Suwar Magazine spoke to Suleiman Yousef, an Assyrian Christian and researcher who specializes in Syria’s minorities, about the local Assyrian community and the challenges it faces as hard-line Islamist groups gain more traction in the country.
Born in Qamishli in 1957, Assyrian Christian Suleiman Yousef graduated from the University of Damascus with a degree in social and philosophical sciences. Widely published in Arabic-language newspapers and journals, he has for years researched the role of minorities in the Middle East and the multifaceted forms of oppression they endure. He often focuses on Assyrian Christians.
In more than four years of civil war in Syria, Christians have been attacked several times by Islamic State. Assyrian Christians account for around 30,000 of the total 1.2 million members of the their faith in Syria and live mostly in the Hassakeh region in northeast Syria, especially Qamishli and Tel Tamer.
Many Christians, including Assyrians, have been displaced in the course of the conflict. A number of studies also suggest that the number of Christians remaining in the country is fast decreasing. Having once accounted for 20 percent of Syria’s population, they now make up about 10 percent of Syrians, according to Yousef.
Suwar: When ISIS spreads its battles to villages and towns inhabited by the Assyrian minority in northeastern Syria, the militant group abducted more than 220 Assyrians and held them ransom in late February. Is there any available information about the kidnapped?
Suleiman Yousef: According to our estimates and to the available knowledge about the Assyrian abductees, as well as our conversations with the survivors of those attacks and displaced Assyrians, the number of people still abducted is about 200 – mostly women, children and elderly. On the first day, they were taken to Tal al-Masamer, a village near the ISIS stronghold of Jabal Abdul Aziz.
On the second day they were taken to Shaddadi, a city in the southern part of Hassakeh province, where ISIS has another base. As of now, the militant organization still hasn’t announced any political conditions to meet or a set ransom to be paid for their release. That’s why there is a lot of concern for their fate and their lives – because ISIS is dangerous and is well known for killing and slaughtering its prisoners, particularly Christians. I appeal to the international community to intervene quickly to save the kidnapped Assyrians before it’s too late.
Suwar: What kind of humanitarian challenges are Assyrians displaced from their hometowns enduring?
Suleiman Yousef: The humanitarian situation is acceptable. Shelters have been provided for all the displaced Assyrians by civil organizations and humanitarian groups. The churches in Hassakeh and Qamishli have helped them, as well. There are about 1,000 displaced Assyrians. They’ve all been provided with housing, food and clothing.
Suwar: Are people’s needs limited to securing food and somewhere to stay, or are there more pressing needs?
Suleiman Yousef: In my opinion, those who are displaced will be displaced for a long time and the number will likely double due to the continued fighting in the countryside of Hassakeh and Tel Tamer. Assyrian organizations have appealed to Christians and Assyrian communities in the diaspora, calling on them to campaign [on Assyrians’ behalf] and collect donations to help the displaced. On the other hand, it has to be emphasized that the issue of the Assyrians is not just about its humanitarian aspects – it doesn’t end with providing sugar, rice or flour supplies.
If Assyrians are left without protection, their existence will be threatened. They need national, regional or international support because they are unable to protect themselves in the face of ISIS’s terrorism. Therefore, we call on the international community to provide a safe haven for them inside Syria and to protect them in the same way the world did for Iraqi Kurds in 1991.
Suwar: How grave is the threat that ISIS poses to the Assyrian minority in Syria? How is the situation for most Assyrians still in the country today?
Suleiman Yousef: It’s certainly a very painful and grim scene, especially for the Assyrians but for all minorities in general. They are victims of conflicts and others’ wars for power, particularly the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq. They are also victims of the regional and international actors who intervene in these conflicts. Most importantly the growing role of Islamist extremism – such as that of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra – represents a threat to the existence of Christians and Yazidi, as well as other minorities, in the region.
We expect that the situation will be further exacerbated for Assyrians, Yazidi and Christians in general. It’s possible that another conflict’s outbreak will reach Arabs and Kurds in Iraq and Syria – considering what’s going on right now in the region alongside the regional and international political developments, which comes at the expense of many different groups of people. As in all previous wars, Assyrians and Christians of the Middle East, who are part of the region’s indigenous population, are victims of this war.
Suwar: Do Christians feel like the weakest link in Syrian society?
Suleiman Yousef: Syrian Christians are not afraid of the regime’s fall or Bashar al-Assad’s departure so much as the fall of Syria as a state. Syria has historically been a safe haven for all minorities. Despite the relatively large population of Christians (about 10 percent), there is a real sense that Christians are the weakest link in Syrian society now.
Unlike most other Syrian minorities, Christians are a mostly unarmed minority without any armed militias to provide them with self-defense as the country’s security situation crumbles. Additionally, there is a feeling among Christians that if the regime fell, more tyranny would follow. The new regime would use them to clean up its image, but they would not be allowed to share power in Syria after Assad’s fall.
Sunnis will enjoy the protection of many Arab countries, while Iran will do the impossible to preserve the existence of Shia and Alawites. Turkey is ready to intervene to protect Turkmen, and the Kurds can rely on Massoud Barzani (an Iraqi Kurdish leader). But the Christians do not have any regional ally or international support to guarantee their continued presence like the rest of Syrian society. Not having an ally like this doubles Christians’ concerns, especially considering the current state of crisis in Syria.
Suwar: How likely is the extinction of any of the Middle East’s minorities?
Suleiman Yousef: All Middle Eastern minorities are under threat, especially if they enter into civil wars that are open-ended and lengthy, and if their countries don’t find lasting calm. In such situations, a transition to a civilian-led, democratic state that can achieve security, stability and justice for its citizens is necessary. But it is out of the question in Syria right now. What is needed is the international community’s immediate protection, otherwise we’ll see a Middle East totally devoid of Christians and Yazidi. They will be searching for alternative homelands that can provide them with security, stability and a future for their younger generations. The destination will likely be Europe and the United States, where they’ll be looking for asylum and residence.
This article was originally published in Arabic by Suwar Magazine. It has been translated, edited and reprinted here with permission.
Photo: Displaced Assyrian Christians from Syria celebrated Easter in Beirut, Lebanon, in April. (Syria Deeply/Dylan Collins).