On the morning of September 27, 2020, overwhelming support for the ethnic Armenians of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh) flooded social media in the wake of Azerbaijan’s unprovoked attack on the former autonomous oblast. Among Artsakh’s most ardent supporters were Syriac Christians, who, as a result of twentieth-century Anglo-French mapmaking, now straddle the Turkey-Syria border between warring nations.
Syriac support for Armenia is no recent phenomenon, as they are both enduring symbols of Christianity’s native presence in the Middle East. Armenia is the world’s oldest Christian state (AD 301), and the Syriac family of churches of northern Syria, southeast Turkey, and northern Iraq constitute the world’s oldest existing Christian community, the legacy of Antioch (AD 37). Armenians and Syriacs also share a common faith in Oriental Orthodox Christianity. Unfortunately, Turkey targets both groups today.
At an October 16 press conference, In Defense of Christians (IDC), the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), and the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) underscored their strong solidarity in holding Turkey and Azerbaijan accountable for their unprovoked atrocities against the centuries-old Christian communities of Artsakh and northeast Syria.
Armenians and Syriacs are bound by a common history and shared experiences, past and present. Turkey’s genocide of Armenian and Syriac Christians began in 1895, and reached its bloodiest period from 1915 to 1923—but it didn’t end there. Since the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey, Christians have been subjected to the slow simmer of harassment, expulsion, and even targeted slaughter by the “secular” Turkish state and its proxy anti-Christian actors. Since the 2002 ascent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has taken off its mask and stepped-up its active campaign to exterminate the country’s last remaining Christians. As a result of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman, expansionist blueprint, this eradication policy has metastasized beyond Turkey’s borders into the Levant and the South Caucasus.
Like the ethnic Armenians of Artsakh, the Syriac Christians of northeast Syria (the area known as Gozarto in the Syriac language) face an immediate existential threat. Erdogan aims to finish the genocide his Ottoman forefathers began over a century ago.
Like the Armenians, Syriacs have learned from the bitter lessons of history that, to ensure their survival, they mustn’t allow external forces to chart their historical course.
Since 2014, the Syriac Military Council, commonly referred to as MFS (anglicized acronym for Mawtbo Fulhoyo Suryoyo), has played a pivotal role in destroying the Islamic State (ISIS) in northeast Syria, having contributed a force of nearly 3,000 young men and women who have fought—and many of them died—on the front lines against ISIS, most notably in the al-Raqqa campaign, and the Battles of al-Hasakah and Tal Tamer.
After the fall of ISIS, Syriac Christians played a critical role in launching the joint Kurdish-Arab-Syriac democratic project in northeast Syria, known as the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES). Syriacs are fully vested in this civil undertaking, with numerous representatives in the General Assembly. As deputy chair of the AANES, Elizabeth Gourieh serves at the highest levels of the autonomous administration—a phenomenon that previously would have been unheard of for a Christian woman in the Arab world. Even the AANES Ministry of Religious Affairs is headed by a Syriac Christian.
This experiment in democracy has been an exceptional and unprecedented success in securing religious freedom, ethno-linguistic pluralism, and even gender equality in northeast Syria—resulting in peace, security, and stability in this war-torn region. In the AANES, Christians are free to openly practice and share their faith. They are also free to teach, broadcast, and publish in Syriac, as the AANES has recognized it as an official language.
Par for the course, Turkey is tenaciously working to destroy this hard-earned peace and security through kinetic military strikes, under the pretext of anti-terrorism operations. In furtherance of this Turkish “anti-terror” initiative, Turkey is flooding the area with hardened jihadists, many of whom are former, and current, ISIS fighters.
Turkey has invaded northern Syria on three separate occasions since August 2016, each time expanding its occupation zone. Most recently, on October 9, 2019, Turkey mounted its push into the AANES, driving out, displacing, and killing thousands of Syriac Christians and other minorities. The October 2019 Turkish assault, paradoxically named Operation Peace Spring, sought to uproot the democratic and pluralistic system in northeast Syria that respected religious freedom, and replace it with Sharia law.
Turkey and its jihadist clients continue to engage in countless war crimes and human rights violations, including the arrest and execution of Kurdish Christian coverts for apostasy and blasphemy; the destruction of Christian churches and holy sites; the rape and sex trafficking of young Christian girls; and the relentless shelling of the last remaining Syriac Christian towns throughout northeast Syria—communities still reeling from the ISIS genocide.
Turkey has even weaponized water by cutting off critical Euphrates water sources into northeast Syria during record-breaking heatwaves, which has caused untold human suffering. This has affected not only potable water but also agricultural food sources and energy production. In an August 21, 2020, letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II noted, “Using water as a weapon is a barbaric act and a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights. If this water blockade continues, it would only be appropriate to characterize this inhumane act as a crime against humanity.”
Undoubtedly, Turkey’s current campaigns in the AANES and Artsakh meet the internationally adopted definition of genocide because it is an attempt to destroy a national, ethnic, or religious group through violent means. Dr. Gregory Stanton, one of the world’s foremost experts on genocide studies, calls Turkey’s belligerent actions, in no uncertain terms, “horrific crimes against humanity.”
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement of sanctions against Turkey, one week after the initiation of Operation Peace Spring, Turkey agreed to a ceasefire. This agreement resulted in President Trump lifting the sanctions on October 17, 2019.
Since October 2019—one year ago—Turkey has violated the US-brokered ceasefire over 800 times. Turkey remains rogue and belligerent, as it continues to bombard the remaining Christian population centers and send jihadists, by the thousands, into areas where NATO and the US-led coalition station troops. Currently, there are over 500 American ground troops in northeast Syria, within reach of hostile jihadists—who operate at Turkey’s behest.
Turkey perceives American and NATO silence and inaction as weakness. Turkey continues to thumb its nose at the US and NATO allies as it proceeds to test its newly acquired Russian S-400 integrated anti-aircraft defense systems against American-made F-16s. Turkey is playing a very dangerous game.
On October 8, 2020, President Trump extended an executive order that authorizes sanctions on Turkey for future violations in northeast Syria—a laudable first step. The US and Western nations must now impose tough sanctions on Turkey for its many examples of international belligerence. Furthermore, the US must exercise Global Magnitsky measures against key Turkish government ministers, generals, and commanders responsible for war crimes in Artsakh and the AANES.
To be sure, not only is Turkey a threat to the very existence of the two ancient Christian communities of Artsakh and northeast Syria, but indeed, the world is witnessing the next stage in a Turkish plan that extends its hegemony far beyond its borders. Erdogan has set his sights on eradicating the world’s oldest Christian state and the world’s oldest existing Christian community. Turkey’s expansionist vision has civilizational implications. Now is the time for action.