Syria's Christians struggle to rebuild after IS retreat

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The residents of Tal Tamir, an Assyrian Christian city that recently repelled an IS advance, still feel unsafe there

John Yacub stands behind the Church of the Virgin in Tal Tamir (MEE/Jonathan Steele)
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Tuesday 13 October 2015 9:45 UTC
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TAL TAMIR, Syria - Standing outside his small kiosk opposite the Church of the Virgin,  John Yacub gestures despairingly towards a deserted street. One car passes, followed a few minutes later by three pedestrians.

No one else goes by, on foot or wheels, for the next 10 minutes while we chat.

It is not the midday heat that has emptied the town, but fear. Six months ago, Islamic State (IS) group fighters raided several Assyrian Christian villages in the farming belt along the river Khabur near Tal Tamir, a once thriving town in Syria’s northeast. Around 10 churches were destroyed and 250 people - including women and children - were abducted.

The fighters then moved to Tal Tamir’s southern edge, where they launched mortars, with several landing in the main square. Most of the town’s population of 20,000 -  half of them Assyrian Christians - made hasty plans to move.  

Many piled into cars and minivans, driving north towards relatively safe towns along the Turkish border. They assumed Tal Tamir’s flimsy home guard of Assyrian defenders would be powerless to block IS advances.

Unexpectedly, with the help of better-trained Kurdish troops, some of whom were already in the town - plus reinforcements and US airstrikes - the religious armed group was held at bay. After a month of clashes, IS withdrew. Kurdish troops pursued them and after more airstrikes, IS was driven out of the whole area.

Although IS has not re-appeared in Tal Tamir in force since, the shock of the first wave was enough to convince all but 10 percent of the remaining Assyrians to leave. Kurds used to form almost half the town’s population, but 90 percent of them have also gone. Most shops are shuttered and the wooden blinds on house windows are drawn and gathering dust. 

“We used to have congregations of up to 800 here on Sundays but now they barely number 100,” said Yacub, who also acts as a churchwarden. 

Joining our conversation, Isho Jamo, an electrician, revealed that Tal Tamir was his third place of refuge in three years. Forces opposed to Bashar al Assad’s rule entered his village of Al Kharita in 2012. 

“They came under the name of the Free Syrian Army but after a few days it turned out they were Ansar Sharia [an Islamist group]. They took over several houses. The regime’s aircraft started bombing and I left for another village. My house is destroyed,” he said.

Still feeling unsafe, he went on to the town of Hasaka and finally came to Tal Tamir where he lives with his brother and his brother’s family. His mother and sister have fled to Lebanon.

“The town is well-guarded now and we don’t expect Daesh [IS in Arabic] to come back,” Jamo claimed.

It was not clear how much he believed his own rhetoric. Was it merely a statement of proud defiance that could easily deflate?   

Half an hour earlier, there was a similar litany from Jan Abraham, a middle-aged man emerging from a barber shop. 

“The city is safe and I would advise people who’ve left to return,” he told MEE. He works at an agricultural bank that continues to function, although the number of farmers who bank there has dropped from 1,000 to 300. 

Tal Tamir’s electricity system worked well, with power available for 20 hours a day, and there was no problem with the water supply, he claimed.

But as the conversation developed, Abraham’s tone changed. He disclosed that he was hoping for positive replies to jobs he had applied for in Sweden and Germany.  

One of his three sons was already in Germany and was trying to help him get work.  

The problem, he admitted, was a lack of security. Only two days earlier, policewomen at a checkpoint had become suspicious of a woman in Arab-style robes who looked pregnant but seemed to walk rather more vigorously than expected. When they searched her, they found she was wearing a suicide belt. She failed to detonate it.

Abraham revealed that, in addition to his bank job, he served as mayor of the village of Tal Maghas, around 8km from Tal Tamir. 

“Out of 50 families only three are still there. The rest have gone to Lebanon, Turkey, Sweden and Germany,” he said.

The dramatic departure of Assyrian Christians from northeastern Syria over the past six months is only the latest exodus in a history of forced relocation of Assyrians from several parts of the region over the past 100 years. Some of this generation’s ancestors were brought to the Tal Tamir area when the French held a mandate to rule Syria. They had fled with thousands of Armenians to escape massacres in Turkey during the First World War. 

The French, as fellow-Christians, favoured them over Syria’s Arabs and gave them economic privileges.  

Another group of Assyrians came in 1933 in flight from massacres in Iraq. Their plight was an indirect result of British colonial policy similar to that of the French. Refugees from Turkey, they had been settled in British-run northwestern Iraq near Mosul. 

Young Assyrian men were recruited into British forces and treated as superior to the rest of the Iraqi army. When the British mandate ended, resentments and jealousies exploded. Assyrian men and women were rounded up and shot by Iraqi troops. Those who survived fled across the border to Syria to the region along the river Khabur.

Over time, many Assyrians moved to the region’s two main cities, Qamishli and Hasaka, forming a prosperous urban community. When the Syrian uprising in favour of reform and democracy erupted in the spring of 2011, Christians were divided.

The Assyrian Democratic Organisation (ADO), the community’s oldest political grouping, supported the anti-regime protests and joined the first opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, while most Christians came to feel safer with the Assad regime once Islamists dominated the armed opposition. 

Gabriel Moushe Gawrieh, the ADO leader, was arrested in December 2013 and is in Adra prison in Damascus, his deputy Daoud Daoud, told MEE in an interview in his Qamishli office.

For Daoud, IS has replaced the Assad government as the main enemy.

“Around half of the 150,000 Assyrians in Hasaka and Qamishli districts have left the region since IS appeared,” Daoud said.

“Daesh has not been defeated. They still threaten our region,” he added.  

His organisation is trying to negotiate the release of the Assyrians who were kidnapped near Tal Tamir this spring. Around 40 of the oldest were freed but 200 are still held. 

“Daesh want a very large ransom, as much as $100,000 per person. It’s impossible,” he said.

While he is pleased that Assad’s combat forces withdrew from northeast Syria in 2012, he has multiple criticisms for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish movement that has set up an independent quasi-state in northern Syria which Kurds call Rojava. (Rojava means West, i.e. Western Kurdistan).  

Daoud’s party was invited to join the administration of Rojava. “We discussed it for a long time, but finally decided against it. We reject the term Rojava because there are many other groups here, not just Kurds. We also objected to changing the names of towns and giving them Kurdish names,” Daoud told MEE. 

“The administration is meant to represent all ethnic and sectarian groups but they are not appropriately represented. Also, there are other Kurdish parties here who are not with the PYD. Why are they not taking part?” he said.

In spite of their refusal to join the Rojava government, the Assyrians suffer no penalties and PYD officials were happy to guide us to the ADO offices and leave us to interview them. 

In the history of northeastern Syria there has never been so much popular participation in politics and civic life, PYD officials say with pride, and it is happening even during a time of war. They hope the Christians will stay, they add.