Shelled and Sheltering, Syria's Christians Wait for Help

June 10, 2020

It has been months since Americans first watched in shock as Turkey launched an incursion against the region of Northeast Syria controlled by the Kurds, faithful U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. The news cycle has moved on. Yet, the Christians, Yazidis, and others who built their livelihoods in Northeast Syria still cling to the hope that the fragile system which protects their freedoms will remain.

From the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) was established in the Kurdish-controlled northeast region. The Kurds, an ethnic group scattered across the Middle East without a country of their own, entered the fight against ISIS when ISIS attacked Kurdish enclaves in 2013. Now, under the federal government system in Autonomous Administration, religious and ethnic minorities who are often abused in the Middle East find an oasis of freedom. To explore how this unique beacon of religious freedom may be preserved, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a hearing today on safeguarding religious freedom in Northeast Syria.

The Kurdish forces that secure this region are staunch U.S. allies. In her testimony at the hearing, Harvard University Scholar Amy Austin Holmes asked, "Who stopped the genocide? Without question, it was the Kurdish forces." While the U.S. supported the effort to defeat ISIS via airstrikes, over 10,000 men and women in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces gave their lives to defeat ISIS in Syria. "The SDF not only protected religious minorities but included them in their forces and promoted them in their ranks," something that is highly unusual in the Middle East, Holmes noted. It is this integration of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities into its leadership that sets the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria apart from many Middle Eastern governments.

Still recovering from the struggle against ISIS, the Autonomous Administration suffered another setback due to the Turkish incursion last October, which left up to 100,000 people displaced. Unfortunately, the witnesses at USCIRF's hearing warned that many of the Christians and Yazidis who fled their homes would remain displaced unless Turkey withdraws from areas along the border of Northeast Syria that it continues to occupy. Turkey's record of religious freedom is deeply problematic, and the people of Northeast Syria have been given no reason to trust the Turkish government. In its 2020 report, USCIRF recommended that Turkey be placed on the United States' Special Watch List for religious freedom violators.

Sara Kayyali, a Syria-focused researcher also pointed to several human rights violations committed by Turkey during the incursion: "Turkey and the factions it supports have indiscriminately shelled civilian areas, carried out at least seven summary killings, unlawfully occupied private civilian homes and shops and looted the owners' property." The Turkish government has failed to ensure basic human rights in the areas of Northeast Syria that it controls, and the people there deserve better.

But what should the United States do about this? Michael Rubin reminded the Commission that U.S. economic pressure worked against Turkey to free American pastor Andrew Brunson. He believes U.S. policy should now focus on applying economic pressure to extract Turkish forces from Syria.

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is not without its challenges, but it stands in stark contrast to areas of Syria controlled by the Assad regime and the areas that have fallen under the control of Turkey.

The leaders of the Autonomous Administration have worked closely with the U.S. military in the past and are looking to the U.S. for help. Amy Austin Holmes concluded, "If we allow them to be destroyed... I see a very dark future."

If we fail to uphold religious freedom in Northeast Syria, it may soon become one more place where believers are no longer free live out their faith. U.S. leaders should do what they can to protect this vulnerable region where religious freedom has flourished. Often called our first freedom, religious freedom brings with it other basic rights like freedom of speech and assembly which enable free and stable governments to thrive. As USCIRF Chairman and FRC President Tony Perkins pointed out, "If you fail to have religious freedom, you fail to have anything else."