Militias rout ISIS from Christian area in Syria

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ISIS | Militias recapture ancient Assyrian villages but find churches destroyed
By Mindy Belz
In Syria, an unheralded combination of Kurdish and Assyrian Christian fighters in recent weeks managed to recapture a string of villages along the Khabur River from the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS).
The victories came three months after ISIS swept into the area, taking command of 14 villages and kidnapping several hundred Assyrian Christians who lived there. They went unnoticed as ISIS made gains elsewhere, chiefly in taking Palmyra further south in Syria, and capturing Ramadi in central Iraq. But as local forces reenter the Khabur River villages, they are finding a swath of devastation in the Islamic militants’ wake.

In the village of Tal Nasri, ISIS blew up the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, turning to rubble the 80-year-old structure, one of three churches in the town. The explosion apparently took place on Easter Sunday in April, but the extent of the destruction could not be confirmed until anti-ISIS forces entered the village in late May.

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“All the Christian Assyrian villages in Khabur are re-controlled and IS is pushed out,” said Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian priest and head of the relief group CAPNI.

But Youkhana said newly discovered dangers mean none of the displaced families will be allowed to return soon. ISIS left land-mines in the area around St. Mary’s and other churches—and three soldiers were killed by mines during fighting with Islamic militants. With Syrian government forces largely routed from the area, and international aid organizations in northern Syria mostly non-existent, it’s hard to predict when de-mining of the area could take place.

That leaves about 1,400 Assyrian families—nearly 7,000 persons—unable to go back to their homes and villages. Some are still living in churches in cities east of the Khabur River. “The majority have been placed with other Assyrian Christian families,” said Osama Edward, director of the Stockholm-based Assyrian Human Rights Network. They are being cared for by local Assyrian churches and aid groups like CAPNI. With support from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany, CAPNI purchased blankets, food, and medicine delivered to the displaced families. “Their grandfathers survived the Christian genocide of 1915, and now, the grandsons are trying to survive the new massacre,” Youkhana said.

There has been no word on the fate of the 250 Khabur River residents—including men, women, and children—captured during the February ISIS campaign.

Besides the Tal Nasri church, ISIS also leveled other churches in the Hasaka region in northern Syria, according to the Assyrian Human Rights Network—and possibly land-mined them as well. These include some of the oldest churches in the East. In February, ISIS burned down the historic church of Tal Hurmoz and destroyed three churches in the town of Tal Tamer.

Islamic State made a lightning strike across the Khabur River in late February, controlling a key bridge for a time and forcing thousands of Assyrians from their land. Besides being a historic heartland for Eastern Christianity, the region is a strategic area near Syrian borders with both Turkey and Iraq, rich in agricultural resources and oil.

U.S. fighters flew over the area without taking action initially but later provided air support, which allowed Kurdish and Assyrian militias to retake villages on the northern side of the Khabur River. In the absence of government military support, Christians in northern Syria, as in Nineveh Province in Iraq, increasingly are depending on an alliance of Kurdish and Christian militias. Many include American volunteer fighters in their ranks.

The Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units, is an uneasy ally with the U.S.-led coalition in the region—fighting against Islamic State and the Assad-led government but with roots in Kurdish rebel groups long at odds with Turkey. The four-year civil war in Syria has left Christians, who made up 10 percent or more of the population, with little protection and a growing need for the militias. Once many Christians sided with the Assad government, but the Syrian president has done little to protect them in the face of targeting by Islamic militants.