Syrian Christians strike back

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Syrian Christians strike back
Flames rise from an Islamic State position in Ain Al-Arab Kobani, after an airstrike by the US led coalition (photo: AP)
Christian organisations in Syria are forming militias to defend their communities, but many are questioning the prudence of the move, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
Syrian Christians have never been in a more vulnerable position, and now they are preparing for the worst. Across regional, doctrinal and political boundaries, they are looking for ways to protect themselves, not just from the arbitrary fire of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but also from the brutality of militant Islamists, including the Islamic State (IS).

In northern Syria, an alliance of Christian organisations has set up armed groups that operate under the name Suotoro, which means protection in Syriac, a modern version of Aramaic, the language that was once as widely spoken in the region as Arabic is today.

Unlike Lebanon, which has had its share of Christian militias since the outbreak of the civil war in the mid-1970s, Syria’s Christians have never felt the need to form their own armies in recent memory.

However, the Syriac Union Party has now formed a Syriac Military Council, or MFS (short for its name in Syriac, Mawtbo Fluhoyo Suryoyo). This has been put in charge of defending predominantly Christian villages and neighbourhoods from the extremists who have wreaked havoc on other parts of the country, especially those inhabited by minorities, including Christians and Yazidis.

Participants in militant Christian organisations often say that their main goal is self-defence, not territorial gains or secession, but their close links with the Kurds, who set up their own self-rule areas earlier in the conflict, offer cause for concern.

Christian groups involved in the setting up of militias have reassured the public that they are loyal to a united and cohesive Syria. They have also called on all Christians to stay in Syria, a country in which they constitute eight per cent of the population, or about two million people in total.

Christian political parties, churches and civic groups in northern Syria have also founded the General Agency for the Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans (GAASC), a coalition that aims to promote coexistence and defend the rights of minorities in the country.

The MFS, however, has decided to boycott the GAASC, saying that it is ineffectual and politically “bankrupt.” The accusation is partly justified, as the GAASC’s broad-based coalition seems to include too many divergent groups to be effective. Some of its members belong to the opposition, while others side with the regime and some are known for their strong ties with Kurdish militants.

Since the rise of militant Islamism in the course of the current conflict, Syrian Christians have had their doubts about the course the country should take. The Alawite regime led by Al-Assad for all its repression of political liberties has at least offered a measure of protection to the country’s minorities, something which cannot be said about the extremist Islamists who have emerged as a potent force since the revolution morphed into an armed conflict.

The Syrian opposition, moderate Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood included, has repeatedly told the Christians that they can rely on it for protection. But as the brutal tactics of the militants became prevalent, the Christians began rethinking their situation. Yet, the formation of Christian militias may not be the answer, said Syrian minority specialist Soliman Youssef.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Youssef said that the fate of the Christians and Muslims in Syria was indivisible. “The Christians feel that the crisis is reshaping Syria and that the map is shifting according to the size of each group with the possibility of cantons, or mini-states, appearing in the country,” he said.

He said that the Kurdish formation of a self-rule zone in the Jazirah area in northern Syria, a step allegedly supported by the regime, was one of the reasons the Christians felt they were losing ground.

The Christians, who belong to 12 different churches and are generally diverse in their ethnic and cultural composition, may not share the same zeal for independence as the Kurds. But they have much to lose if the future of the country is decided by the military might of its various components.

Because of the diversity in the Syrian Christian community, it is hard to predict the emergence of a unified Christian vision of the Syrian crisis. On the whole, Christians feel sympathetic about the revolution, but they have grown weary of the rising power of Islamist extremists.

At least some of them feel that the international community is conspiring against them, leaving them to their own devices and encouraging them to leave the country and even the region.

The Syrian regime, for all its pretence about protecting the minorities has arrested Christian activists, harassed the leaders of the Christian parties, and even abducted senior Christian clergymen on occasion.

A recent report by Syrian rights organisations notes that the regime has persecuted Christians who have opposed it or have refused to collaborate with its plans.

The report, authored by the Assyrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Damascus Centre for Human Rights, and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, says that more than 100 Christians have been killed by the regime for “refusing to embrace its pathological mindset” and siding instead with the “higher interests of the Syrian people” and with “coexistence” in the country.

According to the report, armed groups in the country have destroyed four churches during the current conflict, while the regime has destroyed over thirty.

Bassam Ishaq, president of the National Syriac Council and a member of the opposition’s National Revolution Council, defended the formation of the Christian militias.

In northern Syria, Christian militias acting in cooperation with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG (short for Yekineyen Parastina Gel, their name in Kurdish) have managed to bring stability to the self-rule areas, he said.

The PYD are the military arm of the Kurdish nationalist organisation known as the Democratic Union Party or PYD (short for Partiya Yekitya Demokrat, its name in Kurdish), and the alliance between the Christians and the YPG had kept the IS at bay, he said.

“After the IS attacked northern Syria, a large number of Christians enrolled in the ranks of the PYD and YPG, having refused to negotiate with the IS on the terms of their surrender,” he said.

Ishaq is convinced that there is an international scheme aiming to create an ultra-militant Islamist state in northern Syria and Iraq that can be used as a buffer zone against Shiite expansion.

“As the confrontation escalated between the IS and the regime’s forces, with the IS grabbing areas in Iraq, it became clear that the IS was nothing but a front for an international scheme seeking to create a Sunni buffer zone in the Shiite crescent,” he added.

There are doubts, however, that the Christians will be able to raise adequate numbers of men to protect themselves. So far, the number of Christian combatants is in the thousands, compared with the perhaps 500,000 combatants in the country as a whole, including the regime’s army, the Iraqi and Lebanese armed outfits, the secular opposition, the moderate Islamists and the jihadists.

It is conceivable that the formation of the militias could backfire by alienating the natural allies of the Christians in the Muslim community. The recent alliance between the Christians and the Syrians has been hard to swallow by those who hope that Syria will emerge united from its current ordeal.

“The Kurds of Syria, just like the IS, are trying to displace the Christians of northern Syria. They have no regard for genuine and balanced partnership,” Youssef said.