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Tensions soar between Syrian Kurds and Christians

Kurds blame the government for fanning distrust, while Christians worry Kurds could be abusing their power in Syria's northeast
The northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli has traditionally been home to Kurds and Muslim and Christian Arabs (MEE / Wladimir Van Wilgenburg)

ERBIL, Iraq – Distrust between the once-close Christian and Kurdish communities in northeastern Syria appears to be soaring, with clashes taking place and fears high that internal strife could rip apart the multiethnic city of Qamishli, even as the Islamic State (IS) threat begins to recede.

The Christian neighbourhood of al-Wusta in Qamishli was the scene of clashes between Kurds and Christian militias on Monday night, with security sources in the town telling Middle East Eye that at least one Kurdish civilian and one Christian militiaman were reportedly killed. Five other people were also injured after the Kurds tried to break up a newly established Christian checkpoint, the sources added.  

This is the first time that violence of this nature has broken out between the Kurds and pro-government Christian militias in Qamishli, a key town in the northeastern Hasakah province, but residents and analysts are concerned that further incidents could be looming.

Qamishli is dominated by Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters, but the Syrian army and its supporters control the border crossing and the town’s airport, while the Christian neighbourhoods are patrolled by the pro-government Christian security forces, the Sootoro.

The town’s Christian residents have been on edge since 30 December when a large suicide bomb, claimed by the IS group, ripped through the main Christian neighbourhood, killing at least 16 people. While Christian and Kurdish militias have jointly fought against IS in this part of Syria, the attack prompted speculations to run rife.

According to local media, since the pre-New Year’s Eve attack, the town’s Christians have grown deeply apprehensive, on occasion even accusing their Kurdish neighbours of complicity in the IS attack, despite the Kurdish YPG being one of the fiercest anti-IS forces on the ground.

A Christian resident who saw Monday’s clashes and spoke to MEE on the condition of anonymity placed the blame on Kurdish Asayish forces saying that they had “killed our friend and [landed] another in the hospital”. Social media followed suit, with pages affiliated to the town’s Christian residents publishing bloody pictures of Gabi Henri Daoud, 22, who died in the clashes and was buried on Wednesday.

“The need for local Assyrian security forces to tighten control of their neighbourhoods became even more urgent [after the attacks],” London-based Assyrian author Mardaen Isaac, who has written about the allegiances of the Assyrians in Syria, told MEE.

“After the two explosions in [the Christian neighbourhood of] al-Wusta, the Sootoro [Christian militia] wanted to protect our neighbourhood and started to close off the area,” he added. “Then the Asayish started to attack the checkpoints and killed one [militia member] and started removing the barriers.”

The Kurds see Qamilshi as their capital in Syria, but the Assyrians believe that their ancestors founded the town, which is now home to some 200,000 people, including Muslim Arabs, Kurds and Christians.

The relationship has at times been complex. In March 2004, the Kurds in Qamishli tried and failed to rise up against the government, prompting a government crackdown. When the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad broke out in 2011, however, the balance of power quickly shifted.

By mid-2012, the Kurds were in de-facto control of many areas in the north where they began setting up their own administrations. The Kurds focused more on securing their own areas than challenging the government, prompting allegations that they at least tentatively supported Assad, but the detente has been far from cozy and in recent years, the Kurds and the Syrian government have been competing for Christian support in the north.

While the Syrian government dominates some Christian neighbourhoods and militias, in other towns Syrian Christians are firmly allied with the YPG.

In Qamishli, however, the Kurds appear to have grown weary of Christians' apparent support for Assad.

Several Kurdish journalists have suggested that the Syrian army is behind the recent tensions, and that they have been manipulating the Christian militias to strengthen the government’s position in the border town.

Until very recently, Kurds and Christians “have been coordinating very closely, but apparently after the New Year’s explosions, Christians want to be more independent and less reliant on the Kurds,” said Sirwan Kajjo, a Syrian Kurdish journalist based in Washington.

Kajjo explained that the government could be pushing the issue due to the YPG’s close links with the United States. US Special Operation Forces were recently deployed to train Kurdish forces to fight the IS group in Raqqa and Jarabulus with Washington leading an anti-IS aerial campaign in Syria since 2014.

“I am certain the Assad regime is pushing them to do so as Assad hasn’t been happy about the continued cooperation between the YPG and the coalition forces,” Kajjo added.

An alleged pro-government protest in Qamishli in 2014 (AFP / Syrian Arab News Agency)

The Christian vice-president of the local administration in Hassakah, Elizabeth Gawrie, likewise told MEE that the government was pushing hard and telling people that if you are “not with us, Daesh (IS) or other Islamic forces will destroy you”.

Arin Sheikhmus, a freelance journalist from Qamishli, also told MEE that the Syrian government was behind the escalation.

“The Syrian regime asked the Sootoro militia to expand their security perimeter and build barriers and checkpoints, but the [Kurdish] Asayish rejected this,” he said.

“These militias follow the Syrian regime, and do not represent the Christians in Qamislo, and are an undesirable militia even among Christians.”

But the militia’s hold on the al-Wusta neighbourhood remains strong. “All the people in al-Wusta are Christians and they are with Sootoro,” a Christian from al-Wusta said.

Assyrian expert Mardaen Isaac said that Monday’s attack “was a worrying manifestation of long-brewing local tensions revolving around the desire of the YPG and its allies to monopolise security in Gozarto [the Hasakah province].”

“The reality is that almost all Assyrians in Gozarto, aside from the few who are directly involved in the political system of the Kurdish self-administration, are highly wary, if not deeply opposed, to it,” he added.

“This position is rooted in historical suspicions of Kurdish nationalism, but also reflects contemporary anxieties over the sudden rise of what is perceived as an ethnocratic government,” he said.

The local self-administration dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) rejects the idea that they are a government exclusively for the Kurds and stresses that their local administrations in northern Syria include Muslim Arabs, Christians, and Kurds.

The Kurds appointed an Arab governor to administer Hasakah province in 2014 to help smooth over ethnic and religious tensions, although they have not been able to eradicate them entirely. Some Arabs have accused the Kurds of driving them out with Amnesty International saying possible war crimes have occurred.

The April 2015 killing of David Jendo, the commander of the Assyrian Khabour guards who was cooperating with the YPG in the countryside of Tel Temir only helped fan tensions, despite the YPG members accused of the crime being sentenced to 12 and 20 years in prison.

Pressure from Iraqi Kurdistan has also fanned tensions with some rival Syrian Kurdish militias, backed by the Iraqi Kurds, pressuring the PYD to push for an independent Kurdish-majority state.

Yet despite this, many insist that Kurdish–Christian relations in the region remain relatively positive with the Kurds and Christians still likely allies in the bloody fight against IS. 

“If Syriac Christians were indeed oppressed by their Kurdish neighbours, why are they fighting side-by-side against ISIS [IS],” the Christian Political Foundation was quoted by a Kurdish news agency as saying in November.

The Christians also say they have similar goals and Gawrie insists that her people demand to see a “democratic solution for Syria” not just in Kurdish areas, but throughout the country.

We will work with others to help “build a new pluralistic Syria,” she added.  

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