Death of a Democracy

By Linda Burkle, PhD

 

The US Commission of International Religious Freedom’s 2019 Annual report included Syria as a “country of particular concern.”  While ISIS was ostensibly defeated in 2017, it continued to be a threat to religious minorities; along with the growing presence of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), there is an emerging a-Qaeda affiliate in northwest Syria. The Syrian government itself continued to repress and marginalize religious minorities, most notably Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, the report states:

“Turkish-backed rebel forces exploited a United Nations (UN)-brokered ceasefire in the northern district of Afrin to persecute and displace religious and ethnic minorities in that area. Religious and ethnic minorities in Kurdish-controlled areas of the country’s northeast, where they have generally experienced a relatively high degree of religious freedom, also faced mounting concerns at the close of 2018 regarding potential ramifications of the pending withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria. Those concerns included the possibility of a large-scale Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces in that area and the threat of an ISIS resurgence.”[1]

In anticipation of US troop withdrawal, USCIRF’s 2019 Annual Report recommendations to the US government included ensuring “that the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria is conducted in such a manner that will not negatively impact the rights and survival of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities”.[2]

The northeast region of Syria is unique in that Kurds and a variety of ethnic and religious minorities have established an autonomous democratic self-governing region, living together and enjoying freedom from persecution.  In an October 21 article, entitled “Interview: Christian Leader Cries Out for Help From Northern Syria” Metin Rhawi, who represents Christians in Northeastern Syria, estimated there were 100,000-120,000 Christians living in northern Syria.[3]

Karin Heepen a Christian analyst from Germany, describes this unique region.

In 2014, Kurds established a “Democratic Self-Administration (DSA) in North-East Syria under the name Rojava (West Kurdistan) with the participation of all ethnic and religious groups. Since then 4 million Kurds and Yazidi, Arabs and Alevis, Christian Assyrians, Aramaeans and converts, Armenians and Turkmen have lived and worked together here largely peacefully as nowhere else in Islamic countries in the Middle East. In the years of the Syrian civil war, the region received about 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Most of the Pro-Assad government troops withdrew from northern Syria in 2012. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG fighters, took control of the region and, with the support of US defense forces, defeated the Islamic State (ISIS) in North-East Syria.”[4]

U.S. President Trump ordered the withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria in early October of 2019 in accordance with his earlier campaign promises. The announcement was met with condemnation by Congress and outcry by those living in the region as well as humanitarian organizations worldwide. The Kurds, who had previously fought with US forces to defeat ISIS, expressed betrayal.  One of the primary concerns is the resurgence of ISIS in the wake of U.S. withdrawal as well as the continued oversight of ISIS prisoners, some of whom have escaped.  Although only 50 to 100 U.S. special operations forces were withdrawn from northeast Syria and moved to other locations within Syria, their presence in the region had played a critical role.[5]

As predicted, Turkish airstrikes and ground attacks began on October 9th just two days after the United States withdrew its troops.  The Turkish offensive, code named Turkey Operation Peace Spring was conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army SNA against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian Arab Army. With overwhelming bipartisan Congressional support, heavy sanctions were imposed on Turkey beginning October 14 but lifted on October 23 following assurances from Erdogon to Trump that the Turkish offensive on the Kurds had stopped.  In a televised message President Trump announced that a “permanent cease fire” had been achieved.[6]

Despite the announced ceasefire, the attacks and killings continued into early November. By that time, at least 120 Syrian civilians had died and 176,000 people had fled their homes during the previous weeks of violence. Dave Eubank and his volunteer Free Burma Rangers have been on the ground rescuing wounded and providing practical aid.  Sadly, one of his volunteers was killed by Turkish artillery. He told CBN Middle Eastern Bureau Chief Chris Mitchell “There’s no cease fire and I wish the world would finally admit it.”[7]

Turkish troops pushed back Kurdish SDF fighters who fought valiantly but incurred heavy loses.  The Turkish invasion advanced and strategically took over villages, such as Tel Tamer and Ras al Ain, conducting “soft ethnic cleansing.”   Christians and other minorities have been forced from their homes and livelihoods.[8]

Not only are those in the region under attack from Turkey, but fears of an ISIS resurgence have been realized.  According to Rojava Information Center, the Turkish invasion has provoked a 48% increase in ISIS sleeper cell attacks.  The report states: “Turkey’s invasion undoes years of work by the SDF, first defeating in ISIS on the battlefield and then in sweeping anti-ISIS raids which have brought hundreds of sleeper cell members to justice. If the international community want to stop this ISIS resurgence, there is only one solution: to stop the Turkish invasion of North and East Syria.”[9]

Within hours of Trump’s “permanent ceasefire” announcement on October 23rd, Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan had brokered a deal in which Russia would fill the peace-keeping role previously held by the U.S.  Russian and Turkish troops now patrol the border’s safe zone having successfully pushed back the Kurdish fighters away from the contested border.  The region has been divided between Russian and Turkish control and Russian troops now occupy posts previously operated by the U.S.[10]

One tragic result of these recent events is the dismantling of a fledgling democracy, the Democratic Self Administration (Rojava) of northeastern Syria.  Retired Marine Captain Brandon Wheeler is an expert in the region. He told CBN’S Chuck Holton: “What I can tell you for sure is whether it’s Putin or Assad or the Salafi Islamists or Turkey, the one thing they all agree on is that self-governance, individual freedom is a threat to all of them. So they will exterminate this project at all costs.”[11]


Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically, regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska.  She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates


[1] https://www.uscirf.gov/countries/Syria

[2] https://www.uscirf.gov/countries/Syria

[3] http://www.breakingnews.com/138593/interview-Christan-leader

[4] “November First Friday Global Prayer Call”, info@globalprayercall.org

[5] http://www. Militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2019/10/07/how-the-us-troop-withdrawal-from-northeren-Syria-could -create-an-isis-resurgence/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/23/donald-trump-syria-ceasefire-permanent-lifts-sanctions-turkey

[7] https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2019/october/there’s-no-ceasefire-and-i-wish-the-world-would-finally-admit-it-medical-mission-team-comes-under-fire

[8] https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2019/october/lsquo-soft-ethnic-cleansing-rsquo-turkey-rsquo-s-jijadist-forces-are-stealig-christian-land-in-syria

[9] http://rojavainformationcenter.com/2018/11/new-data-turkish-invasion

[10] https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpointd/2019/11/03joint-turkish-and-russian-patrols-begin-in-syrian-region/

[11] https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/israel/2019/November/freedom-is-a-threat-to-all-of-them-russia-turkey-and-islamic-terrorists-unite-to-kill-democracy


 

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