Syrian Christians alarmed by PKK's evacuation policy

As Washington continues to drop arms and ammunition to groups fighting DAESH in northern Syria, Christians become latest minority to express concerns over Kurdish PYD’s growing influence

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Militants of PKK's Syria branch PYD stand near a pick-up truck mounted with an anti-aircraft weapon in front of a church in the Assyrian village of Tel Jumaa, north of Tel Tamr town, Syria, February 25, 2015.

Updated Feb 24, 2016

Sixteen Christian minority groups in the northeastern Syrian governorate of Hasakah, located along the Turkish border, signed a joint statement earlier this week condemning the Kurdish PYD for seizing their properties after the region was captured from DAESH terrorists this summer.

The latest case highlights the plight of Christian minorities living under the PYD, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK terrorist group based in southeastern Turkey. In a statement published in English by the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) on Nov. 2, Christian organisations mainly comprising of local Assyrian and Armenian groups in the Qamishli district of Hasakah called on the PYD to uphold human rights and abandon regulations that have resulted in the confiscation of properties belonging to Christians who fled the area.

The PYD declared an autonomous canton in the governorate in January 2014 as one of three cantons in the region they call Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. Known by its traditional name Al Jazeera, it is the largest of the three cantons. In October this year, the PYD expanded the Kobane canton to include the town of Tal Abyad, which was captured by the PYD’s armed wing YPG from DAESH in June, thus creating a corridor connecting it with Al Jazeera. However, since establishing their authority along the Turkish border in northern Syria with the help of US-led coalition air strikes against DAESH, the PYD has been accused of committing a number of war crimes and atrocities against civilians, by both international and local groups.

“For over four years our country, Syria, is struggling with tragic events. War devastation and terrorism have caused all ethnic groups much suffering. But we, inhabitants of Al Jazeera, have kept precious ideals of peaceful coexistence between various communities of our province. Local Self-Administration, together with a number of dependent institutions, were created due to extraordinary situation and having safety in mind. Some of its regulations, however, are neither properly prepared nor thoroughly measured. This causes valid concerns among various ethnic and national groups. While it is happening, official authorities are still performing their fiscal, administrative, legal and military duties,” the statement by the Christian groups began.

The statement went on to slam new property laws introduced by PKK's Syria branch PYD as “redundant,” “illegal,” and an “attempt of expropriation real estate under a guise of helping those in need,” as well as being “in violation of Human Rights Law.” It also bemoaned the practice of labeling those who fled their homes to escape violence as “traitors,” while mentioning that almost 35 percent of all real estate in the area belongs to Christian minorities who have neither sold their properties nor appointed proxies for them.  

“Expropriation of these properties will cause valid concerns amongst both those who stayed and fled, preventing the latter from ever coming back,” it said.

As listed in the AINA report, the signatories of the statement included the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Al Jazeera and Euphrates Armenian Diocese, the Chaldean Syrian Church in Qamishli, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Assyrian Ancient Church of the East, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Civil Peace Committee, the National Evangelical Church, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, the Aramean Free Party, the Assyrian Committee on Rural Agricultural Land, the Christian Civic Union, the Mother Syria Youth Association, the Youth Institute for National Reconciliation, and the Center for Syrian Christian Youth.

“Taking all of the above into account we believe that such actions of ‘Local Administration’ will cause ethnic cracks and turmoil. In order to avoid it and to convince authors to abandon these regulations, we hereby announce ourselves as plaintiffs and prosecutors for any and all cases under both state and international tribunals and courts of law,” the groups said.

Furthermore, the statement condemned forced military conscription by PYD as “preposterous” and interference in the curriculum offered by church private schools as “unacceptable.”

“We appeal into everybody's sense of responsibility and ask for restraint when handling matters that could limit rights of both individuals and communities. Fundamental Human Rights have to be upheld in order for peace and safety to once again grace all of Syria. We are hoping for continuous, peaceful coexistence of all Al Jazeera inhabitants, regardless of their faith, ethnicity, nationality and culture,” the statement concluded.

'Secret Plan'

In September, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria claimed in a report, which was presented by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, that the PYD had committed human rights violations and had looted houses belonging to Arabs in Tal Abyad and villages in the Tel Tamer region of Hasakah.

Meanwhile, UK-based rights group Amnesty International released a report in October which said that more than a dozen villages were destroyed by the PYD and that villagers were threatened with US-led air strikes if they failed to leave their homes. A separate report published by the watchdog in September accused the PYD of using the fight against DAESH as a pretext for arbitrary detentions and unfair trials against “peaceful critics and civilians” in the regions that it controls. Rudow, the Iraqi Kurdish news agency, also claimed in August that the PYD was harassing its journalists and “narrowing” free media in the three cantons.

At the same time, Ershad Salihi, the leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, told Turkish media in July that the PYD is working on a “secret plan” to force ethnic Turkmens in Syria from their homes. In a recent report, the Syrian Network for Human Rights stated that both the Arab and Turkmen communities in northern Syria have faced human rights violations in the areas controlled by the PYD, with more than 70 villages having been destroyed and crops burned, stolen, or leveled with bulldozers, in addition to forced evacuations of Arab and Turkmen civilians from the "very first day” since the PYD took control. The report, supported by videos and photographs, added that the PYD forces were preventing people from returning to their homes by looting and destroying them.

Ekrem Dede, a member of Syrian Turkmen Assembly, said in an interview with Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu Agency in October that the PYD is telling non-Kurds living between the border towns of Azaz and Jarablus in the Aleppo governorate, where Turkey seeks to establish a “safe zone” free of DAESH influence for Syrian refugees, to leave. Turkey - which currently hosts approximately 2.2 million Syrian refugees, many of whom have fled fighting along the border regions - has repeatedly warned the PYD on its movements concerning “demographic change” and “ethnic cleansing” in northern Syria. After capturing the areas along the Turkish border from DAESH, the US also urged the PYD to allow Syrian refugees to return to their homes in Tal Abyad and deliver the administration of the northern Syrian cities to local committees as they had previously pledged.  

Child soldiers

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch over the summer reported that the PYD were not meeting a commitment made in June 2014 to stop mobilising all recruits, both combatant and noncombatant, under the age of 18, citing evidence of 59 children, ten of whom were younger than 15, being recruited within the last year. Some of the recruits allegedly participated and died in battles in June 2015. Non-state armed groups are not allowed to recruit children under 18 for any purpose, according to the Optional Protocol to the Children’s Rights Convention on Children and Armed Conflict. Recruiting children under 15 and enlisting them is considered a war crime under customary international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Religious mix in Syria

According to a US State Department report in 2006, Christians make up approximately 10 percent of the Syrian population, amounting to an estimated 1.7 million people. They mainly follow eastern orthodox traditions and generally reside in urban areas scattered across the country. Having once played a key role in Arab nationalist movements in Syria, they have been ingrained as part of Syrian society for centuries.

Syrian Christians have also established their own militias, such as the Syriac Military Council, which was set up as the armed wing of the Syriac Union Party (SUP) in January 2013 to defend Christian minorities in the conflict. Moreover, the Syriac Security Office, also known as Sutoro, was founded to guard the Hasakah governorate. Recently, the Syriac Military Council joined forces with a number of local groups including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliated Revolutionary Army, the Burkan al Firat Operations Center, the Al Sanadid Forces and the Brigade Groups of Al Jazeera, to launch an offensive on the DAESH stronghold of Raqqa.

However, the new coalition, named the Syrian Democratic Forces, mainly comprises of forces from the PYD. The group was formed as part of a change of tactic by the US after it abandoned its failed train-and-equip programme. The US is now opting to support the predominantly Kurdish coalition with deliveries of arms and ammunition from the air, as well as the deployment of dozens of special operation troops to northern Syria to advise, assist and train the PYD’s forces, which reportedly include 400 foreign volunteers, in their fight against DAESH. But Washington’s insistence on supporting the PYD, albeit under a different name, continues to drive a wedge between the US and its NATO ally Turkey.

Despite Ankara’s pleas to maintain Syria’s national unity and prevent the PYD from taking control of Syrian territory adjacent to Turkey’s southern border, particularly warning the PYD not to advance west of the Euphrates river whereby they could establish a corridor to the Afrin canton, Washington’s new policy of increasing its support for the PYD not only threatens to thwart plans for a “safe zone,” but runs the risk of polarising and destabilising the region even more, especially if US-supplied weapons are transferred to the PKK and reach Turkish soil. Addressing the US last month, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the parties should be able to foresee whose hands these weapons will reach before providing them.

“At the moment, nobody can assure us that these weapons delivered to the PYD will not go to the PKK,” Prime Minister Davutoglu said. “Nobody should expect understanding on this issue. These weapons will harm our soldiers, police and civilian citizens.”

Author: Ertan Karpazli