Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 20th, 2015
This article will explore the situation of Assyrians in Syria.
- The first section deals with the origins of Assyrians in Syria, the Assyrian identity, and the condition of Assyrians under the Assad regime.
- The second section deals with the impact of the Syrian uprising and civil war on Assyrians, Assyrian security forces, and the politics of Assyrians under the Kurdish self-administration in Hassakah.
Origins of Assyrians in Syria
There was a strong ancient Assyrian presence across Syria, and the most significant historical churches to which Assyrians belong today – especially the Syriac Orthodox Church, but also the Assyrian Church of the East and later the Chaldean Catholic Church – navigated a presence across Syria under the various empires that ruled over the region. However, while the deep ethnic origin of Syrian Christians (and all Syrians) is comprised of pre-Arab layers, including Assyrian, these contemporary communities do not today possess a distinct ethnic identity, unlike the Assyrian populations that will form the focus of this article.
Contemporary Assyrian populations are defined by a set of distinct cultural and linguistic traits. They speak the modern Assyrian language, which has two major dialects, as well as retaining usage of classical Syriac – the ecclesiastical lingua franca of the Syriac churches – of which they are the progenitors and stewards. In modern Assyrian, a language partly rooted in Akkadian and Aramaic, but much of whose morphology and lexical features have been self-generated over the centuries, Assyrians refer to themselves largely by the emic terms ‘Suraya/Sur(y)oyo’*2, a variant of the term for ancient Assyrians, ‘Ashuraya/Asoraya.’ The term ‘Athoroyo/Atoraya’ is also deployed.
The major modern Assyrian presence in Syria dates back to the aftermath of the Assyrian Genocide (1914-23). This was a Genocide distinct to that of the Armenians, although the perpetrators – Turkish nationalists and their Kurdish conscripts – extirpated both peoples in the same period and for the same reason: to rid the emergent Republic of Turkey of its Christian populations. A portion of the fleeing Armenian population also settled in Syria.
Western Assyrians fleeing massacres in the historic Assyrian strongholds of Mardin, Diyarbakir, Midyat, Tur Abdin, and elsewhere, ended up in the province of Jazira, where they established the city of Qamishli (then known as Beth Zalin, ‘the house of reed’ in Assyrian) as well as villages such as those in Qabre Hewore (Al-Qahtaniyah).
Eastern Assyrians took a more winding route to Syria. Having fled massacres in their ancestral territories in south-east Turkey, mainly in the Hakkari region, they became dispersed across the region. A decade of itinerant uncertainty regarding their fate ended with the Simele Massacre of 1933 – the foundational event of the nascent state of Iraq – after which thousands of remaining Assyrians fled into Jazira and founded villages along the Khabur river. The Khabur villages  remained a kind of living museum of Hakkari life. The villages were settled by tribe, and their names continue to colloquially bare the titles of the Assyrian tribes that inhabit them in parallel to their official Arab titles.
Assyrians continued to call these settlements “camps” even after they were developed into villages. The recent deracination of Khabur has tragically shown that they were prudent to carry a sense of their transience in their own mouths.
Both western and eastern Assyrian populations retain cultural traits – including festivals, dances, and other folk phenomena – distinct to them.
With the establishment of the Syrian state, some Assyrians also moved to Aleppo (which also hosted some Assyrians fleeing the genocide) and Damascus, as well as more obscure areas such as al-Thawrah.
Assyrians under the Assad regime
One has to first submit questions regarding the Assyrian relationship with the Syrian Government and Assad regime into the general understanding that, in times of peace – even enforced by tyranny – most people are not motivated by political ideology or agenda, but rather respond to their economic, familial, and communal needs. Assyrians in Syria were no exception. It is necessary to assert this platitude since many reports have depicted Assyrians as ‘pro-regime’, tapping into political fault-lines that are observed by analysts more than ordinary people.
Many Assyrians do not perceive the Ba’ath party or the Assad family as synonymous with the Syrian state, despite the stranglehold over political affairs in Syria that the regime possessed until the uprising and subsequent events. This reflected a fundamental attachment to the unitary Syrian state and its institutions which transcended their occupancy by the Ba’ath party and the Assad family. (However, the regime was certainly perceived as a safeguard against the two fundamental fears that Assyrians possess: Islamism and Kurdish nationalism.) This ethos could be described as characteristic of Assyrian populations in all the modern states in which they have resided. The broad tendency of Arab Christian political involvement, whether with the Ba’ath, SSNP, PLO or otherwise, has been ‘greaterist’, whereas Assyrian nationalism is essentially autonomist or separatist in its orientation. However, the armed Assyrian struggle ended with the Assyrian Genocide, the Simele massacre (1933), and only resumed in a lower level form in the resistance to Saddam, entering another decline in the early 90s. In the absence of a viable plan for Assyrian separatism, Assyrian social and political organisation has focused on maintaining the Assyrian presence and, at their most radical political margin (and at considerable cost) reforming the Iraqi and Syrian states, both in general terms and with a specific view to the Assyrian ethnicity and the place of Assyrians in the state.
In the case of Syria, these efforts were largely led by the Assyrian Democratic Organisation (ADO). Established in 1957, mainly by western Assyrians, the party sought democratic reform of the Syrian state as well as to secure recognition of the Assyrian identity and a more meaningful place for Assyrians within the country. ADO members who spoke out against the regime were harassed, arrested or tortured, for example, in response to publicly raising concerns over state neglect of Khabur. Gabriel Moushe, the leader of the political branch of the ADO, was arrested on December 19th, 2013, and remains in regime detention. In the final sections of this piece I will discuss the current place of the ADO in Syria.
The Assyrian Democratic Party, a small party that splintered from the ADO, was established in 1978 by Adam Homeh. In the 1990s, the ADP attempted to provide a pro-regime alternative to the ADO by, for example supporting rival Assyrian candidates for the Syrian parliament that were less oppositional to the government. It was also overtly sectarian, electing eastern Assyrians as the only ‘true’ Assyrians, and exhibiting suspicion of the dominance of the ADO by western Assyrians.
The Dawronoye were established in the mid 1990s, and will be discussed in greater detail in the final sections of this article.
The Assyrian identity and the Syrian state
The Assyrian identity is not recognised by the Syrian government. Despite this, the celebration of Akitu – the ancient Assyrian new year – went ahead largely unhindered by government interference, beyond the inevitable presence of Assad family iconography and mukhabarat. Originally an event held in private, the ADO spearheaded the expansion of Akitu into the public sphere. This process was accelerated by the emboldening of the party after the release of its leadership from government imprisonment in the mid 80s. The event gained in participation and prestige over time. These spectacular and vivid images of Akitu in Hassakah from 2002 show how meaningful the celebration is to Assyrians. A mass wedding here accompanies the festival.
Assyrian cultural and linguistic matters in Syria
An hour of instruction a week in the Assyrian language was permitted by the government, but only in Churches. The Assyrian Church of the East favors the spoken Assyrian language, a position that reflects the independent and autocephalous nature of the Church. Their championing of modern Assyrian also has its roots in the transmission of 19th century European Protestant principles, which drew an association between ecclesiastical independence and using vernacular language as a means of bringing the church closer to its adherents. The Syriac Orthodox Church teaches in Classical Syriac, exhibiting indifference and even hostility to spoken Assyrian. Small magazines reporting on church affairs in Syriac were permitted to circulate.
The curriculum appended ‘Arab’ to the names of ancient empires of the Middle East (‘Arab Assyrian’, ‘Arab Babylonian’), claiming that the populations of these civilizations originated in the Gulf, and that after the Islamic invasion, the region became homogeneously Arab. Merely challenging this dogma was an act of intellectual and, by extension, political rebellion. The one reference to Assyrians in the curriculum, which was removed under Bashar, addressed the Simele Massacre of Iraq – but negatively so, implying the Assyrians were fifth columns and traitors to the Arab state of Iraq and that their massacre was justified and necessary. The only specific government mention of the Assyrian name, therefore, was pejorative: Assyrians were acknowledged insofar as their declared ethnic separatism was associated with troublesome and treacherous behaviour which threatened the unity of the Arab state.
A small newsletter in Assyrian (and bearing the identity) was briefly distributed in the late 80s and early 90s. It was tolerated since it belonged to Assyrian parties in northern Iraq who were in opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein, a nemesis mutual to the Syrian government. Beyond that, magazines by the Assyrian opposition were distributed secretly: handwritten or photocopied in small numbers.
Origins of locally derived Assyrian security in Syria
The Syrian Arab Army began to withdraw from the remoter areas of Hassakah province in 2012 in order to buttress areas already under their control in western Syria, confining their military and security presence in Jazira to the cities of Hassakah and Qamishli. This began to expose Assyrians to the possibility of Islamist incursion, vindicated by some early incidents, as well as opening lines of fissure between Arab and Kurdish elements in the region. In late 2012 and early 2013, Assyrian men from Khabur began to quietly meet with a view to organising a local defence force to patrol and protect the villages. Their desire was to remain independent of all political parties, as well as to declare a stance of neutrality in relation to the regime, the YPG and even Islamist forces.
These planners witnessed an original flurry of registration by young men, which reached into the hundreds. They also hoped that enlistment in local security forces would help stem the rising tide of unemployment as well as Assyrian emigration out of Syria. But across 2013, emigration continued unabated, depleting the potential ranks of the guard force (‘Nattoreh’).
There were always discussions among the Assyrians of Hassakah as to whether stockpiling arms was a good idea. A consensus was never reached that it was. Once state security unravelled, the lack of readiness among Assyrians to direct their own fate was sorely exposed. Kurds, on the other hand, have been preparing for the collapse of Arab states since before the inception of those states.
The security situation in Khabur and the future of the Khabur villages
On February 23rd, in the early hours of the morning, ISIS attacked the villages along the Khabur. The whole population of the villages, which by then had dwindled to around 3000, fled to Qamishli and Hassakah. In the course of the incursion, ISIS captured 253 villagers, mainly from Tel Shamiran, Tel Hirmiz and Tel Jazira villages, and in many cases, entire families. 130 Assyrians remain in captivity. ISIS has released the other 123 captives, mainly elderly and infirm individuals, in batches across several months. It is unclear whether their release is the product of ransom payments, negotiations, or both – or whether for ISIS, elderly and sick captives are simply not worth the trouble of maintaining in captivity. Three male Assyrian captives were executed on the morning of September 23rd, on the festival day of eid al-Adha, and footage of the execution was released two weeks later.
The causes and dynamics behind the attack continue to haunt Assyrians contemplating their fate in Syria. Some villagers blame the YPG, and the MFS (Syriac Military Council), an Assyrian militia allied with the Kurdish force, for inciting ISIS through their position of open hostility towards the group — a step that Khabur Assyrians felt would unnecessarily imperil them. There is of course no way of knowing what the consequences of accepting YPG protection along the Khabur River – moving the frontier of the control of Kurdish self-administration along and beyond the villages – would have been. Nor of how committed, and at what cost to the Assyrian population, the YPG’s protection would have been. Accommodations had been made for ‘co-existence’ with ISIS in the weeks prior to the invasion, including taking down crosses from churches. Some MFS soldiers, emboldened by the strength of the YPG, had brashly and publicly restored the crosses on some churches in Khabur, alongside other belligerent gestures such as the kidnapping of ISIS militants.
It is, however, impossible to imagine that any sustainable arrangement could have prevented ISIS from entering the villages, as they did, unprovoked by any Assyrian conduct, in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq in August 2014. There is something in the psychology of the desire for neutrality in the midst of war that reflects the deep-seated sense of paralysis among the Khabur community, whose parochialism was sustained by state auspices and then badly exposed by their withdrawal.
Blame is also apportioned by some Assyrians to the ADO and other political parties for refusing to facilitate the arming of the Khabur Guards. The ADO does not support the contribution of Assyrians to the armed opposition – let alone in implicit defense of the regime or the PYD project to which they are explicitly opposed and critical, respectively. This position does not square with the stated desire of the Khabur Guards to remain independent of politics; it should be understood as a feeling of betrayal by fellow Assyrians who, as one interviewee put it to me, “used to talk a good game about the tyranny of the regime and democracy, but abandoned us and left Syria as soon as things got difficult.”
The Khabur villages are now free of ISIS, yet exist in a state of ruination
and are still heavily mined and booby-trapped. Following the expulsion of ISIS, several bodies belonging to the overwhelmed Assyrian military resistance to the incursion were discovered. There have been a few incidents of Khabur Guardsmen dying or incurring injury while patrolling the mined wasteland of the River.
ISIS, as well as the YPG and the MFS, have extensively looted the Khabur villages.
Assassination of David Jindo
On the evening of Tuesday, April 21st, David Jindo and Elias Nasser, two leaders of the Khabur guards, were abducted from their homes, blindfolded, beaten and tortured, shot at, and left for dead. As their assailants fled the scene, somewhere close to the village of Jumayla, Elias Nasser crawled to a main road where he was picked up by a passing car and taken to hospital in Qamishli.
Over the coming days, two pro-ISIS Twitter feeds claimed the attack.
I spoke to a PYD supporter who perceived the hand of the regime at work, dividing Assyrians and Kurds in Hassakah to stop what he saw as a joint project of ethnic renewal after decades of Ba’ath homogeneity. “The regime wants Assyrians to remain slaves to the church and forget their nationality,” he wrote. “The YPG trusted Jindo because he seemed like a man of his word. Why don’t people see that the PKK sacrificed a lot for Assyrians?”
As he lay in hospital in Qamishli, Elias was unable to speak owing to bullet wounds in his face and chest. But as friends went to visit him, he wrote down information conveying his certainty that his assailants were members of the YPG.
That YPG fighters were responsible for the attack came as a surprise to casual observers in the Assyrian Diaspora, who assumed, with the emergence of ISIS, that lines of combat in Syria had become morally delineated. But it was no surprise to the Khabur Guards. In the weeks prior to the assassination, a few of their leading members had been called to a meeting with YPG fighters. They customarily all left their guns and phones at the entrance. Their host brandished an AK-47 once they were seated, making it clear their options were to accept the existence of and fight for Rojava (western Kurdistan), leave Syria, or face death.
Like all the peoples of the Middle East, Assyrians have very long memories. The murder of David Jindo resonates deeply in the Assyrian imagination. There is a long and iconic list of Assyrian leaders murdered by Kurdish nationalists: Patriarch Mar Shimun, Franso Hariri, Margaret George (one of the first female Peshmerga), Francis Shabo, and so on. That many of these figures were killed in spite of their attempts to engage with, or even work under, Kurds only enhances the deeply embedded popular perception among Assyrians of an inexorable Kurdish tendency towards treachery.
The trial of the killers of David Jindo will be discussed in subsequent sections.
Assyrian security and politics under the Kurdish self-administration
The Dawronoye (“revolutionaries”) movement is arguably the most quixotic and amorphous of Assyrian political groups. The group was established as a network bridging the Assyrian Diaspora and communities in southern Turkey. Inspired by the PKK’s resilience in the face of Turkish state oppression, they operated under the auspices of the Kurdish militants, settling into a minor role as a military force in northern Iraq in the late 1990s.
In 2005, the group established the Syriac Union Party, which began to organize in Syria. With the regime-sanctioned rise of the PYD and the declaration of the autonomous Cantons in November 2013, including ‘Rojava’ in Hassakah, the Dawronoye movement finally found a true foothold in the region. The SUP called upon an expanding network of patronage and advocacy in Europe, a television channel based in Sweden, Suroyo TV, along with a branch in Lebanon, and civil society organizations in Syria under PYD auspices to attempt to entrench and expand their activities. In January 2013, the group announced the creation of the MFS (Syriac Military Council), their military wing in Gozarto. More recently, the MFS established a female division, the Bethnahrain Women Protection Forces, a clear parallel to the YPJ.
In their unveiling ceremonies, both the MFS and the HSNB lashed out against the Assad regime. The MFS noted the ‘murder machine’ of the regime killing ‘the Syrian people’, endorsed the ‘legitimacy of the Syrian people’s revolution’ in its desire to ‘bring down the Ba’ath regime’, but also emphasised a broader desire to oppose anyone who wished to further marginalise the Syriac people. The HSNB decried the dictatorship and chauvinism of the Assad regime. In a recent article on the group, HSNB fighters – again echoing the ethos of the PKK – said that their taking up of arms would help dispel “the idea that the Syriac woman is good for nothing except housekeeping and make-up.”
The SUP has been persecuted by the regime. Several members have been detained: most notably their Vice President Sait Cosar, who was arrested in 2013, and whose fate remains unknown. (His son, Johan Cosar, later relocated to Syria from Switzerland to train the MFS.) The SUP, however, is not part of the opposition, and neither the MFS nor the HSNB have fought regime forces. This is unsurprising given that the regime partly facilitated the rise of the PYD in Hassakah and has not entered into open conflict with the YPG. In exchange for a degree of autonomy and the license to control the direction of it, the PYD put down revolts by Arabs and Kurds seeking to overthrow Bashar and used the YPG as an outsource point for security aligned with regime interests: fighting opposition forces and acting as a thorn in the side of Turkey.
Many ordinary MFS soldiers are motivated by an apolitical sense that they are protecting their own in a time of flux, and have been empowered instinctively by the ethnic and communal solidarity that the MFS offers as opposed to the SAA or the YPG proper. This situation itself finds a parallel with the YPG itself, many of whose rank and file soldiers do not share the lofty and complex ideological principles espoused by the PYD’s leadership, but rather see themselves as fighting for an independent and ultimately unified Kurdistan, in contradiction to the PYD’s proclaimed distance from ethnic separatism, belief in a unified Syria, and even disavowal of belief the nation-state per se. However, Assyrians have no greater political and land aim in Syria, unlike Kurds.
The feeling of fundamental repression, especially to the extent of wanting to overthrow the regime, is rare among Assyrians, and is commoner among Kurds, who were largely denied even rights of citizenship and title and marriage deed under Ba’athism. In that sense, it is clear that the PYD – regime alliance is a political one rather than one made durable by a shared belief in Syrian unity or ideology. The anti-regime ideological stance preferred by the MFS leadership is another incarnation of the Dawronoye attempt to ground and direct their vaguely revolutionary and anti-authoritarian ethos. But their direct motivation in openly declaring this stance is less explicit. It is prospectively useful for garnering international support for their armed struggle and the ambitions of the SUP, and certainly provides a globally understandable frame of legitimacy for their endeavour, in light of the unpopularity of the regime on the world stage.
Local tensions exist between the Khabur Guards and the MFS. However, even Elias Nasser, in his first interview following the attempt on his life, made it clear that he did not want these tensions to blossom into full ethnic ‘fitna’ between Assyrians and Kurds. Intriguingly, Dawronoye attempts to provide stewardship of the Assyrian community entire extends to commemoration of David Jindo – killed by their YPG allies – as a martyr, alongside MFS fighters who died fighting Islamists, as can be seen in this MFS martyr monument in Qamishli.
This is clearly part of an attempt by the pro-PYD MFS to try to encompass the concerns of the entire Assyrian community.
The original ruling of the killers of David Jindo saw two men receive two years each, with no punishment handed to the two other individuals involved. A re-trial in July saw the sentences extended to 20 years for two of the killers, and four years and one year respectively for the other two men. Suroyo TV broadcasted footage of the trial. In the news clip, the Kurdish judge, wearing traditional clothing and presiding over a court room with a photo of Abdullah Ocalan above its entrance, speaks of the dynamics of the ruling. He points to “open meetings” that took place with Assyrian, Arab and Kurdish representatives in which the opinions of individuals and “left wing” parties were noted, and claims that these discussions led to the revised decision regarding the sentence. He asserts that the sentence will help guarantee the brotherhood and unity of all the peoples of Rojava. There is no discussion of the actual procedures and principles of the ruling: the processing of evidence, establishment of proof, and so on.
In their press release in response to the first ruling, the Bethnahrain National Council (MUB), the overseeing political body of the Dawronoye, decried the murder of David Jindo as an “unpardonable act, not only against our people, but also against Kurds and all oppressed peoples.” The statement also emphasised that the involvement of “some elements in the Kurdish Freedom Movement in the incident saddened and disappointed [the MUB] deeply, as well as our people.” (The final two clauses constitute another interesting attempt to shade their political solidarity with the Kurdish movement across the whole community of Assyrians.) The SUP claimed credit for influencing the subsequent expansion of the sentence, hinting at the political nature of the decision.
Issues of security receive disproportionate coverage in the international press and hold a powerful symbolic, imagistic, and political value. The Assyrian Diaspora imbues security forces in Iraq and Syria with the hopes of their entire destiny, which is deeply unrealistic given their small size. Similarly, the PYD has made very skillful usage of the MFS in their propaganda, frequently mentioning their Christian allies to show that the YPG is not the only force fighting for Rojava. The Russian intervention, backed by the PYD, stepped up the need for American intervention in some form in response. This was seized upon by the PYD, who put together the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’, an entity thoroughly dominated by the YPG but also containing small numbers of Arab fighters as well as the MFS. Their flag bears writing in Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian, and the map of Syria emblazoned on it – in a mischievous gesture of antagonism towards Turkey – contains Hatay Province. The YPG, therefore, has not only gained from Russian bombing of opposition targets, but has attracted American support (including specialised training) in the form of the SDF.
The current status of Assyrian security forces independent of the YPG
In May, a security force dubbed the Gozarto Protection Forces (GPF) was established. Notably, the GPF bears the same logo as the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian security force in northern Iraq, despite the lack of common political party patronage. The GPF and the Sootoro, its local security unit division, immediately took part in the defence of Hassakah in May and June. The NPU seeks sanction under the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Law), attempting to utilize the broad anti-ISIS mandate to assist in the liberation and subsequent defence of in the Nineveh Plains following the Peshmerga withdrawal and subsequent ISIS incursion into the region in the summer of 2014.
Despite the discrepancies between the overall state of Iraq and Syria, there are parallels between the NPU and GPF. Both forces seek to operate independently from Kurdish nationalist control seek sanction and support from central governments.
In November, the GPF was flown by Russian planes to assist in the defence of Sadad, a Syriac Orthodox Town north-east of Damascus that was overrun by Jabhat al-Nusra in October, 2013. The deployment of the GPF, originally a local force, to assist the SAA close to its heartland, shows signs of a potentially broader engagement with the regime, as well as reflecting the manpower problem in the SAA. The GPF received a raucous reception upon their return to Qamishli from Sadad.
The local security forces of the Guardians of Khabur and the Guardians of Tel-Tamar recently announced their merger.
Assyrians under the Kurdish self-administration: Beyond security and military matters
Social relations between Kurds and Assyrians in Hassakah have always been poor. I have never spoken to an Assyrian who has told me that their family had an intimate bond with a Kurdish (or an Arab) family, even to the extent that they would have had dinner at one another’s homes, for example. Even though Kurdish and Assyrian political parties exchanged delegations during Akitu and Nowruz celebrations, popular interest by one ethnic group in the other’s celebrations were almost non-existent. Inter-marriage is utterly taboo: both communities are endogamous. The elopement of Assyrian women with Kurdish men has often ended up with the murder of the woman by her Assyrian siblings, and occasionally both the woman and the man. Assyrian men who have attempted to marry Kurdish women have faced a similar fate at the hands of the Kurdish family, especially if they do not convert to Islam. The state treated incidents where only the ‘offending party’ was murdered as an honor crime, usually sentenced to six months, whereas if the other party was also killed it was treated as murder per se and sentenced appropriately.
Beyond questions of security, there are a series of issues that have arisen regarding the relationship of the Kurdish self-administration to Assyrians.
— Assyrian property, including the villages of the Khabur, was threatened by a law proposed in September in the self-administration parliament of Amuda on Emigrant Properties which stated that all abandoned properties – many of which were emptied due to the flight of Assyrians following the unrest in Hassakah generally and the emergence of ISIS specifically – were liable to confiscation. Following overwhelming objections by Assyrians and others, the law was overturned. The issue of land is deeply significant to Assyrians as well as Kurds in relation to the regime. Land ownership rights were a key cause of the security Assyrians broadly ‘enjoyed’ under the Syrian state, especially in light of the persecutions that robbed them of their previous homeland. They perceived their extensive and legally enshrined ownership of property and the state stability concomitant to it as a guarantor against external or partisan encroachments. The lack of land rights was a profound cause of anger and mistrust by Kurds towards the Syrian state, one dimension of the ‘de-naturalisation’ policies and broader ideological and racial humiliation, antagonism and repression of Kurds by the Ba’ath party.
With the consolidation of PYD authority over Assyrian territories and communities, these divergent positions between Assyrians and Kurds in relation to land have clashed and come to the fore, and are compounded and inflected by questions over the direction of Kurdish nationalist interests. Assyrians in Syria are aware of the extraordinary scale of Kurdish confiscation and forced annexation of Assyrian land in northern Iraq, as well as carrying memories of the same phenomenon in Turkey.
— Ongoing anxieties over the issue of conscription and military service have led to the emigration of Assyrians from Hassakah. Proven completion of SAA service will not necessarily act as a safeguard against conscription into the YPG (either proper or in the form of the MFS) or into six-month terms of duty in the HXP (Self-Defense Units). A report compiled in May by three Assyrians – Sawa Oshanne Ide, Erkin Metin, and Simon Poli, a member of the HDP – quotes members of the ADO describing harassment and arrest of Assyrians in Derik to this effect.
— The educational policies of the PYD led self-administration in the Jazira region have raised alarm among Assyrian and other Christian organizations. The ideological orientation of the curriculum has shifted from a broadly more palatable — to the broadly temperamentally and culturally conservative Assyrian community of Hassakah — combination of church-led and Ba’ath pedagogy to one perceived as being steeped in radical PKK/PYD ideology, especially in the subjects of History and Sociology. Many public schools in Qamishli have closed in response to these developments. Hundreds of Kurdish children, whose families sought to avoid enrolling their children in schools that would teach the PYD curriculum, were turned away from private Syriac schools.
Sixteen Assyrian organisations – largely ecclesiastical in orientation but also including the ADO – signed a statement on November 1st decrying various PYD policies, including the enforcement of new curricula. Negotiations are ongoing regarding the implementation of the new curriculum between the education administration of Rojava, the regime, and private schools.
More fundamentally, it is very rare indeed to come across an Assyrian, aside from those who are direct participants in Rojava, who is comfortable with Kurdish rule, or one who perceives Rojava as anything other than a project of ethnocracy and ethno-national partition. Mistrust of Kurdish nationalism is very deep in the community, expressed in Assyrian proverbs such as “do not put a Kurd in your pocket, he will not turn to gold,” and “have dinner with the Kurd, but sleep at the Arab’s house.” Any encroachment is liable to trigger fear and mistrust. The changes taking place in Gozarto, taking place against a backdrop of far more alien and ghoulish transformations across the country, have overwhelmed the Assyrian community. It is not uncommon to encounter more detailed and up to date knowledge of developments among analysts in Diaspora than Assyrians on the ground. The stability of the Syrian state, which insulated the Assyrian community while allowing it to be overseen by an entity whose perceived order, legitimacy and continuity afforded Assyrians a sense – however tempered by authoritarianism – of civic identity and national belonging, is gone.
“We can never trust them,” an Assyrian man who fled Khabur last year told me. “Arabs can be bought off, but nothing will satisfy a Kurd except a country.”
The future of Assyrians in Syria
Assyrian migration out of the Middle East is constant. A 2003 population of around one million Assyrians in Iraq has dwindled to around 400,000 today. There were 150,000 Assyrians in Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979; today, only a few thousand remain. The Assyrian population of Turkey is around 20,000. Assyrians have been leaving Syria steadily from the 1980s, and the uprising and the emergence of ISIS have only accelerated this process. Around 50,000 Assyrians remain in Gozarto. Small numbers of Assyrians also remain in Damascus and Aleppo.
As conditions in the Middle East have become more unstable and extreme, the reality and experience of the Assyrian Diaspora and homeland populations diverges further. Fewer Assyrians return to visit their families and communities. Even though the capacity of Diaspora Assyrians to engage with and support Assyrians in the homeland populations in an organized manner is increasing, the possibility for viable independent Assyrian projects declines constantly along with demographics.
I have observed a transformation in the attitudes and memories of Assyrians who grew up in an atmosphere of opposition to the regime and who now live abroad. Even more fundamentally than a shift in political stance in favour of the regime, which is relatively rare, the extent of the carnage that has befallen Syria has eroded recollections of what it was they had a problem with in relation to the government in the first place. It was almost as if the stability of the regime served as a pivot or fulcrum for their opposition stances – which usually revolved around a disdain for nepotism and corruption, a desire to promote the Assyrian ethnic identity and culture more officially, a yearning for freedom of speech and a freer media, and anger at government neglect of Assyrian areas in favour of Arab ones – which now appear remote and quaint in light of the collapse of the state and the country. Their eyes glaze over in baffled fear when contemplating the future of Syria.
The intellectual and moral stability provided by the ADO has also arguably entered into decline. The party has no firm place in Syrian political affairs today. Having thrown its lot in with the opposition, which has since transformed unrecognisably, the ADO – a member of the Syrian National Council – continues to refuse the legitimacy of the regime without being able to claim a meaningful position among the forces seeking its demise.
The psychological effect of the Khabur kidnappings, especially since so many remain captive, has been devastating. Some trepid return has taken place to the Khabur villages, which is more than can be said for the Nineveh Plains. The recent ISIS suicide bomb attack in the once majority Assyrian city of Tel Tamar, in which four Assyrians died, is a reminder of the constant threat of terrorism, against which Assyrians have no reliable recourse.
Today’s events in the Middle East echo those of a century ago. The overarching structures of political and social organisation – now of the Arab state, then of the Ottoman Empire – are giving way to turmoil, ethnic cleansing, and uncertainty. After the dividing and redrawing of borders was complete, the polities that emerged attempted to yoke together various ethnicities and sects, and Assyrians secured a diminished place within them. There is little reason to believe that the forms of organization that will emerge from the chaos in the region today will feature even the aim of co-existence, let alone the attainment thereof. In the absence of a plan for an independent Assyrian national endeavour, the Assyrian people face an existential threat in their ancestral homelands.
Hundreds of thousands of Assyrians died in the process of dissolving the Ottoman Empire and creating new states from it. The sheer scale of murder, along with the abysmal humanitarian conditions that ensued, is at least being largely spared the Assyrians of today. Also novel, however, is the phenomenon of emigration to western countries, which now contain far more Assyrians than exist in the Middle East. There is mercy here, at least for those privileged Assyrians who manage to find a secure path abroad. Along with their departure will go the Assyrian culture, language, and entire living heritage, permanently confining the Assyrian people to the annals of history.
*Mardean Isaac is a writer of fiction, journalism and essays. He has written and spoken widely on the Middle East & holds an MA in English Literature from Cambridge University and an MSt in Syriac Studies from Oxford University.
 In 2000, the Syrian Orthodox Church changed its name to the Syriac Orthodox Church.
 The Church of the East added the title ‘Assyrian’ to its name in 1976.
 The Chaldean Catholic Church is an offshoot of the Assyrian Church of the East, established in 1552 when Yuhannan Sulaqa, a Church of the East bishop, entered communion with Rome following internal disputes with his peers. The Assyrian population of Iraq is predominantly Catholic, owing to conversions that mainly took place against the backdrop of the travails of the 19th century, but the Chaldean Catholic denomination is a minority among the Assyrians of Syria.
 Meaning the ‘Arab Christian’ populations of western Syria, mainly belonging to Melkite, Greek Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox confessions.
 The western dialect of Assyrian reads the ‘A’ vowel as an ‘O’.
 Some western Assyrians, who are largely Syriac Orthodox, refer to themselves by their denominational title ‘Syriac’, an ethnically neutral translation of ‘Sur(y)oyo’. The Arabic version of this title is ‘Syrani’; ‘Süryaniler’ in Turkish. Western Syrian adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church largely describe themselves as ‘Syrani’ as a title of religious belonging, while referring to themselves as ethnic Arabs.
 In using the past tense in reference to the regime and the Syrian government in relation to Hassakah, I am not passing a definitive judgment on its future as a whole. Too many variables are at play, both within Syria and regionally, for such an assessment, and a broad discussion of the fate of the country is beyond the scope of this article. However, the prospect of the regime restoring the status quo antebellum, in particular in Hassakah, is remote. In using the past tense, therefore, I acknowledge that the norms I describe in this section are either threatened or no longer apply as they once did, and that an era of relatively stable political and social organisation has come to a likely definitive end, especially in relation to the particular matters I discuss herein.
 An old joke that reflects the ideological distance between the Arabist Syrian state and the Assyrian community goes like this: An Assyrian is recruited into the SAA. He is told that his first mission will be alongside the PLO in Tel Aviv. He asks the general, “Tel Aviv… Is that east or west of Tel Tamar [a village along the Khabur River]?”
 One instance of a slight reconfiguration in the policy of the state towards affairs related to the Assyrian and Syriac people, rather than churches, can be observed as follows. The Syriac Orthodox Church, which had hitherto never publically addressed the events of the Assyrian Genocide that led to the establishment of the western Assyrian presence in Syria, publically screened a documentary on the Assyrian Genocide in Damascus in August. This facilitation of this public commemoration by the Syrian state reflected the emergence of Turkey, the instigators of the Genocide of Assyrians, Greek and Armenians a century ago, as a foe of the regime in the civil war.
Some contemporary regime aligned media outlets refer to Assyrians as such.
 Classical Syriac is understood almost exclusively by scholars and church figures, and is spoken only by monks – in the Mor Gabriel Monastery in Turkey, for example, and erudite hobbyists.
 David Jindo was a deacon in the Assyrian Church of the East.
 The assailants also stole guns and money from Elias Nasser and David Jindo’s property.
 The term ‘Jazira’ province is derived from ‘Gozarto’, the Assyrian word meaning ‘Island’.
 The term ‘Beth-Nahrain’ – ‘between the rivers [Tigris and Euphrates]’, a Syriac translation of the Greek word ‘Mesopotamia’, is itself controversial among Assyrians. One of the most significant premises of Assyrian nationalism is a land claim. In using the ethnically neutral yet historically resonant term ‘Beth Nahrain’, parties such as the SUP and the Beth-Nahrain Democratic Party, a KRG aligned party in northern Iraq, attempt to create a vision of a homeland that is deeper than and apart from contemporary nation-states without tying it directly to an Assyrian nationalist endeavour. This narrative goes: We belong to ‘Beth-Nahrain’ – others now partake in it but we were its earliest inhabitants – whereas ‘Assyria’ only belongs to Assyrians.
 The PYD does not have a monopoly on political support among the Kurds of Hassakah, but has been able to assert itself over its rivals due to the overwhelming strength of the YPG.
 The MFS also has a local security unit called ‘Sutoro’ [sic].