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Attacks in Syria target Christians, civilians

Suicide bombings shake a city in the country’s northeast, and ISIS assassinates a local priest and his father.

Attacks in Syria target Christians, civilians

People check the aftermath of a car bomb blast in the city of Qamishli, northern Syria, on Monday. (Baderkhan Ahmad/AP)

Away from the front lines of an ongoing offensive by Turkey against Syrian forces, terror attacks struck at the heart of northeast Syria’s beleaguered civilians, targeting Christians. 

Two suicide bombings on Monday exploded in Qamishli, a city jointly patrolled by the semi-autonomous Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian army.

A car bomb in central Qamishli went off in a market and nearby hotel, rattling buildings and shattering glass in a busy commercial area. I sat across the street in a second-floor hotel reception area where the glass spilled across the floor and ductwork fell from the ceiling. Hotel guests gathered in a dark stairwell as secondary explosions, including another car caught in the blast, reverberated down the crowded street at about 3 p.m. Eyewitnesses reported five dead and about 40 wounded in the blast, but so far there’s been no official toll.

Moments later a motorcycle bomber struck the Chaldean Catholic Church only blocks away. An eyewitness, while filming the first bombing, caught on camera the explosion.

Mindy Belz

Damage from a motorcycle bomb at the Chaldean Catholic Church in Qamishli (Mindy Belz)

Qamishli is a historically Christian area, and the church is one of 11, including Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant congregations.

Soon after the bombings came reports of the killing of Qamishli’s Armenian Catholic priest, Hovsep Petoyan, along with his father, Abraham Petoyan. Armed attackers shot them as they traveled south by road to Deir Ezzor on Monday. A deacon was wounded in the attack. 

The father and son clergymen, known locally as Hanna Bido and Hanna Ibrahim, were on their way to inspect a church—undergoing restoration after it was destroyed by ISIS militants in 2014. Survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey built both the church in Deir Ezzor and a nearby memorial.

ISIS claimed responsibility for gunning down the Petoyans, who reportedly were stopped and shot inside their car. ISIS has claimed 30 attacks in the first 10 days of November in Syria’s northeast—a 300 percent increase, according to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali. 

The attack on the Armenians took place in an area not far from where U.S. forces allied early this year with the SDF to defeat ISIS in its final stronghold in Syria, at Baghouz. But sleeper cells remain, and the region is seeing a surge in such attacks since Turkey launched its offensive in Syria last month to establish a “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border.

SDF units have withdrawn from areas inside the safe zone, in accordance with an agreement reached by Vice President Mike Pence last month with Turkish officials. But battling Turkey outside the safe zone, along with its al-Qaeda-linked militias, has thinned SDF ranks from areas also infested with ISIS. 

The SDF also continues to control a prison and camps housing tens of thousands of detained ISIS militants and their families. On Nov. 11 Bali, the SDF spokesman, called again for an international mission to take custody of ISIS prisoners. He warned that resources for that policing are at a breaking point, and that captured fighters are often packed 100-150 to a room, housed in repurposed buildings. “The international community must recognize this is an international problem,” Bali said.

As President Donald Trump prepares to meet at the White House on Wednesday with Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the stakes in Syria’s northeast are high. Russian and Syrian forces have moved into positions facing off against Turkey and its militias, with U.S. forces returning to the area and ISIS attempting a revival. A Tuesday Wall Street Journal report indicated Trump and Erdogan may discuss possible war crimes the Turkish-backed forces have committed in northeast Syria captured on camera by U.S. drones. Those fleeing into Iraq from Syria told me of atrocities they had seen. 

Monday’s attacks highlight the peril for Christians, whose representatives are often overlooked as part of the Kurdish-led SDF. “It’s very important strategically for Americans to help us sustain the diversity in this region,” said Bassam Ishak, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, and a Syriac Christian. “It’s a natural resistance to ISIS, to breaking down its culture and ideology.” 

That diversity was at work on the streets of Qamishli overnight, as locals joined work crews to sweep glass and debris from the day’s bombings, reopening the roads to traffic and an uneasy calm. 

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.