Richard Spencer/How Syria’s Assyrians Stopped Turning the Other Cheek


 How Syria’s Assyrians Stopped Turning the Other Cheek
By Richard Spencer/The Telegraph
Posted 2015-02
Assyrian fighters in Syria.Like many of Syria’s warriors, Kino Gabriel was a student four years ago, training to be a dentist.
Like many other Syrians, he resisted the call to war, until he saw the threat to the towns and villages where he grew up and worshipped.
Like countless thousands, he soon found himself, gun in hand, snow falling in the bitter Syrian winter, fighting for his life, claiming his first kills.
Mr Gabriel, though, is a rarity in this remorseless conflict. He is a Christian, a member of a minority that in both Syrian and Iraqi wars has tried desperately to stay on the sidelines.
No longer. Christian militias have existed for a number of years, sometimes patrolling neighbourhoods, sometimes venturing further afield. But now they are engaged in their first major battle.
For the last week, they have been fighting the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant across a major front in north-west Syria, in alliance with the YPG, the Kurdish defence forces. They have had mixed fortunes, but the battle has energised Middle East Christians worldwide – many of them exiles who fled the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq.
“We saw what happened in Iraq in 2003,” Mr Gabriel said, speaking by Skype from Qamishli, near the front line. “Our people were left alone, with no autonomy, no army that could defend them.
“Most of our people have emigrated, thanks to attacks from Al-Qaeda and other groups. They couldn’t defend themselves. We learned that lesson and have prepared ourselves.”
In 2003, the Christian population of Iraq was well over one million. Now it is less than half that. In June last year, more than 600,000 were driven out of their homes when Isil swept across the Nineveh plain, traditional homeland of Assyrian Christians, in northern Iraq last summer.
In Syria, when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, the church was split, with many bishops supporting the regime but individuals joining forces with liberal activists in protest against him.
Few actually felt compelled to fight, though, until the onslaught against Christian villages and churches, first by Jabhat al-Nusra, and later by Isil.
Christians have seen churches blown up, crosses torn down, and those living under jihadist rule have been forced to pay the “jizya”, a special tax.
In a particular irony, Armenian Christians who came to Syria in flight from pogroms in their native Turkey 100 years ago have now been forced to flee in the opposite direction.
Syria, even more than Iraq, is a patchwork of sects and languages: many of these Christians speak and conduct services in Aramaic, the language of Christ.
Mr Gabriel’s chance at the front came at Christmas 2013, when he joined a militia known as the Syriac Military Council, which was fighting alongside Kurds in a battle for the town of Tel Hamis, south of Qamishli, his home city. Tel Hamis was in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Al-Qaeda branch from which Isil then split off.
“I think I was prepared,” Mr Gabriel, a former lay servant in the church, said. “I was a little bit afraid – it was my first battle.”
He and his fellow fighters managed to drive the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters back, but the attack stalled in the December snow. The area has been fought over ever since, with the YPG and their Syriac Military Council allies claiming on Friday to have finally retaken Tel Hamis, this time from Isil, which took over Jabhat al-Nusra positions last year.
The local Arab population is split, with some supporting the Kurds, others the Islamists.
The effect on the wider community of the expanded fighting front, though, has been disastrous. Many of the Christians have fled – more than 1,000 families in the last week alone, according to George Merza, head of the local Assyrian council.
On Monday, more than 300 of those Christians that remained were taken hostage in a lightning Isil counter-offensive in villages around Tel Tamer, in north-west Syria’s semi-desert.
“They are innocent people, children, women and elders,” Mr Merza said. “We demand an immediate intervention to save our people, who have lived on this land for thousands of years in peace. Today they are driven to death and destruction. This is inhuman.”
The Syriac Military Council is hoping to offer Isil a prisoner swap, returning eight jihadis captured in the battle for Tel Hamis for the civilian captives, but no negotiations have yet begun.
The resistance put up by the Christian fighters from these ancient communities, heirs to Senacherib and Ashurnasirpal, the great Assyrian emperors of the Biblical era, has heartened an international diaspora which has up to now watched events unfold with glum, helpless horror.
Assyrians and Syriacs as far afield as London, New York and Sweden have posted patriotic appeals online. For many, it is their cousins who have been captured, and who are dying in battle.
Some have also taken it upon themselves to return home to join up, and have been joined by a number of other Western volunteers. Ashley Johnston, a former Australian soldier, became the first Westerner to die fighting alongside the Kurds and Christians in the battle for Tel Hamis on Monday.
“Ashley was a good man who never complained and was always positive,” Jordan Matson, the unofficial leader of the Kurds’ foreign legion, said in a Facebook tribute. “I consider it an honour to have known and served with him.”Mr Matson pointed out that Mr Johnston was considered a criminal in Australia, which has made it an offence to fight in the war on either side.
The question of whether to fight or not remains, though, a major big question for the Christian exiles. They ask themselves whether it is right or even worthwhile to risk their lives for a diminished, violent homeland.
The Christians of the region have long held that they should “turn the other cheek” in the face of assault and discrimination.
Father Tony Malham, an Assyrian priest who has left Iraq and now serves the community in London, says that this is the only pragmatic response, given that Christians are overwhelmingly outnumbered.
“On the one hand, this is our homeland; on the other, it’s not true to say it’s our homeland any more,” he said. “If we want to have a home for ourselves we have to fight for it, but as Christians we can’t fight, we can’t kill.
“We have to talk, we have to talk in a civilised way. But these people who are against us can’t talk, they can only fight and kill.
Mr Gabriel acknowledges that at just 1,000 strong, his militia is a small force compared to those ranged against it. But he says he can no longer stand by and watch his people driven from their homes like sheep.
“Over the past century, our people six times have suffered displacement, massacres, other forms of aggression,” he said.
“This has targeted the Syriacs and the Christian presence in the Middle East. We are acting based on the facts before us – to protect ourselves on our historical land. This is our right and duty.”