With payments, the militants released the residents in small groups over the next 13 months, starting with the elderly but holding many families with young children for a year or more. ISIS fighters threatened the hostages, holding guns to fathers’ heads and demanding they convert to Islam. Early on, they selected five girls to be enslaved as ISIS brides. Four were released, but one of them, now 16 years old, remains in ISIS captivity.
What ISIS did not destroy outright it has dismantled through such prolonged threats and intimidation, prompting Khabur families plus others to emigrate. I interviewed multiple families, yet few wanted their names to appear in print, still fearful four years after the attack. Kidnap victims stood firm against ISIS demands to convert to Islam, yet as a result their families have been scattered, with relatives in Sweden, Australia, or the United States. It will take more than defeating ISIS militarily to make life for Christians possible here again. It will take specific—and lasting—freedoms and protection.
HOW TO GAIN SUCH PROTECTION has divided Syria’s churches. Athneil told me “most of the Christian peoples are pro-regime.” They support the government of President Bashar al-Assad because he represents stability and has protected non-Muslims. They believe he will take a hard line against terror groups like ISIS, despite the looming influence of Russia and Iran. Plus, he has regained control of just over half the country. Failing a negotiated settlement requiring a transitional government (called for in the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2254 guiding faltering talks), he may retake all of Syria.
But many Christians who have survived the war see an opportunity for pluralism and for religious freedom not allowed under Syria’s current constitution. Attacks like that in Khabur Valley bred a fierce determination to secure Assyrian homelands, and for some a new willingness to take up arms against Islamic jihadists.
If Assad remains in power, said Gabriel Moshe, head of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, “there will never be any security, there will never be any settlement. Any terrorist organization can arise again.”
Despite epochal clashes with Kurds, Assad opponents are pinning their hopes on a Kurdish-led political and military coalition that controls what for centuries were predominantly Christian areas. The coalition operates a political federation now called the Self-Administration in North and East Syria (SANES), an area of 4 million people extending east of the Euphrates and encompassing Jazira, the ancient homeland for Assyrian and other Christians.