrian Kurdish" endeavour precludes the negative connotations associated with ethno-centric politics. (This stance is echoed in the less heady work of left-wing columnist Owen Jones, among others.) "Kurdistan" is depicted as a more or less "naturally" occurring phenomenon in Graeber's writing, and the distinctions between its Kurdish components are primarily ideological. Two key distinctions can be found at the geo-political and the inter-ethnic levels. According to Graeber:

"…the Syrian Kurds have built a coalition with Arabs, Syriacs, Christians and others in the northern slice of Syria that they call Rojava (or, more officially, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.) They want pluralistic, democratic self-determination for themselves and others in a newly federated Syria, discarding the nationalist project that led to the Iraqi referendum."

Further in Graeber's view, this coalition operates under the auspices of a "Syrian Kurdish freedom movement that... has pursued an entirely different vision from that of the Kurds in Iraq: It does not wish to change the borders of states but simply to ignore them and to build grass-roots democracy at the community level."

The claims made by Graeber about the distinction between "direct democracy" within already-existing national borders as practiced by the PYD/YPG and the nationalist separatism of the Iraqi KDP are closer to being true in reverse. The Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum--pushed forward by Masoud Barzani despite significant local and international criticism and held Sept. 25, 2017--was, in fact, not intended to produce a sovereign nation-state for Iraqi Kurds. Every indicator pointed to this: from the profoundly dysfunctional institutional apparatus, plagued by near absolute levels of corruption and partisanship, to the obvious advantages for the KRG of remaining in Iraq and the obvious nonsense of a direct link between the referendum result and the actual declaration of an internationally recognized sovereign state. The referendum push was instead a gamble aimed at reinforcing existing systems of patronage and power, with both major sides of the KRG also having one eye on aggrandizing the extent of their own control of the KRG in relation to external patrons and/or the Iraqi state. The nationalist vision of the KDP is therefore a tool serving several connected ends, but it is not an unswerving political vision or a true telos.

The PYD/YPG preoccupation with shifting power and demographic dynamics within Rojava, however, is little different in nature--even if circumstances entail serious discrepancies of execution--than the manipulations and agendas of the KRG. Though party hegemony serves as the vehicle of implementation for both PYD and KDP agendas, the PYD's actions are molded to the task of enforcing ethnic supremacy.

From the anti-imperialist, anti-American lens of many pro-Rojava observers, the thorny question of American support is dealt with as follows. American support for the YPG/SDF has served as a source of material and symbolic vindication of the project, even if America has officially opposed Rojava's declaration of autonomy. Many pro-Rojava observers in the West also oppose American support for the armed rebellion against the regime, so the distribution of American support across favorable lines can be seen as a temporary corrective measure for excesses elsewhere in the country and region. But when American support dwindles--as it did crucially during the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in August 2016 and again in Afrin most recently--it can be identified as a sign of the opportunism, "insincerity", and inconsistency of American support for the YPG, coupled with a return to the eternal cliché of Kurdish betrayal by the west. (Graeber opens his New York Times piece with the most quoted ethnic proverb in the analyst-journalist world currently, the one about how Kurds--a nation of millions whose leaders have been exceptionally audacious in asserting themselves militarily and politically, and who have attracted more support for it than many other peoples and groups--have no friends but the mountains.)

On the other side, regime loyalists decry any deviation from the status quo in Syria and see attempts to enhance the recognition and rights of the different ethnic and religious groups comprising Syria as emblematic of the country's destruction. On the northern front, having seen IS wither away, Turkey has responded by actively backing an assortment of Syrian rebels, directing them towards Afrin and Manbij while citing the need to secure their borders against the PKK threat.

Each appraisal of the composition, aims, and behaviours of the PYD/YPG project come heavily burdened: many of the characterizations above are not primarily descriptions of Rojava or its chief actors, but a narrow projection of particular interests in relation to them. Lionized as the liberators of women, inclusive trailblazing democrats, and the primary (and often erroneously denoted by some as the only) actors working against IS--or demonized as ethnic cleansers and a proxy force by others--many observers are left with extreme, polarizing views to choose from. This situation is made worse by the high cost of reporting from Syria. Despite much courageous reporting undertaken at great risk, a large space has also opened up for hobbyistic indulgence to expand into long-form propagandistic narratives.

Thus, we are left mostly with these romances. What is presented in this article is not romance--it comes from an Assyrian perspective--a group that has suffered uncountable losses after the emergence of ISIS/IS in Syria and Iraq. Assessments made by too many analysts and operatives are saddled with exaggerations and hyperbole because they are all downward projections of interests. The experience of Assyrians in Syria takes place on a lower, grittier level several rungs down on both the material and ideological ladders encompassing the realities in northern Syria. It is the experience of details seldom touched upon by parties keen to make sweeping points about the situation.

An appreciation and sensitivity to these nuances and this context is utterly lost amid the cacophony of bombs and smears. All of this noise, however, presents opportunities to those whose relevance depends on a lack of clarity. Let us now work towards some clarity from the ground up.

Nationalism

Among its other facets and characteristics, the PYD is a Kurdish nationalist party. Supporting the PYD means supporting a Kurdish nationalist agenda. The views of a PYD representative as recorded within a UK government Foreign Affairs Committee report in November 2017 affirm as much: "The Democratic Union Party (PYD) [...] told us that it was not arguing for a "Greater Kurdistan", but instead that "different solutions to each part of Kurdistan are needed in line with the objective circumstances of each part" (It did nevertheless hope, in the future, for the chance of "self-determination for a confederal united Kurdistan")." In other words, the PYD admit they need to speak and behave differently according to the circumstances in each part of Kurdistan in order to effectively advance a nationalist agenda.

The PKK have very intimate links with the PYD on all levels--to quote KDP leader Massoud Barzani, former President of the KRG and the PKK's primary Kurdish rival: "any support to the PYD means support for the PKK [...] They are exactly one and the same thing." Barzani made this statement in March 2016 in a lengthy interview with Al Monitor who have since removed it from their website. The US--for whom Barzani's KDP peshmerga are an ally in Iraq--designate the PKK as a terrorist organisation, while the YPG are viewed as America's boots on the ground in Syria. No doubt, this unequivocal declaration by Barzani was terribly embarrassing for the US. The image below contains an excerpt from a press conference from March 2016 with Mark C. Toner, then Spokesperson for the United States Department of State, illustrates how the United States has been navigating rivalries within the Kurdish nationalist political space, while accommodating Turkish foreign policy interests in relation to them. These rivalries are both political and military, as evinced by conflicts such as the March 2017 attack by KDP-employed "Rojava peshmerga" against Yazidis of the YBŞ, a PKK affiliate, in Sinjar.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. In Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani yesterday said in one interview that the PYD and the PKK are exactly one and the same thing. And he also said that Americans know that they —

MR TONER: I'm sorry, you said the PKK and —

QUESTION: And PYD.

MR TONER: And PYD.

QUESTION: Yeah, YPG.

MR TONER: Sorry, yeah. Finish. I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR TONER: I just wanted to make sure I had the —

QUESTION: Okay. And he also said that Americans know this very well, but they don't want to say it, as the top priority is the fight against ISIS, so they turn a blind eye PYD relation with PKK. And this is what your close ally Peshmerga's leader, Mr. Barzani, said.

MR TONER: Well -- and you're asking me for my reaction and whether —

QUESTION: I want to know, what do you know about PKK and PYD relation?

MR TONER: I mean, we still adhere to what our policy's been for the past many months, which is that we view the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization. We condemn its -- the violence that it carries out against Turkish civilians and citizens. And separately, we have been working with the YPD -- or YPG, rather, in parts of Syria as part of a number of groups we're working with who are actively fighting and dislodging Daesh or ISIL from territory it controls. That doesn't mean we haven't had disagreements with them when they try to hold territory or not -- or declare semi-autonomous self-rule zones. We disagree with them on that and we have frank discussions with them about that.

The CIA website even listed Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the PYD, as "the leader of the PKK in Syria" in early 2018. This listing has since been altered to exclude Muslim's designation as leader of the PKK in Syria, along with changing the PKK's aim(s) from a desire to "establish Kurdistan" to "advance Kurdish autonomy, political, and cultural rights in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran." Over recent years, the professed positions of the PKK have undergone new changes following developments in the thought of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, changes that emphasize inclusivity and move away from ethnic nationalism; however, these intellectual evolutions have had little practical impact on the street-level military culture of the PKK or the political policies and state-building agendas of the rank-and-file for whom the ethos of the organization remains inherently connected to Kurdish nationalism.

The long game for the PKK-PYD-YPG Kurdish axis is Kurdistan. That is the whole point of taking and holding land, incorporating a Kurdish school curriculum (not only in terms of language, but in cultural substance and content), drafting soldiers, setting its own taxation levels alongside the Syrian regime's, holding elections and dealing directly with international powers. Rojava has been defined by taking every possible step to secure the bases for future separatism, while verbally relinquishing the significance of those steps when it is strategically and rhetorically convenient. This plan has included measures of support for the Syrian state against the rebellion against it with a view to securing a superior place under its broader dominion in the medium term. These policies are harmful to Assyrians--not because of any problem with Kurdish self-determination in principle--but because they introduce parallel systems based on an ideology and political apparatus that position Assyrians as an adjunct to Kurdish nationalist aspirations. Those aspects of Rojavan policy are a strategic gamble, not a statement of allegiance to a Syrian state that is perceived at the deepest level as fundamentally illegitimate, given its Arab-dominated nature as well as its "occupation" of part of "Kurdistan".

Rojava, Northern Syria: Group Branding and Minority Co-optation

Kurds have indeed made sacrifices to retain territory taken from IS in Syria, both in terms of lives and in terms of rhetoric. Regarding the branding of security entities, the key terms and actors comprising "Rojava" and the YPG later became the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and the composite SDF force. Despite this superficial reformulation, the PYD is still the chief overseer of this newly-branded zone and the YPG is most certainly still the key fighting force. Things have not suddenly transformed on the ground from Rojava/YPG hegemony to an idealized horizontal society removed from ethnic or party character. The previous vision--of Western Kurdistan carved out of, though still linked to, Syria--was compromised in order to secure lasting support from coalition partners who wanted to be seen backing a pluralist force fighting for a shared future, rather than a Kurdish-dominated group fighting for an iteration of Kurdistan, the latter of which is not even in the interests of the US, whose current objective in Syria is to destabilize the regime and make it vulnerable to dissidents, not deliver its deathblow.

In order to massage concerns and meet these requirements, a number of steps were gradually taken by the PYD's leadership. One such step has been to boost the presence and platform of non-Kurdish subsidiaries such as the Dawronoye in Syria--a small network of Assyrians originating from Midyat, Turkey, who were assembled, funded, and directed by the PKK in the late 1980's to join their campaign of military resistance based on a mutual enmity of Turkey. The relationship between the PYD and Dawronoye's Syriac Union Party (SUP) and Syriac Military Council (MFS) is identical because their parent organisations are not discrete groups: the PKK can be said to simply have opened a Dawronoye chapter in Syria.

Christian Assyrians face the threat of similar systems of patronage in both Iraq and Syria as Assyrian identity is a useful rhetorical device for dominant ethnic, political, and religious interests in both countries. Kurdish nationalist groups such as the PYD in Syria and the KDP in Iraq make extensive use of the Christian and Assyrian identities to promote their own agendas and objectives, trading titles, status, money, and a platform to individuals in exchange for loyalty. No meaningful agency, autonomy, or power is ever afforded by the patrons in these relationships. The promise that is instead offered is a seat at the table of an emergent Kurdish political entity that will entail opportunities to serve as the intermediary between Kurdish power and the Assyrian community. This approach is a near replication of the policies of key figures in the history of Arab and Turkish republics in relation to less powerful ethnic groups that needed to be controlled, including Kamal Ataturk, who incentivised Assyrian religious leaders into complete subservience to the Turkish nationalist agenda in exchange for the most minimal and intermittent of protections, and Saddam Hussein, who used "recognition" of Kurds as a means to control them (and punish them, when necessary) through proxies.

For the KDP in Iraq, a power structure run by a single family long-backed by the US, installing patronage systems (through which loyalty among tribal, religious, and community leaders is bought with aid money and petrodollars) is an existential matter: the KDP is dependent on these systems to persist as both a political and military force in a context where much of the populace increasingly agitates for political democratization and the rejection of the model of single-party regimes. Smaller, weaker groups that lack backing from outside sources, ways to protect themselves in the face of hostility and violence, or control of oil assets are more vulnerable (and receptive) to these patronage systems. Individuals electing to partake in these exchanges either out of desperation or self-interest often create an illusion for external observers of general approval or buy-in by the minority group for the patron's policies, even though the co-opted elites who assume this role as intermediary often do so apart from consultation with the minority's general population and without its approval.

The methods by which the KDP have attempted to positively own the Assyrian question in Iraq have been varied and well documented, from enlisting Assyrians into the party itself to setting up and funding loyal proxies. In the earlier decades of the Kurdish nationalist movement in northern Iraq, Assyrians would be compelled to simply join the KDP in order to receive conditional freedoms and privileges. But with the growing mobilisation and development of an independent Assyrian agenda amongst Assyrians in Iraq and in the diaspora--which accelerated amid its own intensity and the force of the KDP response to it following the establishment of the no-fly zone in 1991, and again after the invasion and creation of a new Iraqi state in 2003--the need to create separate proxies to muffle and undermine this emerging voice became a pressing concern for the KDP. (For a broader analysis of these and related phenomena in the contemporary Iraqi context, please reference the recent "Erasing Assyrians" report, to which the authors of this article contributed.)

The Dawronoye in Syria--A Strategic Façade

As conflict gripped Syria, the PYD/YPG immediately sought to enlist Assyrians through the networks afforded to them by their PKK counterparts. What is important to highlight here is that wherever the PKK or PKK-affiliated groups emerge, one can be certain that a Dawronoye presence will subsequently be paraded. We see this most vividly in Syria, where the Syriac Union Party (SUP) emerged alongside the Syriac Military Council (MFS) following the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011. These are the political and military manifestations of the Dawronoye in Syria.

The MFS in Syria are vastly exaggerated in terms of size and barely any ethnic Assyrians make up its ranks. The MFS Wikipedia states that the force is "2,000+" strong, citing a news article informed by an MFS spokesman, but there is no evidence for these numbers, and moreover, around 90% of the fighters who are depicted in MFS communications and media are ethnic Arabs and Kurds. These men have been conscripted into fighting on behalf of the Kurdish self-administration in recent years, and due to the absence of hard boundaries between the MFS and the YPG have frequently been dressed in MFS garb in order to inflate the strength of the diverse components participating in the SDF. This tactic provides an image of agency and participation by these diverse components where there is in fact very little. Leadership positions, such as those occupied by ethnic Assyrian Kino Gabriel, who was promoted from MFS spokesperson to SDF spokesperson, are exaggerated and made extremely visible to outsiders to compensate for this internal dynamic. The Bethnahrin Women Protection Forces (HSNB) serve as the MFS version of the Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) and provide similar rhetorical and imagistic value.

The Dawronoye is a nationalist movement seeking to establish national sovereignty for another people. They seek to politically represent the Assyrian community (from whom they have almost no support) while disavowing the possibility of any Assyrian interests outside or apart from the formation of Kurdistan. According to Dawronoye ideology and practice, each gain made in the attempt to carve out territory for Kurdistan is a gain for Assyrians. Engagement with non-Kurdish political forces, except through this lens and towards those aims, is depicted as inherently harmful, a traitorous reinforcement of the tyrannical status quo of the Arab and Turkish state. The MFS, as the military wing of the Dawronoye, fights under the command and on behalf of the YPG, even serving in missions that do not directly affect Assyrians and are formed predominantly, and increasingly, of non-Assyrian fighters.

The PYD attempt to position the MFS in relation to geo-political and inter-ethnic affairs in a way that capitalizes on the attention of the world on the major events and competitions of interest in the region. This attempt has been fruitful, to the extent that Dawronoye are now regarded as the legitimate representatives of the Assyrian community in Syria in many forums and contexts, including media and thinktank reports and official government communications. The rhetorical and ideological frame of the Rojava project has allowed the Dawronoye the following productive inversion of the terms of their propaganda: The greater the group's focus on Assyrians, the more it links itself to a broader vision of ethnic co-existence and democratic values. It is essential for the Kurdish nationalists of the Rojava project to claim that their project includes non-Kurds: not as proxies or adjuncts, but as committed both in terms of their own self-interest as a community (proving that Rojava is the most effective safeguard thereof), and in ideological and political principles. Within the latter frame, non-Kurds serve as enthused participants in an endeavour that, uniquely among those in the region, is undergirded by an ideological tradition as well as that of the territorial, racial, and historical justice embodied in the ultimate vision of Kurdistan. In light of the PKK's failure to affect territorial partition in the form of a nation state through armed struggle in Turkey, a shift to localist-autonomist ideology invoking the work of Anarchist theorists has taken place. But the ethnic politics underneath that language, as represented in the actions of the PYD towards Assyrians, remain solidly nationalistic.

From the perspective of the Dawronoye, they are representatives of a nation that has survived genocide at the hands of the Ottomans, who are perceived as a direct prefiguration of the Turkish state, allowing the fundamentally hostile stance of the PKK to the contemporary Turkish state to serve as a means to morally restore the losses of that genocide on behalf of Assyrians. The possibility of presenting the Dawronoye as the authentic, native voice of a beleaguered nation--and the MFS as the self-led military force that Assyrians needed all along, finally granted by the Kurdish liberation movement--that has the same perception of history as their Kurdish overlords is of immense significance to the PYD/YPG. The Dawronoye can encompass both the parochial enthusiasms of a liberated Assyrian nation, and a grand, beautifully fuzzy vision of liberation with almost unlimited flexibility of scope.

The participation of the MFS in SDF operations are minimal yet usually accompanied by vast and disproportionate broadcasting aimed at, and coverage from, media. For example, the announcement that the MFS were sending fighters to fight the Turkish military was accompanied by images of a few dozen soldiers posing in a field carrying light arms and being photographed. Even stranger are their contributions to international political affairs: statements are regularly released commenting on these affairs, "stating a position", and recommending actions to sovereign actors--sometimes on affairs that have nothing to do with Assyrians--all by a small group of people who represent almost nobody on the ground or in diaspora.

In these pursuits, they are no more than an adjunct of the Kurdish project in Syria on an international level--a head without a body: In Europe, they lobby the European Parliament as the European Syriac Union (ESU). Through social media, they mostly rely on the omnipresence of David Vergili, himself a Dawronoye lobbyist for the ESU at the European Union. If one examines their record at the European Union, the financials for the year 2015 indicate that no money was gathered from public, regional, European, or community sources, but all came from "other sources". The record also lists the ESU as having three full time, unpaid "volunteers" and two part time volunteers who receive no salary (totalling four FTE). The ESU was registered in 2012. It is unclear based on this information how these individuals have subsisted full-time for years, collecting no salary, with unnamed funding sources.

In other places, Dawronoye go by the name of Beth Nahrain Revolutionary Council. Invariably, the same handful of people and families create these memberless, interchangeable ghost organisations to create a façade of "consensus" among Assyrians, when in fact the only Assyrian organisations (or media outlets) that support the Dawronoye are generated by the Dawronoye themselves, examples of which were displayed in one of their published letters (see below image).

The ESU/MFS are more vocally hostile towards Turkey than even Kurdish parties, while possessing an incomparably minor capability to act on that aggression (i.e. defending against any retaliation by Turkey) compared to Kurds.

Requests for direct armament are made by the ESU to coalition partners. This is simultaneously a strange reflection of their status as a "forward unit" of the PYD rhetorical machine, as they provide the illusion that discrete pro-Rojava actors are joining voices spontaneously, and a paradoxical admission that they have no independent military will or capacity, hence the need for a direct request that cuts through provisions granted to the YPG. Their request for weapons is an acknowledgement that they depend completely on the Kurdish authority, unable to enforce even basic authority on the ground in comparison to Kurds, further illuminating their peripheral and diminutive status in the military hierarchy of northern Syria.

Amongst diaspora communities, the Dawronoye have negligible impact and relevance. An older business model for the group saw businesses petitioned for resources to fund their activities and training and indoctrination camps, modelled on those of the PKK. The whole affair is steeped in mystery and lack of transparency, with organisers and figureheads rejecting any line of questioning or criticism of their activities, dismissing everything as unfair and the work of their Assyrian rivals. The Dawronoye depend on secrecy: upon being merely questioned by other Assyrians, they revert to wounded, misunderstood agents of an ideology so elevated and transcendent that nobody expressing healthy scepticism can possibly hope to understand it. The largest nonpartisan Assyrian diaspora organizations have collectively condemned their activities and politics in Syria. In reality, the whole operation is as thin as a playing card in terms of substance, but boasts an enormous surface area. Even shallow penetration reveals the emptiness that lies behind the surface of their operation.

And so, considering their tremendous unpopularity among Assyrians and lack of resources, the Dawronoye offer Kurds the one thing they have: they leverage the Assyrian identity as both parallel and inferior to the narrative constructed by their superiors. The Dawronoye today are a letterhead whereas the Assyrian nation is a living document. Their vision is a complete gamble: they plan for the day when they will serve as the only Assyrian political entity that has the approval of a triumphant Kurdish power. They pin their hopes on being the “approved” expression of Assyrian political will at a later date, delegitimizing all other expressions not by virtue of winning a battle of ideas from within the community, but by trading upwards and being selected and incentivized to make this trade.

The Dawronoye in Iraq and the expansion of PKK influence

Syria was inevitably going to be the territory where the Dawronoye network would surface given the popularity of the PKK among Kurds in Syria. The Dawronoye traditionally have not participated in Assyrian affairs in Iraq given that the PKK's arch rival, the KDP, wields political and military power there. The KDP are categorically opposed to any PKK presence in Iraq, going so far as to even attack PKK-aligned Yazidis in Sinjar last year. Here, the KDP view their own peshmerga and non-Kurdish units who fall under peshmerga command as the only legitimate actors.

After the IS conquest, however, a new marketplace of militias and their associated politics opened within which the Dawronoye could operate inside Iraq. This allowed the Dawronoye to form a relationship with the NPF, a small Assyrian proxy of the KDP, which saw them promoting eachother on social media.

The KDP (via the Beth Nahrain Democratic Party--BNDP) created the tiny Nineveh Plain Forces (NPF) militia with "leftover" arms of KDP peshmerga. As well as complaining about this lack of armament (and therefore authority), this small unit was used to grab headlines and undermine the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a much larger force that enjoys popular support among Assyrians tied to the central government and recognized and trained by coalition forces. The NPF claim to have 500 men (we have been able to identify only a small handful, amounting to fewer than 30) but have inevitably collapsed into obscurity after Iraqi Security Forces took back large swathes of territory, shrinking the KRG's 40% territorial gains after the end of the IS occupation. At present, there is no sign of the NPF in the Nineveh Plain, but the NPU are still deployed and functional.

The NPF nevertheless persist as an occasional footnote in KDP media. Towards the end of their "operational" functioning (which amounted to bringing up the rear in peshmerga formations and taking pictures in liberated towns), the Dawronoye courted this small group despite the rivalries between their respective Kurdish sponsors. The Dawronoye's growing presence in Iraq coincided with the PKK's more formal entry into Iraqi politics during IS' onslaught. The pattern is the same: acquire patronage through Kurdish authorities to increase their own prestige and visibility. For example, a Dawronoye candidate was recently appointed as mayor of Baghdeda (Qaraqosh) the largest Assyrian town in the Nineveh Plain and Iraq. He was appointed by the KDP-dominated 13-member Provincial Council, ahead of candidates backed by non-Kurdish controlled parties. Dawronoye social media outlets, in tandem with the KDP-controlled Ishtar TV, described the appointment as an "election".

The Dawronoye and their extensions are so insignificant politically and militarily that they garner and accept both PKK and KDP support, with both groups fully cognizant of this fact, and keen to instrumentalise them according to their interests and the relevant landscape. Yoking together NPF (KDP) and MFS (YPG) as they have in this martyr board (the below image) doing the rounds online (material versions of which exist in Qamishli) demonstrates both how desperate the Dawronoye are to take advantage of martyrs from these contradictory causes in order to exalt their own status, as well as how materially harmless they are for this to pose no problem for their rival sponsors. Such is the reliance of the Dawronoye on the opportunities provided by Kurdish power that they enthusiastically work towards any iteration of Kurdistan that utilizes them in any given moment. Given the extent of the enmity between the PKK and the KDP, it is remarkable that this fluidity is possible. But it must be understood that from the perspective and position of the Dawronoye, these rivals operate within the same nationalist and political framework without which the Dawronoye have no place. Across Iraq and Syria, they remain passengers in different vehicles: for the Dawronoye, it does not matter who is driving the car as long as the destination is Kurdistan.

Nation Building or Nation Destroying?

One problem Assyrians have in Syria (in contrast to Iraq) is that the US and its allies initially threatened to oust Assad, and so many Assyrians who accepted Syrian regime support in the northern provinces were smeared, abandoned, and neglected by Westerners and local dissidents alike, whereas the few Assyrians who fell under YPG command became celebrated and given a platform. This is another factor explaining the disparity in influence and visibility the Dawronoye have within Iraq as opposed to Syria. Coalition partners work directly with the Iraqi Government and the KRG, and not the Syrian Government, meaning that attention and resources are thus allocated far more to supporting a sovereign authority and groups attached to it in the Iraqi case, rather than exclusively sub-state actors as they are in Syria.

These Assyrians who did not tow the YPG line in Syria were dismissed as “Ba’athist Assyrians” by both Kurdish and Western actors and observers, many of whom ignore the fact that the YPG is not officially in conflict with the Syrian regime. The two groups have collaborated consistently and extensively over the course of the conflict. But as in Iraq, the dominant Kurdish group has inserted itself as an administrative layer between the central government and any Assyrians under its self-defined jurisdiction. The rhetoric following this dynamic works like this: When the PYD works directly with the regime, it is necessary and should be understood within a context of pragmatic engagement aimed at the survival and flourishing of a people and a dream. But when groups who resist PYD control and seek to engage the regime do so, they are harassed and smeared for it.

A false choice is often presented: go with the Kurds or the Arabs (in Iraq or Syria). It is a false choice because Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq are entirely dependent on aid from both central governments in Iraq and Syria (via military deployment around Afrin, Damascus-issued passports, etc.) as well as vast sums of aid and weapons from international actors. The choice is not an equal one. Assyrians who create a direct channel between themselves and the central governments in Iraq and Syria are demonized and actively undermined by these Kurdish groups, whereas Assyrians who submit to a Kurdish intermediary are celebrated as expressing a popular will: for "working together". Ironically, Assyrian groups who do want to establish these direct channels are often seeking to establish Assyrians as a political community on a par with Kurds within those states--even if at a lower level given demographics and capacities--while the groups "working with" major Kurdish nationalist forces such as the PKK, YPG/PYD, and KDP seek to penetrate, divide, and weaken Assyrian communities in order to secure a gilded station in the very machinery repressing Assyrians.

Demographic Games and Land-Grabbing

In conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, new "facts on the ground" can be easily created given the turbulent and shifting nature of military lines, demographic dominance, and policy objectives. In both the cases of Syria and Iraq, Kurdish groups prioritized taking, holding, and normalizing facts on the ground. Because of IS in Iraq, KRG territory expanded by 40%. The positive glee expressed at the onslaught of genocidal terrorists is revealed most sincerely by an anonymous KRG official in 2014: "ISIL gave us in two weeks what Maliki has not given us in eight years." In Syria however, the fight against IS was far more complex to navigate given the pariah status of the Assad regime and its Russian ally.

There, the Kurdish groups experienced in conducting clandestine rebellions, guerrilla fighting, and operative secrecy had to navigate the Syrian regime, Russian, Turkish, and US political interests, as well as various groups of rebels and Islamists. The line dividing the YPG and the PKK is blurry, with plenty of crossover in terms of personnel, leadership, ideology, and goals.

In collapsing states, as Syria and Iraq were during IS' emergence and occupation, the homelands of vulnerable and minoritized groups have often proven to be the easiest spaces on which to rapidly establish new "facts on the ground". Iraq was first; long plagued by a multitude of clashing interests, military dictatorships, violence, and oppression, the northern territories became dominated by Kurdish groups given their demographic superiority after repeated acts of ethnic cleansing and expulsion of the indigenous Assyrian populations. This dominance precipitated the gradual erasure of Assyrians from their own lands, both symbolically and materially. Dozens of Assyrian villages and swathes of Assyrian land in Dohuk, on which Assyrians have not only a historical but legal claim, have been seized and occupied by Kurds. This process has only accelerated since the implementation of the no-fly zone and the establishment of the KRG, with land theft cases overwhelmingly being ruled in favor of Assyrians with no corollary action taken to challenge their occupation, which is often enforced through threats or actual violence. To give one of almost innumerable examples, Diana (now renamed Soran) "expanded rapidly from a small Assyrian village in the 1990s into a large ethnically Kurdish city of approximately 125,000 people, of which 64% are refugees who returned to Iraq within the last ten years." Demographic change on this scale has not required centuries, but mere decades.

Syria's conflict offered the PKK an opportunity to create a similar model. Assyrians in urban centers in Hasakah, especially Qamishli but including Hasakah city, have been exposed to dual administrations and taxed twice, as well as subjected to forced recruitment in the YPG, even if they had previously served in the Syrian Arab Army. In September 2015, Jenan Moussa reported that Kurds in Afrin would need special permission to sell their houses in an effort to prevent them from leaving Syria. On the other hand, Assyrians were that year targeted by a law which facilitated the expropriation by the Kurdish self-administration of presently unoccupied property. The law was only overturned after massive protest. Thirty Kurdish families, internally displaced from Afrin, are currently living in Tel-Nasri. Qamishli and Tel Tamar were established by Assyrian refugees fleeing the Assyrian Genocide in the 1920s and 30s respectively; they are both now majority Kurdish. Recent events make clear the YPG's intentions to extend itself across the Khabur River, another initial site of concentrated Assyrian re-settlement following genocide. The Khabur Guards, a local Assyrian security force comprised of a small number of residents of Khabur primarily seeking to patrol empty villages and protect property, but which has also taken part in military operations, such as the liberation of Shaddedeh (more on which will follow), had routinely resisted previous such attempts. But beginning the week of June 25th, the YPG/asayish, along with the MFS, began to try to directly establish self-administration authority in Khabur. The YPG entered Tel Baz, and the MFS Tal Jazira. They dismantled Khabur Guard checkpoints and dug for new ones. The MFS established a military base on the land of an Assyrian farmer, who asserts that the title deed for his land was falsified. Gunfire was exchanged between the MFS and the Khabur Guards, with no injuries reported.

It remains unclear whether the boldness of the YPG incursion into Khabur is a land grab in expectation of the return of regime forces to an area they abandoned to focus on more significant territory in 2012. The Assyrians of Khabur have almost no independent capacity, support, or reliable security in their attempt to re-settle the once fully Assyrian villages emptied amid IS pillage and kidnapping. Beyond that, local alignment with either side vying for Khabur--a place that prior to the conflict hosted one of the most stable and concentrated Assyrian populations in modern history--is a depressing prospect. There is no guarantee (and little likelihood) that a re-assertion of regime control would entail a return to the relatively stable property rights and enforcement situation afforded to Khabur Assyrians historically in Syria. The takeover of Khabur by Kurdish self-administration forces would be understood as an alien occupation, and a signal that return is impossible.

Assyrian Martyrs as Kurdish Nationalist Currency

The fight against IS--a universal enemy that seriously called into question the legitimacy of several Middle Eastern states--has specifically provided the PYD an opportunity to monopolise Assyrian martyrdom in order to enshrine their claims on the future, politically and territorially. (Here, there are echoes with the KDP's veneration of famous Assyrian KDP member Franso Hariri, assassinated in 2001, which serves as both a threatening reminder of the fragility of even a tokenistic Assyrian representation and a way to instil a permanent psychological legacy of subservience to the KDP in Assyrians.) One prominent example is the case of David Jindo, the leader of the Khabur Guards, whose attempts to maintain diplomatic channels with the YPG were initially frayed by his refusal to accept the term "Rojava" and his commitment to Syria as a unified country. After Jindo spoke out against rampant MFS and YPG looting of villages in Khabur, he was on April 22nd, 2015 abducted and assassinated by members of the YPG. His compatriot Elias Nasser was also shot at and left for dead in the same operation: it was only Nasser's survival and the transmission of information to observers from his hospital bed that forced the need for recognition of the attack. Despite being assassinated by members of the YPG, Jindo has now been fully incorporated into the martyrdom imagery and narrative of the Kurdish self-administration through the MFS, a clear demonstration of how concerted the attempt to absorb Assyrian suffering into that narrative is, and how the MFS is used as the vehicle to do so. The underlying message is that his assassination, which in fact had the effect of severely weakening Assyrian capacities independent of the Kurdish self-administration, was an act that harmed the Assyrian community as a whole, and that his tokenistic placement on MFS martyr boards and in their rhetoric demonstrates the legitimacy of MFS stewardship of that community.

On February 22nd, 2016 a dispute arose over a martyr ("George") who had participated in anti-IS operations in Shaddadeh, an area of particular importance to the Assyrian community since the hostages taken from Khabur by IS were held there. George was in the Khabur Guards. As preparations for his burial began, and his coffin was being draped in the Khabur Guards flag, MFS representatives insisted that he instead be buried in MFS colours and recognized as an MFS martyr. Rabi Isa, a Khabur Guard fighter who raised objections, emphasising that the two forces participated side-by-side in the Shaddadeh operation, was beaten severely, imprisoned, and threatened with execution by MFS fighters, who told him that "there is no such thing as a martyr of the Khabur Guards, and no such thing as the Khabur Guards." A woman who was present throughout the ordeal, found Rabi Isa with "his hands broken, blood streaming from his face, his clothes dirty". She gave the following recorded testimony:

"We must let the world know that not a single Dawronoye should remain in Khabur--to avoid bloodshed, for they do not accept us as brothers of the same blood: they do not want to maintain and sustain Khabur and to sacrifice for the sake of Christianity or for our people, they wish to create enmity between us, and to annex Khabur and get us out of there--just like we were forced to leave Iraq and Turkey."

For Assyrian men aged 18-30 in Gozarto, conscription usually entails serving in either the MFS/YPG or the Gozarto Protection Forces (GPF)/Sootoro, a regime aligned local security force comprised of Assyrians and a small number of Armenians mainly operating in the Wusta neighbourhood of Qamishli and its police branch. Assyrians (like Kurds and Arabs) are liable to be conscripted into the YPG even if they have served in the SAA. Assyrians sometimes enlist with Sootoro/GPF in order to obtain their identification papers, protecting them to a degree from conscription by the YPG. These ID papers are in a sense exchanged for irregular and sparse service commitments to the GPF, who themselves can only afford to pay approximately a third of the salary that the MFS/YPG offer to their Assyrian conscripts. For a granular account of the current operational and political dynamics of the GPF/Sootoro in relation to the Syrian regime and the Kurdish self-administration, see this recent paper, based on a research trip to Syria, by prolific analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi.

During YPG-regime clashes in April 2016, four GPF fighters were disarmed and detained by PYD asayish. Once agreements were reached between the two sides and violence subsided, the GPF released seven YPG fighters in exchange for their four men. (The GPF fighters were the last to be released of all the soldiers locally captured from the government side.) The fighters were "handed over" to the MFS so that they could claim ownership of their "liberation", which is paraded on this Dawronoye news website as an act of pan-ethnic solidarity triumphing over political differences, and a vindication of the Dawronoye participation in the Rojava project. According to the site, it was only "with the help of the Syriac Union Party in Syria (part of the autonomous self-administration)" that their brethren, led astray by regime propaganda to fight in the GPF and not the MFS, could be freed. In reality, the men were blindfolded, interrogated, and at least one GPF fighter was beaten badly by the PYD asayish captors; our source--who viewed the scars on his back in person--was able to confirm only his beating, but told us that the other three men "were almost certainly" given similar treatment. After their blindfolded interrogation and beating, the fighters were handed over to the MFS for the photo-op release. (The MFS sought to include GPF representatives in the handover "ceremony" to enhance its propaganda value, but they declined to participate.) The episode illustrates the intermediary status of the Dawronoye described earlier in this article; their combination of powerlessness and utility, the absence of a distinct capacity that yields a distinct capacity to do harm.

Read the full story here.


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