Christian communities have been threatened over the last month of Turkey's invasion of northeast Syria. Ankara claims it is fighting "terrorism," however Turkish-backed Syrian rebel extremist groups have allegedly vandalized a church and have continually fired on the Christian community of Tell Tamer. US officials knew of the threat to Christians and have quietly urged Turkey to rein in its extremists.
Two US officials, one speaking publicly to media last week and one writing in a leaked memo, spoke out about the danger to Christians in northeast Syria. The Christian community in eastern Syria was targeted by ISIS in 2014. Now, it is fleeing again.
There were once up to 33 Christian villages along the Khabour River, many of them inhabited by the Assyrian minority and other Christians, such as Armenians. ISIS kidnapped hundreds of Christians and many fled.
Of 20,000 people on the Khabour, concentrated in places like Tell Tamer and Qamishli, only around 1,000 remain today.
Armenians, victims of the genocide during the First World War, are also once again fearing for their future.
On October 6, the US decided to withdraw from this area, enabling Turkey to launch an invasion. But Turkey, a NATO ally, didn't send its own troops. Instead, Turkey recruited thousands of former Syrian rebels who it formed into the Syrian National Army.
Many of these were religious extremists who immediately began murdering civilians when they entered Syria on October 10. For instance, Ahrar al-Sharqiyya, one of the Turkish-backed groups, murdered a Syrian female politician named Hevrin Khalaf, pulling her from her car by her hair and shooting her.
Christians along the Turkish border fled from communities like Tel Abyad. Other Christians who had joined self-defense groups linked to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stayed to defend Tell Tamer. A US official, speaking to media on November 6, said that although the US had pushed for a ceasefire on October 17, Turkey had only accepted a "pause" in operations. Russia tried to broker another ceasefire on October 22.
Turkey says it has a right to take over northeast Syria and create a "safe zone" where it will put three million Syrian Arab refugees. It claims it is fighting Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK) "terrorists," but it has mostly targeted the US-backed SDF, which had never attacked Turkey. Medical workers have been targeted, and 200,000 people have fled the fighting.
The US admitted on November 6 that the forces attacking Tell Tamer did not involve the Turkish army.
"It's basically these Turkish-supported Syrian Arab militias," a senior State Department official said. "And we were very concerned because they were seemingly heading toward the city of Tell Tamer, which is a relatively large Christian area."
The US appears to have pressed Turkey to stop the attacks on the Christian area.
"The Turks have assured us repeatedly at high levels, and they have gone public, that they're not trying to take Tell Tamer," the official said. "We have raised this with them at very high levels."
Some of the "ill-disciplined" Turkish-backed militias had previously been armed by the US, according to the official, that they were not radicalized, and "their ideology is essentially Islamic ideology." This puts Washington in the awkward position of claiming to support religious freedom and Christian minorities, while it previously worked with groups terrorizing minorities in Syria.
US officials have not met with the threatened Christians since the October 9 offensive began. Instead they sent a high-level delegation to Turkey last weekend, and are hosting Turkey's president in Washington on Wednesday. The last time Turkey's leader came to the US, protesters were attacked by his presidential security staff. The Hill revealed on Saturday that Turkey's security also attacked the US Secret Service in 2017 after assaulting protesters.
A more shocking memo that references the threat against minorities in Syria was written by William Roebuck for internal use at the State Department. The US official who spent the most time in eastern Syria over the last year, Roebuck is the deputy special envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition. A memo he wrote that was leaked on November 8 and published by The New York Times includes his view that "ethnic cleansing" was likely taking place during Turkey's offensive, which the memo describes as "an unprovoked military operation that has killed some 200 civilians, [and] left well over 100,000 newly displaced."
Overall he notes that Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups were "de-populating Kurdish areas." He also said some of them had formerly allied with ISIS or Al-Qaeda and were committing "well-publicized, fear-inducing atrocities." Some of these Turkish-backed groups chant in videos about how "God is great" as they shoot prisoners and kidnap women and vow to "slaughter the kuffar," or "infidels."
Photos have now emerged of an Armenian church in Tel Abyad that was vandalized. A statue of Mary was smashed and other desecrations have been shown. Pro-Turkey supporters claim that Syrian rebels actually went in afterward to clean the church. The groups alleged to have vandalized the church were from Al-Jabha al-Shamiya and Faylaq al-Majd.
The dispute over the Armenian church in Tel Abyad shows how both sides of the conflict seek to emphasize the issue of the Christian minority. Pro-Turkish media have said the church "opened for worship," the same day that pictures emerged of it being vandalized. However the worshipers pictured apparently were there days before. The photos also don't seem to show any crosses or Christian symbols, an indication they may have been intentionally removed. It was also not clear who gave permission to Syrian rebel groups to enter and "fix" and "repair" the church.
"Turkey repaired the church," says some pro-Ankara media. Turkey's Defense Ministry even announced the "repairs." Turkey asserts the church was used by the PKK as a "headquarters."
But there is no evidence for this. Nevertheless, pro-government Anadolu also wrote a story claiming the church "opens for worship." As if Turkey is managing this narrative and pushing it among government media, TRT also reported that the "Armenian church in northern Syria that was used by YPG/PKK terror group as headquarters reopens after Turkey repaired it."
What specific repairs did Turkey do? What evidence was there that the PKK used it? What do local Armenians from the community say? Why was it closed in the first place? Can Armenians travel to the church from other parts of Syria?
None of these questions have been answered by either side, especially the Turkish side that controls the area.
Like many things in the fog of war, the state of the churches and Christian community in areas captured by Turkey and the Syrian rebel groups is unclear. What is clear is that other Christians in Tell Tamer, which has not been captured, are concerned. It is also clear the US raised this issue with Turkey at the highest levels, concerned that it would be problematic for the US to be seen to be leaving parts of Syria where Christians were now fleeing.
US Vice President Mike Pence and others in the administration have claimed that the US will support religious freedom and Christian minorities. Pence has even been critiqued for favoring Christian groups in Iraq, where USAID denied aid to the embattled minority.
"Pence had grown displeased with USAID work in Iraq after Christian groups were turned down," wrote ProPublica.
In Iraq, the Trump administration sought to respond to the crimes committed by ISIS by supporting "religious and ethnic minorities." However, the administration pulled out staff in Syria after December 2018, when US President Donald Trump first sought to withdraw from the country.
It does not appear that the administration focused on what might happen to religious minorities in areas Turkey and its Syrian rebel extremists attacked. No diplomats have met publicly with the minorities to document their displacement, nor have they visited the area to ensure Christians are safe. This despite Turkey being a NATO ally, and NATO has previously defended minorities from ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
Christians in Syria have been forced to choose between larger groups that have come to control their areas. Some have expressed criticism of the SDF's political backers among the Kurds as well. Other Christians volunteered to fight alongside the SDF in Christian units. However, the recent invasion has led to yet one more crises for the community that was trying to rebuild after ISIS.