As published in National Interest:
by Amy Austin Holmes
The borderlands between Turkey and Syria are dotted with small Syriac Christian churches. Last fall, bullets penetrated the wall of a church in the village of Tel Jihan in northeastern Syria, just four-hundred-fifty meters from the Turkish border. Locals told me it was not an isolated incident.
Syriac Christians refer to themselves as “descendants of survivors.” Many of their ancestors perished in the 1915 Seyfo massacre in which an estimated three-hundred-thousand Christians were killed by the Ottomans. The event has received little scholarly attention, leading historian Joseph Yacoub to refer to it as a “hidden genocide.”
This community—including Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Armenian Christians—has not forgotten the persecution they suffered at the hands of the Ottomans a century ago. And it is precisely this experience that informs their current opposition to Ankara’s plan to deploy Turkish troops East of the Euphrates. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to frame the plan as a “buffer zone” or “safe zone.” For Syrians, it’s another intervention by a foreign power. Instead of inducing a sense of safety, the idea of deploying Turkish troops in their homeland rekindles memories of the trauma their community has suffered before.
For months now, Ambassador James Jeffrey has been engaging in shuttle diplomacy between Ankara and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to find an arrangement for border security agreeable to both sides. Turkey wants to not only deploy a contingent of troops, but to control the entire area. The SDF, however, rejects the idea. They see it as Ankara’s desire to occupy more Syrian land.
Given the Trump administration’s concern about the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East—and the abuses committed by Turkish-backed militias in Afrin as documented in a recent State Department report—it is disturbing that U.S. officials are seriously entertaining the Turkish proposal at all.
Contrary to how the issue is often discussed in Washington and other Western capitals, it’s not just the Kurds who don’t want Turkish troops to deploy again in Syria—regardless of what euphemism is used to describe the zone. Based on five weeks of research in Northeast Syria, I found that there is fierce opposition to the Turkish plan by virtually all components of Syrian society, including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Circassians, and Christians. (Although those who are perhaps most bitterly opposed to the deployment of Turkish troops are Syriac and Assyrian Christians.)
Instead of continuing to indulge Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman plans to further annex parts of northern Syria, U.S. officials could simply tell Ankara that there will be no further deployment of Turkish troops in Syria. Washington could just say no to Ankara—like Turkey said no to America in 2003. Back then, soon after Erdoğan was first elected, the Turkish parliament voted against allowing U.S. troops to deploy through Turkey to open up a northern front for the war in Iraq. Washington was unhappy with the Turkish decision, to put it mildly, but its decision was respected. It’s now time for Ankara to respect America’s decision.
Otherwise, if Erdoğan gets his way, the zone may encompass a large swath of territory that extends some thirty-two kilometers south of the border and place as much as half the population of Northeast Syria—including churches like the one in Tel Jihan—under the control of the Turkish military. Last week Michael Mulroy, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, confirmed that the United States would remain in Syria “for the long haul.” Now that the United States has agreed to keep at least four-hundred troops in Syria in addition to coalition forces, the Turkish plan to deploy troops should be discarded entirely.
Does America Want to Perpetuate Transgenerational Trauma Among the Christian Minorities of Syria?
In contrast to the Armenian genocide, the 1915 Seyfo massacre has received very little scholarly attention. In one of the first English-language books on the topic, Year of the Sword published by Oxford University Press, historian Joseph Yacoub describes the mass killings of 1915 as a “hidden genocide” that killed an estimated three-hundred-thousand people. It was a time when “the Ottomans sought to extirpate the Aramaic-speaking Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean Christians of the Middle East.” Another book is due to be published later this month by Harvard University Press, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities 1894-1924, which was coauthored by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’Evi. While Kurds were also persecuted during this time, at least one Kurdish tribe collaborated with the Ottoman army in targeting the non-Muslim minorities of the region.
Virtually every Christian family in Northeast Syria has a relative or ancestor who was directly impacted by the Ottoman atrocities. The passing down of trauma from one generation to the next is known as transgenerational trauma. If the United States agrees to Turkey’s plan to deploy troops in Northeast Syria, then Washington could become complicit in the perpetuation of transgenerational trauma among the Christian minority of Syria—even if those troops refrain from the abuses committed in Afrin last year.
I am not a historian of the Ottoman Empire, but a political sociologist analyzing the current evolution of Northeast Syria and its relationship with external actors, including Turkey, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the regime in Damascus, and the United States. The important work of these historians helps explain some of my findings from my own field research in the region about the current situation.
Christians, Arabs, Kurds and Even Turkmen Oppose a Turkish Safe Zone in Syria
Those liberated by the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) together with the U.S.-led Coalition, are now currently governed by a new entity known as the Self Administration of North and East Syria. It encompasses approximately one-third of Syria.
Dr. Sanharib Barsoom, co-president of the Syriac Union Party, met with me in his office in Qamishli. He told me that if Turkey attacks “Maybe Kurds or Arabs will survive, but not the Christians. Most of our people live near the border area, so if Turkey creates a safe zone it would be here where the Christians live.”
Elizabeth Gawyria is a Syriac Christian who is now one of the vice presidents of the Self Administration of North and East Syria. Speaking in her native Syriac-Aramaic, she described to me how the Ottomans tried to expel her grandfather from his village of Ger Shiron. Her grandfather survived the attack, but when he passed away in 1980 he still had a bullet in his arm. “Now we view the Turkish threat as an existential threat against us. They want to take us from our homeland so we don’t have any rights as people.” She added: “This is why we joined and worked in the self-administration so that we can achieve our rights in the new Syria.”
Many Arabs also view the Turkish plan as threatening, including those who live farther from the Turkish border. They don’t want happened in Afrin to be repeated in their cities. In justifying the Afrin intervention, Erdogan claimed that only the Kurdish YPG would be targeted—which Turkey sees as affiliated with its domestic Kurdish militant group the PKK—but civilians suffered as well. According to the 2018 Syria Human Rights Report recently released by the State Department, the Turkish Armed Forces and affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) units killed civilians during the capture of Afrin. Looting, kidnapping, and forced displacement of civilians was also mentioned in the report.
The city of Tabqa is geographically closer to regime-controlled territory than Turkey, but when I met with fourteen members of the Tabqa Civil Council the first thing they spoke about was their fear of a Turkish military deployment. Sheikh Hamad Al Faraj, the co-president of the Legislative Council, began his opening remarks by denouncing the Turkish operation in Afrin in early 2018.
Even members of the Turkmen community that I spoke to don’t seem to want Turkish troops in the region. In Ain Issa, I met a young Turkman woman who had joined the SDF. She praised the cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition, while also rejecting the deployment of Turkish troops in Syria.
Officials in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRG) who traditionally have had warmer relations with Ankara than their counterparts in the autonomous region of NE Syria, are also no fan of the “safe zone” idea. The KRG is still recovering from its own war with the Islamic State, which led to massive displacement of populations. The KRG is still hosting approximately 1.5 million refugees and IDPs. A Turkish “safe zone” in Syria would likely lead to large numbers of Syrians escaping across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. A report by an independent group of Belgian NGOs estimated this could mean between three-hundred-thousand and four-hundred-thousand refugees fleeing to the KRG. This is a problem the KRG would rather avoid.
inally, even some powerful members of the Turkish military establishment oppose Erdoğan’s plan. They too recognize the “safe zone” idea for what it really is: another cross-border military operation inside Syria. General Metin Temel, the four-star Commander of the Second Army, is the one who led the Turkish operation in Afrin in early 2018. Temel has been described as “Erdoğan’s favorite General” who many believed was destined to become chief of staff and then defense minister. And yet General Temel publicly opposed Erdoğan’s plan to deploy troops East of the Euphrates. This may explain why he was suddenly transferred to a desk job in January of this year.
Turkey’s Security Concerns Can be Addressed without a Turkish Safe Zone in Syria
Early this week, a possible breakthrough emerged in the decades-long conflict involving Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds. For the first time in eight years, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, was allowed to meet with his lawyers. Ocalan issued a statement calling for “deep social reconciliation” and for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in both Turkey and Syria. The PKK should heed the advice of their imprisoned leader and declare a unilateral ceasefire to their operations inside Turkey. In return, Turkey should call off their planned intervention in Syria.
While the timing may be a coincidence, the prison visit and statement coincided with Ambassador Jeffrey’s visit to Ankara. The United States should use their leverage to bring both sides back to the negotiating table. It is a historic opportunity that should not be missed.
Ankara’s security concerns can be addressed without deploying Turkish troops and without occupying more Syrian land. Additional observation posts along the border or unarmed drones would suffice to monitor the border and ensure there are no incursions from either side. Furthermore, monitoring the border from the air with unarmed drones would be more effective than monitoring the area through the use of troops. Eyes in the sky can see farther than human eyes on the ground. If Ankara genuinely wants to collect useful intelligence—and not simply occupy territory—they should prefer the use of drones over deploying troops.
The decades-long conflict between Turkey and the Kurds can be solved on both sides of the Turkish and Syrian border. But this requires thinker bigger, not smaller. It requires recognizing that other groups—especially Syriac and Assyrian Christians—have also been persecuted and now reject the deployment of Turkish troops in their region.
In the far northeastern corner of Syria, I met with members of the Syriac Military Council (MFS) in one of their bases near Derik, about ten kilometers away from the Turkish border. From their base one could easily see the snow-covered Judi mountain in Turkey. Several of the young men had crosses or the word Jesus tattooed on their arms or neck. Kino Gabriel was a founding member of the Syriac Military Council back in 2013 and is now the official spokesperson for the SDF. While he appreciates the training, they have received from the U.S.-led Coalition, he feels that they are not receiving enough material support, as most of the heavy weaponry went to places like Raqqa and Deir Ezzour where major military operations took place against the Islamic State.
Mr. Gabriel did not ruminate about past atrocities but was thinking ahead. “If Turkey attacks, what will we defend ourselves with?”
Amy Austin Holmes is an Associate Professor at the American University in Cairo, a Visiting Scholar at Harvard, and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC. She is the author of Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945, published by Cambridge University Press.