‘Geneva II is last opportunity to oust Assad’

Despite the general belief that Syrian Christians are backing President Assad’s regime, there are many who are siding with the opposition. DW travelled to Qamishli, in northeast Syria, to speak to one of them.
Holding mass in Qamishli Bild: Karlos Zurutuza, DW Mitarbeiter, Syria, Oktober 2013

Many Christians fear for their future in Syria

Gebrail Kourie is the President of the Assyrian Democratic Organization.

DW: Can you describe the Assyrian Democratic Organization and how it works?

Gebrail Kourie: The Assyrian Democratic Organization is a national, political and democratic movement which was founded in 1957 in Qamishli (around 700 kilometers northeast of Damascus – the ed.) and we’ve been working underground ever since. We are the first political organization of the Assyrian people in Syria and we have branches in the US, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Turkey. The Assyrians are the living descendants of the people and the civilization of Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Chaldean, Assyrian, Aramean, Syriac…Our people has been known in Mesopotamia throughout history under all these denominations.

Why were you forced to remain underground?

Syria’s ruling Baath party never had any problem whatsoever with religious diversity but national aspirations other than the Arabs’ were systematically denied. We reject calling ourselves “Christians,” we are Assyrians, we have a historic homeland and a distinct language and culture, that’s why were part of Syria’s opposition long before the revolution. In 2005 we signed the Declaration of Damascus – a statement of unity by Syrian opposition figures which criticized the Syrian government as “authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish” and called for reform. The Baath party never accepted us even if we strived for a national recognition without breaking Syria’s boundaries. After the uprising in 2011 we joined the Syrian National Council – the Istanbul-based coalition of Syrian opposition groups.

Kurds in power in Syria’s north have claimed that neither Assad nor the opposition are willing to recognize Syria’s “non-Arab” peoples. The Syrian opposition has recently moved toward the recognition of our rights at a meeting in Cairo. However, there are several points to be discussed, starting from what should be the official name. We want a “Syrian Republic,” and not a “Syrian-Arab Republic.” Another pressing issue is whether Syria should be a federal state. Nonetheless, we agree that all these points have to be discussed by a representative parliament after Assad is ousted. It’s too early to agree on that now.

Many Syrian Christians support Assad. How has this division affected your community?

Senior Christian representative Gebrail Kourie
Bild: Karlos Zurutuza, DW Mitarbeiter, Syria, Oktober 2013 Gebrail Kourie

We have a big problem because many local Christians have not accepted becoming an opposition party. That doesn’t mean that Christians support the dictatorship, it’s just that they prefer stability rather than risk their life fighting for their legitimate rights. We’re working to establish bridges between our community through civil commissions but the regime is chasing us. The crux of the matter is that Christians are too afraid as the on-going crisis brings back memories of 1915 genocide, where hundreds of thousands of our people were killed by the Turks alongside the Armenians. The same happened in Iraq after 2003. Churches have been attacked and a lot of people have left. Since 1970, 200,000 Christians have left Syria, 30 percent of the community in this northeast region. Today there are more of us in Sweden than here in Syria, that’s why we need to stick to our land and fight for our rights alongside Arabs and Kurds.

You mention federalism: would you accept being part of the Kurdish Autonomous Region within Syria that many Kurdish parties are claiming?

We have no problem whatsoever as long as everybody’s rights are recognized and mutual respect prevails over ethnic divisions.

Kurdish opposition parties have accused the PYD – the dominant party among Syria’s Kurds – of ruling in an authoritarian way. What is your assessment at this point?

That’s not true as there are other parties within the Kurdish Supreme Committee, the governing body in Syrian Kurdistan. Besides, the PYD has proved to be a strong party and the YPG, the Popular Protection Units – is keeping Islamists at an arm’s length.

Rumors have it that Turkey is funnelling them across its border to quell the Syrian Kurds’ aspirations. Is there any truth to that?

It’s very likely as everybody in the Middle East has used Islamists for their own interest, even Iran and Syria. Before they would be launched from here to Iraq, and now they are fighting against the legitimate Syrian opposition. There are communication channels between Assad and the Jihadists. Assad freed hundreds of them from prison in order to demonize the Syrian opposition. They’ve done the job but I want to underline that by no means does Islamic extremism represent the ideals of Syria’s opposition groups.

Would a foreign intervention bring a solution to a war about to enter it’s third year?

We always fought for a political solution in Syria but Damascus never moved forward. Assad’s only reaction has been a brutal military response with the help of his allies, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia among them. Hence, Syria has turned into an open battlefield for foreign powers. If there’s no political transition, Assad’s dynasty will be perpetuated in Syria and the whole country will turn into a stronghold for Islamists. Geneva II (peace conference on Syria planned for Nov. 23 – the ed) can be our last opportunity to oust Assad and to bring back all those who left Syria. Nobody wants to see their country attacked but if the political way doesn’t lead to the fall of Assad, then I’m afraid there’ll be no other way.