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ICC Note:

Thousands of Syriac Christians once lived in Raqqa, and now they have announced that their alliance’s battle for ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa has reached its final stages. Many of these Christians have not been able to return home since ISIS overran the city in 2014, and they are eager to begin the process of rebuilding. However, Syriac Christians were unhappy with the environment even before ISIS took control of the city. Conversion laws were a constant shadow, and the place of Syriacs in society was not recognized by the regime. Excitement for the liberation of Raqqa is thus tinged with apprehension on what the future may bring.

09/21/2017 Syria (DW) –Getting to the headquarters of Syriac fighters in Raqqa involves driving mostly across a desert. The route is exhausting and not entirely safe but, for the time being, it’s the only chance to avoid the area still under the control of the Islamic State (IS).

Once in the south western outskirts of the city, you just have to follow your ear: the base of the Syriac Military Council (MFS) is right next to an American base from which mortar is launched every five minutes.

Commander Matai Hannah has just returned from there with a bit of food – his “Meat Ready to Eat” combat ration.

“Their base is just behind that wall. I wouldn’t mind taking you there, but I’m sure they will not like it,” Hannah told DW.

At 22, Hannah has generously paid for his rank with a lost kidney, the scar that criss-crosses his chest and a bullet in the head which only grazed him.

That didn’t happen in Raqqa though, but in his native town of Qamishli – 600 kilometers (370 miles) northeast of Damascus – back in 2015. The enemy, however, was the same.

Pre-war censuses in Syria placed the number of Syriac Christians at around 10 percent of a total population of 23 million. But what had been a safe haven for Eastern Christians fleeing neighboring countries – especially Iraq – turned into a lethal trap for non-Muslim minorities after 2011.

It was in 2012 when the Syriacs began to organize their own armed forces. The first one was Sutoro (“security” in Turoyo, the Syriac language) – a police unit that would eventually fracture between those loyal to Assad and those siding with the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG).

Hannah and his people opted for the second option as the political trajectory of Kurds and Syriac dissidents have run parallel in the country’s northeast. Both the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – YPG’s political wing and the dominant among the Syrian Kurds – and the Syriac Union Party (SUP) were founded in the early 2000s, and both were illegal, said SUP president Isho Gawriye.

“The Syrian constitution did not recognize the Syriacs as a nation, nor did it accept that one of us could be president. A Muslim could not convert to Christianity, but the opposite was legal,” Gawriye told DW from the headquarters of the Syriac Union Party in Qamishli.

“That [regime] of the Assads’ was an Arab and supposedly secular regime in which non-Arab peoples such as Kurds or Syriacs had no place,” he added.

The MFS was created in 2013 as the military wing of the SUP. In 2015 they joined the then Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US backed inter-ethnic coalition today fighting IS in the northeast. The next significant move would come in March, 2016, when delegates from various northern regions and ethnicities proclaimed the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.”

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