QAMISHLI, Syria — With President Donald Trump’s sudden pullback of U.S. troops from northeast Syria Oct. 7, Turkey’s warplanes and artillery have bombarded cities and positions occupied by Kurdish forces who up to this point had counted on the U.S. as allies.
Turkey’s invasion with troops and tanks, aided by Sunni Arab militants called the Free Syrian Army, is widely feared to be the trigger for a bloodbath with the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurds will no longer have U.S. coalition air power behind them, but are battle-hardened by a horrific five-year war fought to the death against the Islamic State group (ISIS).
Relations between Christians and Kurds have been complicated over allegations that the Kurds have taken land or tried to impose their language on Syrian Christians and other smaller constituent groups, in their ambition to build a Kurdish ethno-state. But Christians are also concerned that Turkey’s plans to drive out the Kurds and carve out a 30-kilometer zone of territory for resettling 3.6 million Sunni Arab Syrian refugees will destabilize the region even more by permanently altering its demographics.
Already, northeast Syria’s 40,000 Christians are among the casualties of the Turkish incursion, with civilian deaths and injuries reported in centers with large Christian populations along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Matthew, a 28-year-old Christian whose real name is withheld by request, studied agricultural engineering before the war in Syria put his graduation on hold. He spoke with the Register from Qamishli, a city divided between the Syrian government and the Kurds right on the front lines of the Turkish invasion.
What has happened in Qamishli, Hasakah and other Christian areas of northeast Syria since the Turks began their assault on the Kurds?
Let me start by telling you that Qamishli and Hasakah have 5,000 Christian minority families in their neighborhoods.
On the first day of the Turkish attack, the al-Bashiriya neighborhood in the city of Qamishli was hit by an unknown shell, which resulted in the serious injury of the young Fadi Habsuno and his wife. They were evacuated to the hospital and remained for more than four hours in the operating room and intensive care. On the second day, the western neighborhood [of Qamishli] was hit by a shell that burned an entire house that had been evacuated by its residents. But know that many people remained in their homes with nowhere to go.
What are the direct and indirect consequences for Christians and the region’s inhabitants with the Turkish invasion?
The immediate consequences are destruction, death, displacement and hunger that will befall all civilians, including Christians living in the areas [affected by] the Turkish operation.
There is also fear of fanatical Turkish-backed militias and what they will do with minorities and those who oppose them.
The Kurds acquired control over more land in northeast Syria in the fight against ISIS. How has this changed life for the Christians?
The Kurds’ control of more territory was solely thanks to coalition support.
This did not affect the Christians. If anything, fear and anticipation remained within them, because, to be frank with you, everyone knew that this day [of the Turkish invasion] would come and bring with it destruction for the region and civilians.
Do you believe the Turkish invasion will make things worse for Christians in the region?
I do not know [for certain]; but I believe that Turkish intervention will make things much worse than they are now.
Do you have any indication that the Syrian government will intervene in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, or will the government stay neutral?
I don’t know if the Syrian government will intervene or remain neutral. But the majority of the public want the intervention of the Syrian government and the return of security and safety to the region.
Let me tell you something that I want to convey to the whole world: The people love the Syrian government; and they want this war, which lasted more than eight years, to end. Look at the cities that remained under the control of the Syrian state, how happy they are to live in peace.
What will happen to the fight against ISIS? Are you concerned that ISIS could come back now?
We had thought that the fight against ISIS had ended. But now we have nightmares again [that ISIS will return].
Turkey plans to resettle 3.6 million Syrian Sunni Arabs in a 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) zone where the Kurds lived. What impact will that mass relocation have on the search for a peaceable end to the war?
These refugees are Syrian citizens. Any Syrian land is their land. But to correct your information more, this is the depth that the majority of its inhabitants are talking about: Deir Ezzor Governorate is 90% Arabs. Raqqa is 85% Arab; Al-Hasakah and Al-Qamishli are 60% Arabs; Kurds are a minority of 30%-35%; Christians, 10%; and 5% other groups.
People fear the way these [Turkish-allied] fighters think and their ideology (if they think like ISIS) and the demographic change of the area. They fear it will become 100% Arabs, because [Turkey’s allies] will kill and kick away the other component groups.
The ideal solution is to restore the control of the Syrian state, which keeps all the people in a cohesive fabric, within the framework of the Syrian territory as a whole.
What message do you think the U.S. has sent the Christians in Syria, as well as the rest of the region, by withdrawing and giving the Turks a free hand to attack the Kurds?
Before the war, the United States was the country most loved by Christians and was an example of freedom, development and human justice. I learned English for my love and dream of visiting Los Angeles.
But after the war, this perception changed. The United States acted according to its plans and never cared about the people living here. The crisis has been prolonged because of this American intervention; otherwise, we would now live in peace without war.
So, in response to your question, we were expecting this scenario. Because of the American support for the Kurds, they thought they were strong enough and started to seek separation from the [Syrian] state.
America is a smart country that is not prepared to lose for anybody; so the decision to withdraw was expected now or several years later.
How can Christians in the U.S. respond to help the Christians of Syria and their desire for the region to be at peace?
Christians in the United States can help us to get this message to the U.S. government as soon as possible: “We hope you press Turkey to stop the attack and pressure the Kurds to return everything to the Syrian government as soon as possible. Then the war will end, and we can live in peace and stability.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.