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Forced to flee, again

ISIS-linked jihadists target Christians and ‘atheist pigs,’ this time in Syria under a Turkish-led campaign with tacit U.S. and NATO approval

Forced to flee, again

Kurds flee from fighting in Afrin. (SANA via AP)

Note: This story contains graphic imagery.

Four years ago this summer, ISIS militants emptied Nineveh Plains in Iraq of Christians and forced Yazidis from their ancient homeland nearby in Sinjar. Americans watched newscasts of the displaced dying of thirst on a mountaintop, and the Obama White House, warning of a “humanitarian catastrophe,” ordered U.S. military cargo planes to drop supplies to the desperate victims of genocide.

But the Obama administration looked the other way as Islamic State gathered power, weapons, and foreign recruits to launch its summer 2014 attacks and declare itself a caliphate. Now in Syria in 2018 Christians and Yazidis are fleeing again. Only this time Islamic militants are working in tandem with Turkey’s military forces—using American-bought air and ground weaponry with the tacit approval of U.S. and European leaders.

Turkish forces crossed into Syria in January, penetrating 60 miles to the city Afrin in an area not at the time part of any active war zone—an anomaly in the war-drenched country. The Turks attacked Syrian Kurdish forces holding the region, forces backed by the United States. Afrin residents report up to 3,000 Christians and 35,000 Yazidis—along with many other non-Muslim residents—forced to flee under a murderous Turkish-led onslaught. In all, 200,000 mostly Kurdish residents have been forced from Afrin.

The United States gave support to the Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units, to secure Syria’s northern border area after the group fought successfully to oust Islamic State from Kobani, Raqqa, and other cities. For Turkey, the YPG is akin to the terrorist Kurdish PKK, a group that’s carried out attacks in Turkey (though no data confirms YPG forces launching attacks into Turkey). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dubbed the Afrin offensive “Operation Olive Branch,” and the government called it “an act of self-defense against a build-up of terrorists.”  

In the operation, the Turks deployed large contingents of fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel militia that’s spiraled into a menacing assortment of jihadist groups as the war drags on. While Turkish forces launched air and ground assaults in Afrin, FSA soldiers went door-to-door, searching for Kurdish fighters but also forcing Christians and other non-Muslims from their homes. They installed Sharia law, allowing fighters to “legally” target non-Muslims who’ve lived peacefully in the area. 

“They attacked civilians, and killed babies and women,” said Afrin resident Baran Hamdoush. “They searched every single house for YPG soldiers and if they found anyone armed, they killed them or gave them to the Turkish government.”

Free Burma Rangers

Yazidis who fled Afrin recount stories of targeting by FSA fighters. (Free Burma Rangers)


Church of the Good Shepherd in Afrin, burned inside and spray-painted by jihadist groups claiming it after Turkish-led offensive. (Handout)

In Afrin the fighters burned the Church of the Good Shepherd, spray-painting its walls with jihadist slogans. In the village of Kafarganeh on the edge of Afrin, invading forces shot dead a 4-year-old named Riven as they looted homes and killed anyone who resisted their advances. FSA fighters also reportedly captured, raped, and murdered a young mother, then sent a video to her husband. 


Riven, a 4-year-old killed in Kafarganeh, near Afrin. (Handout)

“We had to flee and we barely got out, going on foot day and night,” said Hamdoush, who is 18 years old. I reached him by telephone in Kobani, the Syrian city 125 miles east of Afrin, where he escaped with his mother. Both are recent Christian converts and escaped also with Hamdoush’s sister, who is pregnant, and her husband. Hamdoush’s father—too ill to make the trek—remains in Afrin, where FSA fighters have repeatedly searched the family home.

Hamdoush said he does not expect to be able to return to Afrin again: “We need a miracle.” 

Since Turkish and FSA forces completed the invasion in April, they have continued to target Christians, beating them and torturing them overnight, according to those who remain behind. They loot Christian homes, and in some cases have moved Muslim families into homes vacated by Christians and others. Of the estimated 3,000 Christians formerly living in Afrin—about 200 families living in the city and perhaps 100 families in nearby villages—no Christians are left at all, said Church of the Good Shepherd Pastor Valentin Hanan. 

Starting in January church leaders in Syria, including Hanan, appealed for help to international aid groups and to the 2,000-strong U.S. Special Forces contingent stationed 70 miles away in Manbij. They condemned “the unjustified Turkish aggression,” protested heavy shelling, and warned of impending ethnic and religious cleansing. But no help materialized to protect Afrin’s civilian population.

Residents say they saw signs of jihadist activity in the villages surrounding Afrin for months, as militants robbed homes and forced Christians out. One jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, boasts on its website of its work in Afrin, saying it has opened offices to recruit local fighters to kill “atheist pigs” and has taken over mosques to promote “the true values of Islam.” Commanders of the group threatened to attack U.S. forces in Syria and have been widely linked to atrocities—including one leader videotaped raping a young girl during a Turkish-led assault on the border city of Jarābulus in 2016.

Said one resident, who is not named for security reasons: “The residents of Afrin have an open culture far from the extremist religion and ideology the Syrian jihadists are seeking to promote.”

‘The Russians could have stopped this tragedy and the Americans as well if they had put real pressure on their NATO ally.’

That’s one reason aid workers and others in the region say more should be done to protect Afrin’s residents. “The Russians could have stopped this tragedy and the Americans as well if they had put real pressure on their NATO ally,” said a European pastor who has worked with the churches in the region and asked not to be identified for security reasons. The Kurdish political and military leaders from Afrin, he pointed out, had made no moves to attack Turkey. Without taking direct U.S. military action, he added, the United States could guarantee Turkey’s security along the Kurdish-controlled border of Syria and prevent Turkey from seizing territory inside Syria. 

With Turkey controlling the Afrin region, it looks like Washington has abandoned its strongest ally in Syria. One year ago the Trump administration made a big deal of showing support for the Kurdish and Arab forces that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the YPG. All were part of military action to oust ISIS from key cities in Syria and Iraq. The United States provided the SDF/YPG heavy weapons—including up-armored Humvees, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers—and U.S. Central Command posted online photos of the armaments lined up in YPG-controlled areas.

And earlier this year, the Pentagon touted what it called “a unilateral operation” by SDF/YPG forces, who captured in northern Syria Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a member of al-Qaeda and now ISIS. As part of al-Qaeda’s cell in Hamburg, Germany, in 2001, Zammar worked with 9/11 operational leader Mohamed Atta to recruit two of the pilots who crashed planes in the United States that day, plus others. 

Now the Kurdish-U.S. alliance appears to be taking a back seat to bolstering NATO ally Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met on June 4 with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington. Afterward, the two issued a joint statement that did not mention Afrin. That contradicts what Pompeo told lawmakers in May when he said he hoped to achieve “a resolution” of “Turkish activities in northern Syria in and around Afrin and Manbij” when he met Cavusoglu.

Instead, the Pompeo-Cavusoglu statement said the two sides “endorsed a Road Map” to ensure “security and stability in Manbij,” while underlining “their mutual commitment” to its implementation. 

EU leaders, likewise, appear to have stepped back from criticizing Turkey over Turkey’s invasion of Afrin. At a March meeting with Erdogan in Bulgaria, the EU leadership “voiced concern” regarding Turkey’s actions in Syria. But a final press statement from the meeting, issued by European Council President Donald Tusk, reaffirmed Turkey’s right to fight terrorism and mildly expressed concern over Afrin, calling on Turkey “to ensure the protection of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

With more than a quarter-million people newly displaced, both Turkish forces and Syrian government forces continue to block aid reaching the area, report Afrin residents I spoke to and aid workers nearby (see also “Itinerants and pawns”).

Hasan Kırmızitaş/DHA-Depo Photos via AP

Free Syrian Army soldiers celebrate around a statue of Kawa (a mythology figure in Kurdish culture) as they prepare to destroy it in Afrin. (Hasan Kırmızitaş/DHA-Depo Photos via AP)

“I believe most European leaders are aware what is going on in Afrin, but only a few speak out against it,” said the European pastor. “They worry about a new wave of refugees traveling to Europe through Turkey, and they seem more concerned to try to keep Turkey within the NATO fold than to address the terrible injustice going on.”

The only hope, he said, is for U.S. forces not to abandon SDF/YPG forces in the border region: “If they fail to keep their commitment, they will lose all legitimacy, and the fight against ISIS might have been in vain.”

Besides the Christian families living in Afrin, Turkish forces and their Islamist partners have established control over a border region awash in religious history. Turkish airstrikes in February reportedly destroyed Ain Dara, a Hittite-era temple complete with elaborate rock carvings and a colossal basalt lion—all in an area with some of the oldest churches in the world. Turkish attacks destroyed ancient cemeteries and remains of pillars used by the early Christian Stylites. The area also includes shrines held sacred by Yazidis, Druze, and Syria’s Alawite community. 

UPDATE: A U.S. State Department spokesperson responded on June 12:

The humanitarian situation and‎ reports of abuses in Afrin remain a concern. The United States continues to call on all relevant actors operating in the northwest, including Turkey, Russia, the Syrian Regime, and armed groups to provide unfettered humanitarian access‎, protect civilians, and allow for the safe and voluntary return of displaced ‎people to their homes, including in Afrin City, as soon as possible.

Those who evacuated must be allowed freedom of movement, including the right to return home, and provided access to immediate humanitarian assistance and medical care.

We urge all parties to exercise restraint in its military actions and rhetoric, ensure ‎their operations are limited in scope and duration, ensure humanitarian aid continues, and avoid civilian casualties. We have repeatedly expressed our serious concern to Turkish officials regarding the situation in Afrin.‎

—This is a longer version of the column that appears in the June 30 print issue.


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  • JennyBeth
    Posted: Wed, 06/13/2018 03:43 pm

    Our nation is at it again: we arm and encourage rebels to create a civil war, then pull the rug out from them when they've become politicially inconvenient. Thus civilians get killed by multiple parties bearing our weapons and regions are thrown into chaos, and then we wonder why much of the world hates us. God have mercy on us.