The precise significance of the Kurdish authorities’ declaration in March of a “federal region” in northeastern Syria remains to be seen. But what is absent from much of the discussion surrounding the ascent to power of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is its effect on the non-Kurdish peoples that the self-administration has sought to absorb into its dominion. A closer examination of the Assyrian people can help illuminate the more complicated reality of the overlap between and transition from government rule to that of the self-administration.
The majority of Assyrians in Syria are concentrated in the province of Hassakeh, an area known to Assyrians as Gozarto. Refugees fleeing Ottoman genocides in the early 20th century built the cities of Qamishli, Tel Tamer and 35 villages along the Khabur River from scratch. But since the start of the war in Syria, the Assyrian population across the country has been cut in half. Caught between Islamist forces and a steadily growing Kurdish regional power, thousands of Assyrians in the northeast have fled the country.
Recent incidents illustrate their plight. On December 30, a coordinated bombing attack targeted three Assyrian restaurants in the neighborhood of Wusta in Qamishli. Fourteen Assyrians were killed and dozens injured. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but their intent was clearly to terrorize Assyrians and force them out.
The Gozarto Protection Force (GPF), a local Assyrian group, subsequently tightened its control over checkpoints in the neighborhood. Early on January 12, members of the Asayish, a police force loyal to the Kurdish administration, approached the checkpoints and demanded they be dismantled. When the GPF refused, the Asayish opened fire on the Assyrians, killing one and wounding two others.
When the Asayish returned with YPG fighters in stronger numbers, the majority of civilians in Wusta took up arms against what was universally perceived by locals as an invasion of their neighborhood. Another three bomb attacks, similar to that in late December, have since been carried out in Wusta, along with a dual suicide and grenade attack on May 21 – suspected of having been carried out by the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS) – which claimed the lives of three Assyrian civilians.
While the PYD has used its relationship with the Assad regime to advance its partisan interests, at the same time benefiting from the disintegration of the Syrian state, it has marginalized and persecuted Assyrians who have attempted to organize independently of Kurdish leadership and anchor themselves in some notion of a unitary Syria.
After regime forces withdrew from the Khabur River in 2012 to focus on more strategically significant areas, Assyrians seeking to establish independent security forces in Khabur were met with harassment, intimidation and even murder. David Jindo, the leader of the Khabur Council of Guardians – one force that sought to coexist with but not serve under the command of the YPG – was assassinated by the YPG last April.
The biggest priority for Assyrians in Syria remains having stable proprietorship and rights of security and administration over land they have inhabited since the inception of the Syrian state.
In February 2015, ISIS attacked the villages along the Khabur, which were perilously located between the YPG-controlled areas in Hassakah and ISIS beyond the river. The extremists took 253 civilians hostage, three of whom were publicly executed. All but six have now been freed.
But as residents of the deserted Khabur villages are slowly returning, local inhabitants’ wish to navigate a course leading to the sustainability of the Assyrian populations, independent of the Kurdish self-administration, must feature in deliberations on the future of the region.
A law proposed by the self-administration legalizing the expropriation of Assyrian property in late November was only kept at bay following enormous resistance from Assyrian organizations. However, instances of expropriation by the Kurdish self-administration are still taking place, such as the public seizure in January of an Assyrian mini-bus company in Hassakeh, which was struggling for business because of the war.
According to Assyrian organizations and churches, 35 percent of real estate in Hassakeh is Assyrian-owned. Its community in Syria is deeply worried by the precedent set by Kurdish nationalists in Iraq, who have repeatedly taken advantage of moments of unrest, added to outright aggression, to take over Assyrian property and land, permanently preventing the return of their original inhabitants.
And while Assyrians do participate in self-administration via the Syriac Union Party (SUP) and its military wing, the Syriac Military Council (MFS), their inclusion is largely symbolic. These bodies are contemporary versions of the Dawronoye (Syriac for Revolutionaries) movement, founded in the 1990s under the auspices of the PKK in Turkey and Iraq, who have since consolidated in northeastern Syria in parallel with the ascent of the PYD. The PYD uses the presence of the Dawronoye in the self-administration to claim, at almost every opportunity, that the endeavor involves participation from non-Kurdish groups such as Assyrians, and is therefore not a project of ethnic partition.
Assyrians seeking to control their affairs independently are often told that the SUP, as the official representative of the Assyrian community within the self-administration, can perform those functions on their behalf, despite deep-set mistrust widely felt by Assyrians toward the body.
According to Armenia Online reports, harassment of young Assyrian men by the YPG is frequently cited as a reason for the continuing emigration of Assyrians from Syria, in addition to detailing how the MFS has been used as a proxy vehicle to conscript Assyrians into YPG command.
The YPG, along with ISIS and the MFS, has taken part in the looting of empty Khabur villages. In a February report from Assyria TV, which describes the imprisonment and severe beating of a Khabur Guards fighter by an MFS commander following a dispute, one Assyrian woman expressed her fears over the MFS presence in Khabur: “Not a single Dawronoye should remain in Khabur. They do not accept us as brothers of the same blood. They wish to create enmity between us, to annex Khabur, and to get us out of there.”
The much vaunted ethno-communal participation promulgated by the Kurdish self-administration has quickly transformed into a device for the infiltration, division and control of Assyrians. Unless it begins to respect the rights of communities and people who wish to remain independent of it, it will render its rule another form of occupation in all but name.
In light of the authoritarian and expansionist tendencies of the self-administration, and given the absence of a legitimate Syrian state, Assyrians are in urgent need of support to remain independent. Support should include projects to rebuild and repopulate Khabur, according to the needs and desires of its inhabitants; the creation of local forces with community support that protect Assyrian areas at risk of incursion or theft; an the empowerment of civil society organizations that unite and represent Assyrians with fidelity.
Only a commitment to Assyrian-led security and administration can protect Assyrians from current regional threats and the pull of emigration, and thereby work to secure this ancient people a future in Syria.