Descendants of Survivors: Syriac Christians Oppose a Turkish ‘Safe Zone’ in Syria

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But can a new, peaceful future be built? by Amy Austin Holmes The borderlands between Turkey and Syria are dotted with small Syriac

Christian churches. Last fall, bullets penetrated the wall of a church in the village of Tel Jihan in northeastern Syria, just four-hundred-fifty meters from the Turkish border. Locals told me it was not an isolated incident. Syriac Christians refer to themselves as “descendants of survivors.” Many of their ancestors perished in the 1915 Seyfo massacre in which an estimated three-hundred-thousand Christians were killed by the Ottomans. The event has received little scholarly attention, leading historian Joseph Yacoub to refer to it as a “hidden genocide.” This community—including Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Armenian Christians—has not forgotten the persecution they suffered at the hands of the Ottomans a century ago. And it is precisely this experience that informs their current opposition to Ankara’s plan to deploy Turkish troops East of the Euphrates. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an is trying to frame the plan as a “buffer zone” or “safe zone.” For Syrians, it’s another intervention by a foreign power. Instead of inducing a sense of safety, the idea of deploying Turkish troops in their homeland rekindles memories of the trauma their community has suffered before. 10 seconds Do You Know What Happened Today In History? For months now, Ambassador James Jeffrey has been engaging in shuttle diplomacy between Ankara and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to find an arrangement for border security agreeable to both sides. Turkey wants to not only deploy a contingent of troops, but to control the entire area. The SDF, however, rejects the idea. They see it as Ankara’s desire to occupy more Syrian land. Given the Trump administration’s concern about the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East—and the abuses committed by Turkish-backed militias in Afrin as documented in a recent State Department report—it is disturbing that U.S. officials are seriously entertaining the Turkish proposal at all. Report Advertisement Contrary to how the issue is often discussed in Washington and other Western capitals, it’s not just the Kurds who don’t want Turkish troops to deploy again in Syria—regardless of what euphemism is used to describe the zone. Based on five weeks of research in Northeast Syria, I found that there is fierce opposition to the Turkish plan by virtually all components of Syrian society, including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Circassians, and Christians. (Although those who are perhaps most bitterly opposed to the deployment of Turkish troops are Syriac and Assyrian Christians.) Instead of continuing to indulge Erdo?an’s neo-Ottoman plans to further annex parts of northern Syria, U.S. officials could simply tell Ankara that there will be no further deployment of Turkish troops in Syria. Washington could just say no to Ankara—like Turkey said no to America in 2003. Back then, soon after Erdo?an was first elected, the Turkish parliament voted against allowing U.S. troops to deploy through Turkey to open up a northern front for the war in Iraq. Washington was unhappy with the Turkish decision, to put it mildly, but its decision was respected. It’s now time for Ankara to respect America’s decision. Report Advertisement Otherwise, if Erdo?an gets his way, the zone may encompass a large swath of territory that extends some thirty-two kilometers south of the border and place as much as half the population of Northeast Syria—including churches like the one in Tel Jihan—under the control of the Turkish military. Last week Michael Mulroy, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, confirmed that the United States would remain in Syria “for the long haul.” Now that the United States has agreed to keep at least four-hundred troops in Syria in addition to coalition forces, the Turkish plan to deploy troops should be discarded entirely. Does America Want to Perpetuate Transgenerational Trauma Among the Christian Minorities of Syria? In contrast to the Armenian genocide, the 1915 Seyfo massacre has received very little scholarly attention. In one of the first English-language books on the topic, Year of the Sword published by Oxford University Press, historian Joseph Yacoub describes the mass killings of 1915 as a “hidden genocide” that killed an estimated three-hundred-thousand people. It was a time when “the Ottomans sought to extirpate the Aramaic-speaking Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean Christians of the Middle East.” Another book is due to be published later this month by Harvard University Press, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities 1894-1924, which was coauthored by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’Evi. While Kurds were also persecuted during this time, at least one Kurdish tribe collaborated with the Ottoman army in targeting the non-Muslim minorities of the region. Virtually every Christian family in Northeast Syria has a relative or ancestor who was directly impacted by the Ottoman atrocities. The passing down of trauma from one generation to the next is known as transgenerational trauma. If the United States agrees to Turkey’s plan to deploy troops in Northeast Syria, then Washington could become complicit in the perpetuation of transgenerational trauma among the Christian minority of Syria—even if those troops refrain from the abuses committed in Afrin last year. I am not a historian of the Ottoman Empire, but a political sociologist analyzing the current evolution of Northeast Syria and its relationship with external actors, including Turkey, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the regime in Damascus, and the United States. The important work of these historians helps explain some of my findings from my own field research in the region about the current situation. Christians, Arabs, Kurds and Even Turkmen Oppose a Turkish Safe Zone in Syria