The collapse of Syria has set loose forces that the Assad regime had either contained or appropriated to prop up its own rule, putting ethnic and religious factions in dangerous new combinations and conflicts. One of those conflicts might confound US policy and the popular conception of the nature of the fight and the fighters. Earlier this week, Kurdish forces based in Syria attacked an Assyrian Christian enclave in the northeast, not long after a series of bombings swept through its restaurants. The bombings were claimed by ISIS, but there is no mistaking the attack on checkpoints set up by the Assyrians of Qamishli:
Members of the YPG Kurdish militia conducted a surprise attack on Assyrian checkpoints in the Al-Wusta district of Qamishli, which is a predominantly Assyrian area. The checkpoints are manned by the Sootoro/GPF Assyrian security forces and were setup after three Assyrian restaurants were bombed on December 20, 2016 (AINA 2015-12-30), which killed 14 Assyrians.
The Kurdish attack lasted for one hour, with heavy exchange of machine gun fire between the Assyrian Protection Force (Sootoro) and the YPG militia. 1 Assyrian fighter was killed, identified as Gabriel Henry David, and 3 Assyrians fighters were injured. According to reports, 3 Kurdish YPG fighters were killed in the clashes.
The locals in Qamishli suspect that the bombings might have been the work of the YPG as well:
After the restaurant bombings many Assyrian residents of Qamishli suspected the YPG militia to be the real culprit, not ISIS. There was no credible claim of responsibility by ISIS, only a vague statement in a scarcely used social media account. Although one of the bombings was reported to be a suicide attack, it is now known that all three bombings were by a bag placed in each restaurant.
The YPG have gotten good press in the US, and not for no good reason. They have proven to be tenacious fighters against ISIS, and their exploits — and the women who fight on the front lines — have provided morale boosts in the war to defeat the radical Islamists. But the reality on the ground, especially for the Assyrians, is much more complex.
Over the past year while guest hosting at Relevant Radio, I have spoken many times with Jeff Gardner, director of operations for Restore Nineveh Now, which has worked quietly to build up defensive forces that can protect historical Christian communities in this region. Jeff spends much of his time on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and has a much better lay of the land. Yesterday while guest-hosting the Drew Mariani Show, Jeff and David Lazar explained that the Syrian Kurds want to clear out a space that would drive all non-Kurdish peoples off of their own lands. These Kurds, and the YPG, represent the Marxist PKK rather than more pro-US Kurds of the Barzani faction in northern Iraq, and the US support of these Kurds have Assyrians in the region worried and non-plussed.
In an exclusive, Jeff provides us with an explanation from the perspective of the Assyrian Christians and his own experiences. He also has provided us with exclusive video of the Assyrian Christian police force (the Sootoro) on patrol in Qamishli last month:
Yesterday, January 11, 2016, at approximately 12:45 pm, a group of security forces from the Communist Kurdish organization, the YPG, rolled up to an Assyrian Christian checkpoint in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli. The YPG forces demanded that the Assyrian Christians take down security barriers that they had set up in response to a triple-bombing of their neighborhood less than two weeks ago.
When the Assyrian guards refused to take down the checkpoints, the Kurdish YPG forces opened fire from one of their Technicals (a truck mounted with machine gun in the back – often a .30 or .50 caliber), striking the head of one of the Assyrian Christian guards, killing him instantly. The Assyrian Christians returned fire, and after a four-hour fight, at least six of the Kurdish attackers were also dead.
Normally, a violent death in the Middle East, and especially in Syria, would (unfortunately) be no more extraordinary than a palm tree. But this unprovoked attack brings out into the open what has been going on behind a carefully constructed PR campaign for years, namely, Kurdish brutality against non-Kurdish peoples in the Middle East.
Most in the United States are familiar with the Kurds of Iraq, and how, after suffering under Saddam Hussein, they are striving for their own nation. What many do not know is that in places like Syria, Kurds are hoping for the same thing but want, not unlike the Islamic State, a Kurdish nation emptied of all non-Kurdish peoples. While it is true that in Syria Kurds have been fighting an off-again, on-again “hot war” with ISIS, they have also been waging a slower, grinding “cold war” against the Christians, especially in Northern Syria.
Having nowhere else to go, Assyrian Christians in Syria have been arming and training themselves, refusing to be the next victim for the next regime in Syria.
I was recently in Northern Syria, in Qamishli on the very same streets where the Kurdish forces murdered the Assyrian Christian guard. His name was Gabi Henry Dawoud, and I had a chance to meet him (briefly), and even, if I recall, take his photograph. He struck me as a nice young man who, like the other Assyrian Christians caught in Syria’s war, wanted a peaceful city in which he could raise a family.
Gabi Dawoud’s death was plainly the fault of xenophobic Kurdish aggression. It was also in part the fault of the Obama Administration’s “let the Middle East drift” approach to foreign policy. A direct result of this drift is that Northern Syria is now under the near complete control of the Communist Kurdish YPG, which is so tightly aligned with the terrorist group the Kurdish Workers’ Party or the PKK that some say they are one in the same. The YPG and PKK are hard-core Marxists, with long histories of terror and brutality, and have made it clear that they intend to carve out a new Marxist Kurdish State in the Middle East, perhaps even taking part of Southern Turkey with them. Turkey, a US NATO ally, has made it clear that they will not tolerate such a move and continues on high alert, ready for a widening war.
And although nothing is inevitable until it happens, minus some aggressive, US-led foreign policy initiatives in Syria, what’s left of that nation will be future fracture, with violence spilling into more countries, bringing more death, more suffering, and wave after wave of more refugees.
The complications of ethnic and religious conflict in this case is also overlaid with ideological conflict. It creates a complex reality that so far has escaped US policymakers, even if they were inclined to intervene — and so far, they’re not. If the US decides to lead from behind and allow regional players to determine outcomes in Syria (and Iraq), the Assyrians will almost certainly be left without a chair when the music stops, and their culture and land will be violently taken from them. At the very least, we need to know the real risks behind alliances we make in our haste to go after ISIS, and try to mitigate those before we do the same kind of damage we’re trying to prevent.
There may not be an immediate US response that can stop this in its tracks, but we had better get a clearer picture of who our friends are, and who they aren’t, in the very near term.
The front page picture is of a Christian school in Qamishli, guarded by Sootoro forces, courtesy of Jeff Gardner.