By David L. Phillips
Repeating a lie often enough does not make it true. Trump adopted talking points from Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, asserting that the Kurds were killing Christians in northern Syria. The exact opposite is true. Kurds have protected Armenians and Chaldean Christians, while Turkey and its Islamist militias target them. Syria’s Christian population is in peril as a result of Turkey’s invasion, which came on the heels of Trump’s betrayal of America’s allies, the Kurds.
Turkey has a sordid history. It was responsible for the 1915 Armenian genocide and, more recently, as a state sponsor of terrorism. Beginning in 2013, Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, under Erdogan’s instruction, operated the jihadi highway from Sanliurfa to Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS caliphate, providing weapons, money, logistics and medical services to more than 40,000 ISIS fighters from about 80 countries who transited through Turkey to Syria. Thousands of Turks also joined the ranks of ISIS.
When ISIS invaded Iraq and Syria in June 2014, with Turkish-backing, it targeted “apostates” – Shiites, Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians. Mosul’s 60,000 Christians were executed, displaced or trafficked as sex slaves. The same fate befell Christians in the Nineveh Plains and northern Syria. ISIS converted ancient churches into mosques, madrassas, and prisons. They tore down crosses and used chisels to deface tombstones in church graveyards.
The jihadist magazine, Dabiq, displayed images of crucified Christians as “a message in blood written to the Nation of the Cross”. It featured a picture of St. Peter’s Square with an ISIS flag superimposed atop its holy obelisk. The ISIS leader said his fighters would march “all the way to Rome,” and along the way, “break the crosses [and] trade and sell their women.”
Armenians in Syria were terrified about Turkey coming in, because of what Turkey did to their parents and grandparents 100 years ago. Kessab, an Armenian Christian town in the northwest, was attacked by jihadists, with support from the Turkish military, who advanced from the village of Gözlekçiler on Turkish territory. Thousands of jihadists used five different border crossings to cross unimpeded from Turkey. Many cars with Syrian license plates were observed ferrying fighters from the Turkish base at Kayapinar. In Kessab, 670 families were uprooted and 15 families taken hostage. Three Armenian churches in Kessab were desecrated by the jihadists. Syria’s Christian population was 250,000 in 2011. Only 30,000 remained by the end of 2016.
Syriacs are the second largest Christian community in Syria. Assyrian civilization dates back to 2,500 BC when Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian kingdom spanning northern Iraq and the Nineveh plains. Assyrians, who pioneered the ancient Aramaic alphabet, self-identify as Syriacs, Arameans, and Chaldeans.
The Syriac Orthodox Church traces its history to St. Peter and St. Paul in the first century AD. Jesus spent some of His ministry in Syria and made Peter the first Pope while in Syria. Its Metropolitan, or religious leader, is believed to be the successor of Christ’s apostles and Saint Peter. Many Syriacs hailed from Hasaka, living alongside Kurdish neighbors, with whom they enjoyed good relations.
Christian churches and institutions, including schools and hospitals, were destroyed by Turkish –backed militias. The beheading of priests and community leaders was filmed in ISIS-execution videos, which included images of eleven desecrated churches. Hundreds of Syriacs were executed, thousands displaced, and scores of churches destroyed. Nuns were kidnapped and raped. In February 2015, jihadists attacked 35 Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabour River, causing 3,000 to flee. Jihadists ransomed their Assyrian captives for $100,000 each.
Turkish-backed militias offered a stark choice: convert and pay for protection, or die. According to the Syriac Union Party, “More than 100,000 Syriac Christians, one of the world's oldest Christian communities, fear Erdogan will finish the genocide that ISIS started.”
Starting with the onset of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Syria’s Christians were under threat from all sides including the regime and opposition militant groups -- but not from the Kurds. More than 11,000 Kurds in the Syrian Defense Forces, which included Christians, died fighting ISIS at America’s behest.
Bassam Ishak, President of the Syriac National Council of Syria, warned of a “horrible situation” if the U.S. pulled its troops from northern Syria. "As soon as people hear that Turkish forces or their Syrian rebel allies are coming, the Christians will start fleeing." The evangelist, Rev. Pat Robertson, stated, "As the U.S. prepares to draw down, Syrian Christians fear they'll be wiped out. It appears U.S. policy has the potential to put 2,000 years of Christian tradition and history at risk." Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, reflected that Turkey’s invasion “did shake the evangelical community…”. Franklin Graham, a prominent evangelist, said, “If this continues, you’ll have another million people displaced in Syria.” According to the Southern Baptist Convention, "Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity. What they are now facing from Erdogan's authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words."
Most Americans are outraged by America’s retreat in Syria and Trump’s green light for Erdogan’s genocide. Metro Detroit has an estimated 160,000 Chaldean Christians. About 500,000 Chaldean/Assyrians reside throughout the United States, particularly in Arizona, California, and Illinois.
Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, self-professed evangelicals, have been silent in the face of Turkey’s aggression. Without Kurdish protection, Chaldean-Christians fear that Turkey will complete the work that ISIS tried to do, eradicating Christians from northern Syria.
Trump and his team are parroting Erdogan’s propaganda that Kurds are the perpetrators of attacks on Syria’s Christians. Trump has no understanding and little empathy for the impact his policies have on Christians in northern Syria. Trump’s big lie makes him complicit in Turkey’s crime. Christians are endangered by Trump’s ill-advised pull-out and abandonment of the Kurds.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser to the State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.