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War with Isis: Why Syria’s Christians Can Never Go Home
Even when Isis retreats, its strategy is to ensure a state of terror and insecurity is left in its wake
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Syrian Christians are too terrified of past kidnappings and present suicide bombings by Isis to return to their homes in towns and villages from which the Islamist militants have been driven. Much the same is true of other communities in Syria, meaning that few of the 4 million Syrian refugees now outside the country and the 7 million within it are ever likely to go home.

Isis has adopted a strategy of ensuring that even where it is defeated and forced to retreat, it can ensure that there is a state of terror and permanent insecurity in the territory from which it has withdrawn. One can see the results of this process clearly in the town of Tal Tamir and nearby villages on the Khabur river in north-east Syria, where there were once large Assyrian Christian populations and which were seized by Isis at the start of the year. These places were recaptured by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the early summer but they remain desolate and uninhabited.

It has been months since there was any fighting in Tal Tamir, and it is undamaged compared to many Syrian cities, but it has become a ghost town with empty streets, boarded up houses and overgrown bushes in gardens. We had been directed in Qamishli, the largest city in this Kurdish-controlled part of Syria, to seek out the local Christian militia and, with some difficulty, we found their headquarters in an abandoned villa.

I was told you were coming, but not to tell you anything,” said the local Christian commander. But there probably was not much to tell, since there were only a few militiamen, mostly without weapons, in the villa which had no furniture aside from a rusty metal table and some chairs. He pointed us vaguely in the direction of another militia headquarters that turned out to be closed. The Kurdish YPG likes to give the impression that it has non-Kurdish allies, but in practice does not tolerate independent militias.

In searching for elusive Christian militiamen, we met Jan Abraham, an Assyrian Christian and the mayor of a small village called Tal Maghas, where he says that “out of 50 families which fled my village in February when Isis advanced only three of them have returned. In Tal Tamir itself, there used to be between 15,000 and 20,000 people, but today this is down to about 1,000.” He says that the Christians have mostly sought sanctuary in Lebanon, Turkey, Germany and Sweden.

Mr Abraham, a cheery confident man aged 54, still has a job in the Agricultural Bank in Tal Tamir, though most of his customers have left. He says that he advises people to come back, but “they are too afraid of Daesh [Isis].” And they have reason to fear since their villages have been largely destroyed and between 200 and 220 Assyrian Christians, part of a community that sought refuge in Syria after being massacred in Iraq in 1933, were abducted by Isis in February and have still not been released, aside from a few old people. “We don’t know where they are,” says Mr Abraham. Last week Isis released a video showing three Assyrian captives being executed.

yrians often begin conversations by saying their neighbourhood is safe and only gradually confess that this security has its limitations. Mr Abraham was no exception and, after 10 minutes, he revealed that a woman suicide bomber from Isis had been detected the previous week in Tal Tamir trying to enter a market, though she had been detained before she could blow herself up. She had been wearing traditional long Arab robes and pretending to be pregnant to conceal the explosives around her waist. Local people were suspicious of her because they thought she did not walk like a pregnant woman, but the non-Kurdish militiamen were all male and could not search her. This did not apply to the YPG fighters, many of whom are women, who searched the suspect and prevented her detonating her bomb.

Isis is pursuing the same tactics across Kurdish-controlled north Syria where the Islamist militants have suffered their most serious military defeats this year at the hands of YPG ground forces backed by intense United States bombing. The YPG broke Isis’s long siege of Kobani in January, though 70 per cent of the city was pulverised by US bombs and missiles, and the Kurdish fighters have since advanced to the Euphrates. Isis lost an important border crossing with Turkey at Tal Abyad in June and failed in an attempt to seize Hasaka city. Yet the front line between Isis and the YPG is long and porous, so it is impossible to defend against infiltrators. Pervasive fear that Isis has “sleeper cells” in every Sunni Arab community stokes paranoid suspicions and deepens hostility between Arab and Kurd.

North-east Syria is probably the safest part of the country, apart from the cities of the Mediterranean coast, but among the remaining Christians there is a feeling that the region has become too dangerous to live in. Mr Abraham says that he is advising people to return, but he admits that he himself “is waiting for a job contract in Germany or Sweden”. His son is an electrician in Germany and his wife and daughters are in Lebanon, though conditions are so bad there that they might return to Syria at least temporarily.

Many Christians in Tal Tamir have been displaced several times. Isho Jamo, a 48-year-old unemployed electrician, originally comes from a village called al-Kharita outside Hasaka city, which in 2012 was entered by insurgents “who claimed to be the Free Syrian Army but turned out to be Ansar al-Sharia [an Islamist rebel faction] who stole everything in our homes.” Mr Jamo fled to Hasaka and then to Tal Tamir and would like to go back to his village “but it has been destroyed”.


We asked if this was the end of the Assyrian Christian community, and Mr Jamo said he believed not, but did not look very convinced by his own words. He was speaking outside a fine looking Christian church called al-Khadissa that was opened by the church warden called Jan Jacoub, who owns a small shop opposite the church. Mr Jacoub lamented that “the congregation of our church was between 700 and 800 on Sunday, and people would overflow into the street, but today only 100 people come to services”.

Back in Qamishli, the main city of the region, Daoud Daoud, an Assyrian leader, confirmed that most of his community would never return to Syria. Most Christians in Syria are deemed to be supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, but Mr Daoud said that the leader of his group, Gabriel Gawriya, had been arrested by the government in 2013 and was in a prison outside Damascus.

The Kurds say the corner of Syria they control is secular and all sectarian and ethnic groups can live there, but even so the insecurity is so great that normal life has become impossible. Even where there has been little destruction, the fear and sense of threat is so high that few refugees or displaced people can go home.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Arab Christianity, ISIS, Syria 
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  1. mikhas says:

    There he goes again…

    As touched upon by other commentators, “Plantman” among others, whenever it comes to the Middle East, Cockburn, in order to catch the attention of the viewer, start´s his piece with a token platitude of peace and reconciliation and often describe the current state in a quite truthful manner we all can agree upon but as we go along he changes drastically and somehow always end up in the infamous Yinon plan, Clean Break and whatever israel and the Wurmser´s and Pearl´s could wish for as a solution to the(ir) problems.

    I.E fragmentation along ethnic and religious lines and splitting up existing countries into small incoherent states, divide et impera.

    Exactly what israel and the US has been doing in the region since 1948. israel “the best solution is no solution” and their Saudi Wahhabi partners would of course love to see the Christians, their proxie armies are doing their best to exterminate, flee and never return again but contrary to Cockburn and according to countless surveys and reportage’s from RT and independent media it´s quite the other way around. Those who flee are counting the days for their safe return to their ancient lands and those who stay pick up the rifle and join the SAA, National Defence Forces or Christian militia. Even more so now, when a superpower, Russia, is in helping to get rid of the foreign Wahhabi trash, the different mercenarie death squads and to keep their country together. Writing such stuff again and again without much difference, Cockburn obviously believe people ignorant and stupid not to notice what he actually are propagating for.

    • Replies: @Bianca
  2. It’s clear that our leadership, which claims the mantle of world leadership, is now either so venal or ignorant, that it has consequently caused nothing but a multiplication of evils, yet is so dumbfounded that it insists on continuing foisting the same errors, over and over, without ever learning anything.

    • Replies: @Moi
  3. stevieb says:

    U.S/Israeli supported mercenaries are doing this at the behest of their Zionist paymasters who are doing to Syria what they did in Palestine…all for ‘living room’ – (you can call it ‘greater Israel’)…

  4. Moi says:
    @Fran Macadam


    Put it all down to our “exceptionalism.”

  5. Bianca says:

    Very true. If he wanted to get an idea of what is going on — all one needs is to go to Damascus and talk to ordinary folks, Christians, Moslems, Arabs or Armenians, Shia or Sunni, and find out what the majority of Syrians think. They are not “fearing” the “regime”, the latest one propped up on the neocon wall-o-villains, to scare everyone from even thinking to work with it. And it is not just Russia that has trashed the illusion of the wall-o-villains. Which country today — other then helpless Europeans, Arabian monarchs and some Pacific islanders — actually thinks that Syrian regime did anything wrong in defending themselves against armed, murderous groups? Is US supported by, say, India or Pakistan? Or China? Or South Korea? Or Egypt, or Indonesia, or just about any country in Africa or Latin America? Or any other country member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization? Everyone who had an opportunity to flee to the SAA controlled area did so. Those that could not, ran where they could, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon. The latest invention, a brand-new Neocon created coalition out of their imagination has received US supply of arms. In an inimitable Neocon Brotherhood style, with an adjective-loaded prose, we are told with a gushing pride how this new coalition consists of all religions and nationalities. Yep, the Brotherhood has spoken, and we are to believe — or else. Since Russia did not get into this mess without first knowing each square yard of the territory, the population that lives there, who is controlling it, and who is armed, how and by whom, it will hardly matter. It is by now patently clear that General Petreaus’s advocating of using Al-Qaeda to fight ISIS, was not a suggestion. It is a fact on the ground. We are not arming hitherto never heard of group, but Al-Nusra, well known Al-Qaeda group that has been strengthened by incorporating many weaker Islamist and Salafi groups. So much for the memory of those innocents that died on 9/11. If Al-Qaeda is useful to neocons, they do not ask too many questions. How many losers are in jail with life -sentences for much smaller offences of helping terrorists. But in Neocon Brotherhood universe, these are silly distinctions.

    The idea of creating weak, marginal national and religious identities out of coherent and stable states has been practiced all over the globe in order to reengineer regions. This is how unstable Balkans have been created, now the region of banana-republics with their nationality-religions dominating the discourse, to the tragedy of Ruanda. None of them was a spontaneous event caused by the restless natives. And the state of tension must be maintained at all the times, using the local satraps to stir up the old wounds. Trotsky must be happy in his grave — as his vision of controlling population through “permanent revolution”, and breaking them into feuding, scared marginal entities dependent on the state and the handful of superior masterminds — is coming true. Neocon Brotherhood is founded on the principles of Strauss followers, like Wolfowitz — the belief in the strong empire controlling the marginal, confused identities, and Trotsky, the mastermind of international communism, to whom the constraints of Soviet Union were not enough. While the Brotherhood with ease disposes of the ideology, and from communism jumps to free markets and democracy, it is in its in its foundation devoted to the imperial mandate of Strauss. As a man he epitomized the idea. Staring as an admirer of German empire, transforming himself into the admirer of Churchill vision of empire, and ending conferring doctoral degrees in Chicago to such luminaries as Wolfowitz — glorifying American empire.

    Today, Soros — another disciple, is flooding Europe with activists and literature glorifying the influx of refugees as an opportunity for Europe. Europe, he avers, needs population. Millions of them. You see, Europeans are just used to their middle class lifestyle, and need to be kicked down a peg by cheap, very cheap labor. He does not care a jot that Europe has high unemployment, and that young from Spain, or from Eastern or Southern Europe may be the first ones to be offered jobs. But once neocon trumpet starts blowing, and media in unison repeat the garbage, there is a sense that nothing can be done to step on the tail of such charlatans. And it may be true. For as long as the financial might in the West is behind the ridiculous idea that the world will be a better place if we shred into tatters the existing social norms and the ties that bind people — what tools will be left to resist? Perhaps the only thing that will stand in the way are the remaining countries that will guard their sovereignty and the right to develop at their own pace, within their own cultural milieu, without being forced to “change” to preserve for as long as possible the implosion of the neocon-invented and dominated financial pyramid.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  6. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factory"] says: • Website

    Hey, where are the Rock stars?

    When Africans were starving, they had a rock concert.

    When homos were dying of AIDS, they had a rock concert.

    But what about the Middle East?

    No rock for Arabs and Muslims?

    Will there be a Rock for Palestine?

    • Replies: @Junior
  7. Junior [AKA "Jr."] says:
    @Priss Factor

    Remember the Artists United Against Apartheid song from 1985 “I ain’t gonna play Sun City”? They need to make an “I ain’t gonna play Tel Aviv” song. Apparently these groups that the article’s that I’ve attached below discusses didn’t get or conveniently chose to ignore the memo from President Carter comparing Israel’s apartheid to South Africa’s apartheid. Gee, I wonder why?…

  8. The ISIS strategy is taken from the scroll of the expansionst regimes that spread out of the Peninsula (8th-12th/13th century) into Africa and Europe. NOTE: Look at the majority of mawali over the treu Arab and the post Umayyad syndrome that allowed subsequent dynasties to usurp Arab (Peninsula) power. It uprooted all of the Christian communities in its wake and through this Muslim (Arab, Persian, Turk, Albanian, etc) colonialism, the nails were sealed on the coffin of discontent and revenge.
    ISIS, sadly will finish the deed of purifying these communities in their midst.

    Thanks to US implicit Rule of X, its proxy dictators did a great job of inciting enough unrest to depose of the choice of dictator (benign or otherwise) unitl the straw that broke the camel’s (yes, the ubiquitious one) back was the alleged threat of WMDs, backed up by the deposing of Saddam, the US choice and deceit in installing a far move clever al Maliki, who made the usual promises (yes, the parrotting of ‘Justice For All) but instead did the opposite, to allow for Sunni dissatisfaction at the status quo to start the fires of Islamic chaos that succeeded in reaching where it is today.

  9. @Bianca

    If you want to write an essay about Strauss, neo-cons etc why do you feel it is necessary to try for plausible attachment to the matters raised by Cockburn by silly stuff that suggests you haven’t read what he wrote.

    Have you been to anywhere in Syria recently and spoken to Syrians there? A representative sample? How many?

    Cockburn, as he described, was there talking to Christians about whose community he wrote. In case you didn’t notice he gave his reasons for suggesting that Christians would be mostly not returning to the places they’d left. If you are even interested in the subject he wrote about tell us why he was wrong and how you think you know.

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