“More of a coexistence than a togetherness” of Assyrians and Kurds in Northeastern Syria: An Interview with Dr. Thomas Schmidinger

By Abdulmesih BarAbraham

The 24th annual conference of the Initiative Christian Orient (ICO) was held on September 20-21,2021 in Salzburg under the title “Dis-ORIENTation – Life worlds between Orient and Diaspora.” The first day focused on the massive migration of Christians from the countries of Middle East. In addition to expert presentations, representatives of the oriental diaspora churches were provided the opportunity to talk on their personal story of migration, life in the diaspora, and on the relations to their original countries of origin. I has the privilege to be on that panel.

The second day of the conference was dedicated to the question whether there is a persecution of Christians in the Middle East or not? Dr. Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist and cultural anthropologist was one of the key speakers to talk on the issue with focus on Syria.

Dr. Schmidinger reported that the Syrian regime utilizes the fear of most Christians from Islamist and/or Jihadists to gain them as loyal citizens, and that Church hierarchy (especially Syriac Orthodox, Greek Orthodox Armenian Apostolic Church) is being very loyal to regime. As generally “Christians tend to be urban middle and upper class, they afford to flee and have been able to get asylum in Europe more easily,” he continued. He confirmed that there is an increased Christian migration but affirmed that there is “no religious persecution of Christians” in Syria.

Following the conference I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Schmidinger about the situation of the Assyrians, also known as Syriac-Aramaic speaking Christians belonging to different denominations (Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Church of the East, and Chaldean Catholic Churches). The interview was conducted in German language and translated; few addition in [] are for clarification and reference.

Dr. Thomas Schmidinger is political scientist, and social and cultural anthropologist. He lectures at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna and at the University of Applied Sciences at Upper Austria. Among others, he is also co-founder and Secretary General of the Austrian Society for the Promotion of Kurdology / European Center for Kurdish Studies, editorial board member of the Vienna Yearbook of Kurdish Studies, and on the editorial review board of the international peer-reviewed journal Kurdish Studies.

Dr. Thomas Schmidinger speaking at the ICO annual Conference on September 21, 2021 held in Salzburg, Austria.
Source: ICO – Initiative Christian Orient

Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): First of all, thank you for your willingness to accept this interview. You have just returned from Qamishly, northeastern Syria. What is your assessment of the security situation and the situation of Christians in the northeast of the country right now? 

Dr. Thomas Schmidinger (TS): Things are quiet in Qamishly, but this is not true for all parts of the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria. In the province of Deir az-Zour, the activities of the “Islamic State” have increased significantly again in recent months. Minor clashes continue to occur along the cease-fire line with Turkish-occupied territory, which also affects the Christian-majority of Tal Tamr, as it lies directly on this cease-fire line. But the relative security in Qamishly and Derik, where there are relatively large numbers of Aramaic-speaking and Armenian-speaking Christians, is also precarious in that people fear a renewed Turkish invasion. It is very questionable whether U.S. troops will be able to remain in the region after the planned withdrawal from Iraq, and such a withdrawal would then be associated with corresponding fears of a renewed Turkish invasion.

AB: According to your observations, what visible impact has the Corona pandemic and the international embargo had on the living conditions of the people in the region?

TS: The economic situation is actually worse than ever. Food prices have risen sharply, and in some cases there are shortages of certain foods. On top of that, there is also a massive shortage of water, which on the one hand is due to the climate catastrophe, but on the other hand is also due to Turkey, which is making water scarce with the large dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers; in October 2019 Turkey got its hands on the water supply for al-Hasakah and the surrounding area with the Allouk water station. For al-Hasakah and the Assyrian villages on the Khabur river, this is currently one of the most pressing problems. The Khabur river is currently completely dried-out. As a result, everyday conflicts over water are also on the rise.

AB: During your presentation at the ICO annual conference in Salzburg on September 21, you spoke about the general situation of Christians in Syria and emphasized that there is no persecution of Christians in either regime-controlled or Kurdish-controlled areas. I would agree with that, however, specifically in the northeast, there is ethnically-motivated expulsion pressure against Christians as an indigenous ethnic group. Ultimately, the Kurds are trying to secure this region for themselves at the expense of the Assyrians. How else do you explain the disproportionate rate of emigration of Christians from the country?

TS: I strongly disagree with you. I do not see any ethnically motivated expulsion pressure against the Christians as an indigenous ethnic group, and certainly not against the Assyrians you mention here. First of all, the actual Assyrians in this [Khabur] area are not an “indigenous” people group, but fled Iraq after the 1933 Semele massacre and then settled along the Khabur river between al-Hasakah and Tal Tamr. “Indigenous” were these in the Turkish-Iranian border region between Hakkari and Urmia, but there they became victims of genocide in 1915. Their villages on the Khabur river were captured by the “Islamic State” in February 2015.[1] More than 200 Christians were kidnapped at that time and could only be freed again at the end of 2016 with high ransom payments. The others fled and did not return even after the liberation of the region [from IS] in May 2015.

I also visited these villages this time and many of the villages, such as Tel Hurmuz, remain completely empty and uninhabited to this day. Many of these Assyrians have unfortunately fled abroad and now live in Germany, Sweden or the United States. If the Kurds wanted to take over this area, they would not even have to expel anyone. Nevertheless, they do not do this, but have housed their displaced people from Sere Kaniye / Ras al-Ain in tent camps, because they still hope that the rightful owners will eventually return.

The second [Assyrian-]Aramaic-speaking group, the Suryoye [2] could indeed be called “indigenous,” since they have lived in their present settlement area on both sides of the present Turkish-Syrian border long before the Islamic conquest of the region. There is no pressure for expulsion against them either. One of their most important parties, the Syriac Unity Party (SUP), is part of the self-administration. Their language is the third official language in the Jezira Canton of the Autonomous Administration, along with Kurdish and Arabic. All public inscriptions are trilingual, and the Autonomous Administration is proud of the region’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. Those who are less well integrated are the Armenian Christians, whose language has a much worse status, probably due to the fact that these are two smaller communities in Qamishly and Derik, which date back to survivors of the 1915 genocide and are thus of lesser importance in purely quantitative terms. But even they are not displaced.

Billboard and license plate depicting three languages.
Source: Dr. Thomas Schmidinger

AB: In your detailed presentation at the mentioned conference, you described Christians – you explicitly pointed to the leadership of the Syriac Orthodox Church – as generally too loyal to the Syrian regime in the context of the crisis, without addressing what their alternative would have been or is. This view ignores the fact that at the beginning of the crisis Christians, and Assyrians in particular, demonstrated for reforms throughout the country. Is the accusation of loyalty therefore not a superficial one? Moreover, is the position of Christian Churches not understandable in light of the experience of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood came to power for a short time and quickly wanted to transform Egypt into an Islamic state?

TS: During my presentation, I clearly stated that the support of the church hierarchy for the Syrian regime is not due to any enthusiasm for Assad or Baathism, but due to fear of the alternatives, especially from Islamist forces. This is not an accusation, but a statement of a fact that can hardly be disputed if one looks at the behavior of the leadership of the Syriac Orthodox Church over the past decade.

No one disputes that there are also Christians in the self-government of northern and eastern Syria and in the ranks Etilaf [3]. But these are mostly political activists and groups rather than the clergy. I do not want to judge the behavior of the church leadership morally, as this is an internal matter of the faithful. However, your comparison with Egypt makes the dilemma clear, because the support of many Coptic Christians for al-Sisi’s military coup has in turn made them more vulnerable to the Muslim Brotherhood.

AB: You also referred to the Sutooro in Qamishly as a regime militia in your lecture in the same context, although it has never been involved in fighting and only guards the central city core, which is inhabited by Christians. True, this guard force has not allowed itself to be integrated into the PYD-affiliated militia. Doesn’t this give the impression that the position-based assignments happen across the board and out of sympathy for the Kurdish cause?

TS: I pointed out in my presentation that the Sutoro has split and that the group in Derik operates within the framework of the Autonomous Administration, while the group in Qamishly operates within the framework of the regime. What is wrong with that?

AB: I don’t mind at all that you sympathize with the Kurdish cause. I noticed, that you have written several scholarly books and reports on the so-called PYD-led self-administration. It is correct that two Assyrian groups, the SUP (Syriac Union Party) and the ADP (Assyrian Democratic Party), are involved in it. But their supporters form a minority within our ethnic group. To the best of my knowledge, you have hardly mentioned in your reports the oldest Assyrian political party, namely the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), which was part of the Syrian Opposition from the beginning and co-founder of the Syrian National Council.  

TS: I don’t know how you arrived at this impression and it seems to me that you haven’t read all my texts. In my 2020 anthology titled The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria: Between A Rock and A Hard Place,” in which I wrote the only longer scholarly text on the situation of Christians in northeastern Syria, I also discuss all parties, including of course the ADO, its membership in the Syrian National Council [3], and its problems with the Autonomous Administration. Who represents a minority and a majority here is simply impossible to say scientifically. You would then also have to mention those Christians who support the Baath Party ruling in Damascus. The latter still has supporters in northeastern Syria too.

AB: Thanks for the tip on that particular book; I’ll certainly read and comment on it. What do you think of the opposition groups involved in the UN-coordinated process to negotiate a new constitution for Syria in Geneva with regime representatives and civilian delegates from the country? 

TS: I do not believe that it is my task as a political scientist to formulate my personal sympathies for certain groups. The opposition groups represented in the Etilaf are also too diverse to be lumped together and range from liberal and secular groups to very militant Islamists. What is certainly a problem is the massive Turkish influence on the Etilaf. But these groups obviously have to be part of a peace process, since they also control territory in northwestern Syria under Turkish protection and have a base in parts of Syria’s population. The problem with the negotiations in Geneva is rather that important forces that control over a quarter of the country are not involved. 

AB: As you certainly know, due to Turkey’s resistance, the PYD is not part of the country’s political opposition and therefore is not present at the constitutional meetings in Geneva. Instead, the Kurdish National Council is represented there as an umbrella organization of several Kurdish groups. The National Council is in opposition to the PYD. How do you assess the chances of a rapprochement between the two groups? 

TS: Yes, it was precisely the exclusion of the PYD, but also of the other members of the Syrian Democratic Council, from the negotiations in Geneva that I criticized earlier. As you know, there have long been negotiations between the PYD and the Kurdish National Council, mediated by the United States. Unfortunately, there has been little progress here. The parties of the National Council were allowed to reopen their offices in the Autonomous Administration, but there is still no agreement and there are always setbacks. Most recently, the attacks by a PKK-affiliated youth organization on a Kurdish National Council rally last week dealt a massive setback to the reconciliation process. As long as the conflict between Barzani and Qandil does not ease, it will be difficult in Syria because both sides will have to keep checking with their supporters.

Q: How would you assess the future of the Kurdish-led self-administration, which is very dependent on the support of the Americans?  

TS: This dependence on the U.S. is certainly a massive problem. Ultimately, the U.S. presence in Syria is certainly limited in time, and for the future of self-government, it will be crucial to find a negotiated solution with the Syrian government until the U.S. withdrawal, which will at least help them preserve some political and cultural rights. There are direct talks, but Damascus has so far rejected any autonomy or federalism. 

AB: Again and again, people are arbitrarily arrested by the police of the self-administration (e.g., here and here), and opposition party members are prevented from traveling. Only on September 21, the militia of the self-administration arrested the Assyrians George Yousef Safar and Samer Danho Kouriyeh, members of the Syrian Orthodox Church Council. How do you view the PYD’s repeated authoritarian behavior and human rights violations as a non-state militant actor with respect to opposition and specifically against Assyrians in the region? 


TS: While the self-government of northern and eastern Syria is less authoritarian than the Regime, the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham, or the pro-Turkish Islamists, that does not mean that there is a functioning rule of law and a thriving democracy here. It is just less bad than in the other parts of Syria, and the abolition of the death penalty is certainly a milestone for the region. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t human rights abuses by the self-government police. Repression, however, is not directed specifically against the Assyrians, but more generally against political opposition that cooperates with Turkey and Barzani or with Damascus. I would even say that the biggest problems there are more for the members of the parties of the Kurdish National Council, ENKS. So this repression is directed more against rival Kurdish parties than specifically against the Assyrians. In any case, it is about politics and not about ethnicity or religion.

AB: How do you see the future of Kurdish-Assyrian relations in the northeast of the country?

TS: On a day-to-day basis, these relations are good, even if there is more of a coexistence than a togetherness. For all religious minorities, however, the question is what the future holds for the region in general. The worst thing would certainly be a Turkish occupation. Then the Christians and Yezidi would probably flee from this region just as they fled from Afrin or Sere Kaniye / Ras al-Ayn.

AB: Dr. Schmidinger, I thank you for your frank answers.

———–

[1] See: Anne Barnard, “More Assyrian Christians Captured As ISIS Attacks Villages in Syria,” New York Times, February 26, 2016, http://aina.org/news/20150226171440.htm , and “ISIS Attacks Assyrian Villages in Syria, 4 Killed, Dozens Captured, Churches Burned,” Assyrian International News Agancy, http://www.aina.org/news/20150223174904.htm

[2] Suryoye/Suryaya is a self-designation, aka. Syriac

[3] Abdelahad Astepho, a representative of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation, is Vice President the Syrian Opposition groups, see: https://en.etilaf.org/general-body/abdul-ahad-steifo

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