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Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Mosul”

#Syriac Christians threatened with the ‘Sword’ again

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

The threat of  ‘the sword’ has special resonance for Syriac Christians. Syriac for ‘sword’ is Sayfo, the name they use to refer to the massacre they suffered in 1915, when tens of thousands of them were slaughtered. On Friday 19 July the Syriac Christians of Mosul, whose ancestors were the Assyrians with their capital at Nineveh on the bank of the Tigris opposite Mosul, were threatened with the sword, unless they converted to Islam or paid the jizya, a tax levied by early Islam on religious minorities. Beheading by the sword was the earliest form of capital punishment in Islam. This time, to escape such a fate, they are fleeing northwards in their thousands, mainly into Iraqi Kurdistan, whose Kurdish rulers do not define themselves or anyone else by religion. Islam is one among many religions and Kurdish schools there teach all religions equally. Nearly a hundred years ago,  the Syriacs fled southwards from Turkey. On that occasion their persecutors were mainly Kurdish tribesmen acting on the instructions of  Turkish masters seeking to purge the Turkish state of non-Turkish minorities, but today their tormentors are fanatical fighters of mixed nationalities from the State of the Islamic Caliphate (formerly ISIS), who took control of Mosul,  Iraq’s second city, on 10 June 2014.

As Europe remembers the outbreak of World War One a hundred years on, the oft-forgotten group of Aramaic-speaking Christians has been gearing up for its own centenary. Their original heartlands are the region known as the Tur Abdin (‘Mountain of the Servants of God’ in Syriac),  a remote corner of what is now southeast Turkey, where their churches and monasteries date back to the 4th century. As their anniversary approaches, this resilient community, helped by members of their increasingly active diaspora from Sydney to Stuttgart, has been resolutely fighting back.

Their expulsion from Mosul will definitely not be the end of them. The following text of my BBC From Our Own Correspondent piece with accompanying photos, describes their determination to survive:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3 (direct link to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of 10 July 2014)

“No need for alarm clocks in Midyat. Every day in this ancient Syriac Christian town high on its plateau in southeast Turkey I am woken by goats bleating at my window and by cattle clattering past on cobbled streets. Kurdish children are herding them to nearby pastures from once elegant mansions that now serve as stabling.

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

Syriac stone mansion in Midyat [DD, May 2014]

For visitors like me the livestock lends a rustic charm, but not for members of the Syriac diaspora like Gabriel Khoury, whose ancestral home is one such pungent stable. Gabriel’s family emigrated to Australia when he was a boy, but now he has come back to claim his property. ‘I have six court cases to fight,’ he declares, his blue-eyes flashing angrily.  I encounter him at church where he leads the chanting in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Then he takes me to the one-roomed hovel, his current home, which is all he has left of his heritage. His surname ‘Khoury’ reveals he comes from a line of priests.  ‘Long story short,’ he explains, ‘I will not give up till I have my family’s houses and shops back. Then, if God wills, I will rebuild them.’

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Gabriel in his single room [DD, 2014]

Rebuilding is a constant refrain in this region known as the Tur Abdin,  where the Syriacs, one of the world’s earliest Christian communities, suffered heavily at the hands of the Kurds and Turks, especially in the 1915 massacres. At the village of Kafro I meet Niall, who has returned from 30 years in Stuttgart to help rebuild his community. An imposing row of large walled villas with a slightly fortified feel now flanks the single street. Alongside the ruins of the house where he was born, he has opened an al fresco pizzeria shaded by a nine-sided gazebo draped with vines. Multiples of three, representing the Trinity, are everywhere in the architecture here, and vines too hold deep spiritual significance, producing wine from the precious blood-stained soil. Traditionally each family planted just enough for its own modest consumption, but now some Syriacs have set up a wine factory imaginatively concealed in a mock mansion carved with friezes of grapes and wine glasses. Producing five reds and two whites to growing worldwide acclaim, its carefully chosen trademark  Shiluh means ‘peace’ in Syriac.

‘Two more families are coming back this year,’ smiles Niall, as he takes me to see the derelict shell of their original church. ‘When our community is bigger, we will restore this one. For now we are using a smaller one.’ He leads me past a well-tended cemetery where an open grave is awaiting the body of a 90-year-old returnee from Germany. This land reclaims its old, but reclaiming the young is more problematic. ‘Our teenagers,’ he explains, gesturing at a group just finishing their pizzas, ‘will leave soon for universities in Germany. A school bus takes the three of them from Kafro to Midyat where they are the only Christians in classes of over 40. How can we expect them to return here?’

Back in Midyat, Gabriel is on the case. The refugee camp established on a nearby hill was intended just for Syriac  Christians fleeing the fighting in neighbouring Syria, but so successful were they in being sponsored to leave, that only one family now remains.

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

The Syriac refugee camp on a hill outside Midyat [DD, May 2014]

 People like Gabriel took responsibility for the Christian refugees, many of whom have since moved west to Istanbul. Some have stayed in Midyat, like Maryam, a fair-haired beauty originally from Qamishli just across the border in northeast Syria. She now works as a waitress at one of Midyat’s magnificently restored Syriac mansions, converted to a 15-room hotel.

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

Midyat boutique hotel (Shmayaa) converted from a Syriac mansion [DD, May 2014]

‘Long story short,’ says Gabriel, ‘we need more like this to bring our people back, more girls and more hotels.’ He even wonders if one of his sons might marry Maryam – his own wife was from Qamishli – and plans how young men might return from Europe as architects and managers to design and run hotels, as businessmen to create new enterprise, and above all  as lawyers to champion their cause. I dare to raise December’s controversial settlement of the land dispute with the biggest of the monasteries. ‘Don’t make me laugh,’ he retorts  tossing his head, ‘they gave us 20% only, the other 80% is still held back. Long story short,’ he continues, ‘we will fight on till we get back what is rightfully ours. ‘

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk at Mor Awgen, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

Father Joaqim, Syriac monk  who has revived Mor Awgen Monastery, near Nusaybin [DD, May 2014]

As the centenary of their historic massacre, the Sayfo, approaches, long story short, maybe they will.

Related links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022kkk3

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/conversion-of-iraq-as-isis-drives-christians-out-of-their-homes-the-groups-genocidal-intentions-take-on-horrible-clarity-9617651.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/time-runs-out-for-christian-iraq-isis-deadline-passes-with-mass-flight-9617606.html

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/jabhat-al-nusra-announce-islamic-emirate.html

Church of the Mother of God, Haho July 2013

Church of the Mother of God, Haho [DD, May 2014]

Assad and ISIS – the ‘marriage of convenience’ is over

By the end of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once. The age-old pattern is the same: groups like ISIS began in Syria by ingratiating themselves with the local population, as they are doing in Mosul now, offering free fuel, electricity supplies and appearing to restore security to the streets. Next they will provide food and medical services. At first, in such charm offensives, they seem to be a godsend, then in stages, the reality reveals itself and their hard-line Islamist agenda comes to the fore, with compulsory Quranic schools, summary public executions and enforced veiling of women. But just as this was not the real Syria, neither is this the real Iraq. Women will pull their headscarves out of their handbags to put them on at black-bannered checkpoints, then stuff them away again.

In the early months of the Syrian Revolution extremist rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra accounted for no more than 3-4 per cent of the rebels overall, maybe reaching 10 per cent around Aleppo. While most fighters in Al-Nusra are from Syria, the extremist group ISIS which appeared over a year later than Al-Nusra in April 2013 is both foreign-led (by an Iraqi) and foreign-dominated. Its fighters come mainly from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia, though there are also Chechens, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and Iraqis as well as a few Pakistani Taliban and even Chinese. Dressed in their Pakistani-style tunics and menacing black balaclavas, brandishing their weapons, they form a stark contrast to the conservative but moderate Sunni Muslims who make up 74 per cent of Syria’s resident population. Typical communiqués use language like: ‘Our army is full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones.’ It is hard to imagine their ideology ever taking root in Syria, despite their ceaseless propaganda videos on YouTube and their thousands of tweets – all the rebel groups have their own highly active Twitter accounts.

Many Syrians told me long before the revolution that the Syrian brand of Islam is close to the tolerant Sufi Islam of Ibn Arabi and Al-Ghazali – open to all and with no coercion. Yet groups like ISIS are so intolerant they even started to ban tobacco as un-Islamic in areas they controlled in Syria’s north, not just alcohol and what they called ‘immoral entertainment’.  The kind of Syria they are trying to usher in would end up destroying the country’s very identity, its tolerant character. Moderate Syrians have begun social media campaigns against them with slogans like: ‘DAESH [Arabic for ‘ISIS’] GO OUT. Bashar and DAESH are one. We didn’t have a revolution against a tyrant for another tyrant to come and control us in the name of religion!  Those who belong to Syria, Syria is for all of you. Those who belong to Al-Qaeda, go to Afghanistan!’ Dozens of Arabic language Facebook pages have been set up rejecting ISIS, its Islamic credentials and its brutal tactics.

The rebel group ISIS now controls the oil fields in Syria’s north eastern provinces. They have broken the pipelines, creating environmental disasters, then welded on crude taps from which they fill queues of tankers. The valuable cargo is then trundled mainly into Turkey and sometimes even into regime-held areas of Syria, where prices rocket. It is a money-making exercise, free of overheads, that has turned the bearded chiefs into millionaires. Thousands of amateur refineries have sprung up, converting the crude oil to petrol, diesel and mazout heating oil, sold in smaller canisters to anyone who has the money. None of them will give that up without a fight. As the ISIS accounts captured in recent days have revealed, the rebels have accumulated huge funds from this oil and from looted Syrian antiquities, enabling them to pay good salaries to new recruits and to acquire proper weaponry for them. From their Syrian headquarters in Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, they have in recent days swept east into Iraq and taken the second city of Mosul along with vast tracts of adjoining territory, capturing along the way much heavy weaponry from the American-supplied Iraqi army.

So now the equation has changed. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically, yet they have never fought each other. ISIS militants have slept sound in their beds without fear of regime air strikes and barrel bombs. Whereas the Assad regime was before quite happy to turn a blind eye to ISIS and its atrocities in the north and in Al-Raqqa, content that its energies were being directed towards fighting the more moderate rebels, now ISIS has become a real threat.

Therefore it should come as little surprise that as The Times today reported, Syrian government forces for the first time bombed ISIS bases in eastern Syria and Al-Raqqa ‘acting in co-ordination with the Iraqi government’. The Assad regime has re-done its calculations, and is now banking on the expectation that its air-strikes against ISIS will also earn it grudging gratitude from the West. Bashar al-Assad must even be thinking this is his chance to become rehabilitated in the eyes of the international community, and undergo a transformation from ‘murderous dictator’ to ‘saviour from Islamist barbarians’.

The UN Chemical Weapons deal last autumn only happened because there was a rare consensus in the international community and no blame was attributable. Maybe such a consensus can be found again, this time to rid both Syria and Iraq of the growing extremist groups like ISIS. Maybe moderate elements from the rebels too can find a common cause and unite against this greater Al-Qaeda-affiliated menace whose terrorist jihadi agenda threatens not just Syria and Iraq’s future but the future of the entire international community. Maybe it will be Syria’s second revolution, a revolution in which even the ‘silent majority’ may find its voice.

In the meantime we can expect more Syrian air strikes against ISIS bases – their ‘marriage of convenience’ is over.

[This post includes extracts from the book My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution ]

Related articles:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/15/iraq-isis-arrest-jihadists-wealth-power?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/middleeast/iraq/article4120205.ece

This post includes extracts from the book.

This post includes extracts from the book.

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