Assyrians along the Khabur River face Extinction
By Lazghine Ya’qoube
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (with all of its relentless ramifications) and the Arab Spring in 2011, have had colossal impacts on Assyrians in the Middle East in general, and in Syria (Rojava) and Iraq (Kurdistan Region) in particular. These impacts have been magnified by the fact that Assyrians have continually fallen prey to radical Islamist-extremist groups ever since.
While the ancient history of the Assyrian people as an ethnic group is shrouded in uncertainty, they were undoubtedly one of the first peoples to embrace Christianity in the first, second, and third centuries. However, this religious aspect of their identity has then made them targets of persecution for centuries.
Being heirs to one of the greatest and mightiest early empires, Assyrians have been one of the most deeply rooted nations in Mesopotamia. For instance, they were the only Christians to flourish during the Sasanian Empire (224-651 AD). However, their recent history has been marked by persecution, ethnic cleansings, and forced migration. Since antiquity, endless controversial debates have been produced over whether “Syria” has a linguistic connection with “Assyria”, with many theories suggesting the former is a corrupt form of the latter, while others oppose such a hypothesis.
In retrospect, the Assyrian question (or rather dilemma) first originated in the aftermath of World War I, when upon dismantling the Ottoman Empire, colonialist powers reneged on pledges made to various peoples under the Ottoman yoke during the war. Following that, the Assyrian question recurrently posed itself in search of a settlement. Yet, the collective agony of the Assyrian people has unfortunately remained unaddressed since 1918.
More recently, however, and within the context of the false dawn of the so-called Arab Spring, the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unleashed horrendous violence against religious minorities. The two most notable cases of such atrocities were the Yazidis in Şengal (Sinjar) and the Assyrians in Hasaka, though it must be said that the former suffered far more devastation comparatively.
Emergence of ISIS
In January 2014, ISIS declared Raqqa as its de-facto capital. At the height of its rule, the Islamic State held about a third of Syria. On June 10 of the same year, ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city where Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Turkmen, Shabak, Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians, Sabaean-Mandaeans, Kakais among others had lived for centuries.
On June 29 of 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered a religious sermon in Mosul’s al-Nuri Mosque, announcing the existence of the Islamic State Caliphate, and thereby installing himself as the Caliph. The new caliphate straddled large parts of Syria and Iraq, which was also one of the last remaining places where Assyrians resided.
ISIS had its roots in grievances harboured by Sunni Iraqis towards the Shiite-controlled states in Baghdad and Damascus, with its initially declared aim being to depose “heretic” Iraqi (Shi’ite) and Syrian (Alawite) regimes. Eventually, however, it embarked on a campaign of abduction, forced conversion, and mass murder against all religious minorities in areas it captured and held.
The newly formed Islamic State issued a number of decrees regulating its newly formed hierarchies, including more strict and puritanical religious laws, which gave the upper hand in the Caliphate to loyal Sunni Muslims, thereby marginalizing or rather dehumanizing all other sects or religions. Consequently, the ethno-religious diversity which distinguished Mesopotamia historically was soon to be curtailed.
On July 14, 2014, it was announced that if Christians wanted to live under the umbrella of the self-proclaimed Caliphate, they should either embrace Islam, pay Jizya (tax to Muslims), or leave ISIS lands within five days—under threat of being put to the sword.
Traditionally, in the Middle Eastern areas where Muslims ruled, Christians had been classified as “People of the Book” (owing to the same lineage through Abraham/Ibrahim) and been protected by giving Jizya (taxes). However, to justify its exclusionist approach, the Islamic State falsely dubbed Christians as “People of the Cross”.
Under ISIS, adherents of religions considered infidel or apostate (including Yazidis) were to either convert, or face death. Essentially, all non-Sunni-Salafist Muslims who did not agree with the ISIS worldview, were to be subject to expulsion or forced conversion. Then on August 7th, 2014, Iraq’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, fell under the heel of the Islamic State. The ultimatum to convert to Islam or face death resulted in mass panic and displacement.
Elsewhere in Syria, as the ISIS Caliphate was escalating, it sought unsparingly to storm the city of Hasaka (Heseke in Kurdish / Hasake in Syriac). Failing that, an easy prey was lying further west. At predawn of February 23, 2015, descending from Mount Kazwan (Abdul Aziz), fighters of the Caliphate opened a full-front engagement against all Assyrian villages on the southern bank of the Khabur River, which was flowing heavily that night. The ill-equipped forces of Nattoreh (the Assyrian self-protection units) could not repel the attack, and nine people were killed while defending their villages.
The unusually high levels of the Khabur River – flowing from Turkey – prevented people from seeking safety elsewhere. Eventually, 253 people (58 children, 82 women, and 113 men) were taken hostage. Initially, there had been informal protection granted to Assyrians by the Islamists. However, early in February, the village of Tal Hormuz was attacked. Crosses were removed from churches, while headstones and graves were destroyed. It was a precursor of what was to follow days later.
The geographical concentration and territorial isolation of Tal Tamr (Girê Xurma in Kurdish) had its role in making the Assyrian people even more vulnerable. Assyrians were living in remote and largely exposed pastoral villages. Additionally, they were also falsely perceived as loyal to the ruling regime in Damascus, which served as an additional excuse for their persecution. On February 25, 2015, the United Nations Security Council condemned the abduction by the Islamic State of Assyrians from Hasaka. That approach, however useless in protecting the Assyrians, remained the dominant narrative in relation to diplomatic statements internationally. Yet, since the Assyrians are a stateless people, they were left friendless.
Consequently, nearly 900 families fled their homes in the aftermath of the attack; 700 settled within the city of Hasaka, while the remainder headed to Qamishli further northeast. Meanwhile, ISIS extremists then destroyed properties and holy places on both banks of the Khabur River. Among those damaged were the Virgin Mary Church (built in 1934), which was rigged with explosive devices and blown up on April 5, coinciding with the day marking Easter.
ISIS militants then destroyed 11 further churches in the subsequent months. These included: St. Mary Church, (Tal Nasri), St. John Church, (Tal Jazira), St. Bishu Church, (Tal Shamiram), St. Slewa Church, (Tal Talaa), St. Shimun Church (Abu Tina), St. Qiryaqos Church (Qabr Shamiya), St. Shimun Church (Tal Baluaa), St. Shimun Church (Kharita), St. Qiryaqos Church (Tal Maghas), St. Odisho Church (Tal Taal), Raban Pityou Church (Tal Hormuz).
Earlier in the month, the murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya, served to further terrify the captives that they may face a similar end. However, this time, captives were each asked to pay a $50,000 USD ransom for their freedom, or they would be executed.
Following strenuous negotiations, played in large part on the Assyrian side by the Hasaka-based bishop Mar Afram Athneil, the captives were released one after another. However, this was after exorbitant ransoms sent from the community members abroad were paid. On May 26, 2015, two elderly women were freed. On June 16 another man was released. On August 11, another 22 were liberated. However, on September 23, the day marking Eid al-Adha, Abdul Masih Azraya Noya, Asur Perwer Rastam, and Bassam Michel Issa were killed by an ISIS firing squad. In October, footage was aired by the group’s affiliate media outlets showing the gruesome murder of the three innocent men. Many more were threatened with a similar end if ransoms were not promptly paid. The murder on Eid al-Adha was seemingly to incite religious hatred.
In November 2015, 37 elderly people, mostly in their 60s and 70s were released. That was followed by another batch of releases in December where 22 women and children were freed. In January 2016, another batch of 16 people were released. On February 22, 2016, 42 captives arrived in Hasaka. Maryam David Talya arrived a month later, being the last to be freed. The amount of money exchanged to secure the hostage’s freedom has never been revealed.
The Assyrians of Tal Tamr – whose presence in Hasaka dates back to 1933 – follow the Church of the East, which broke lines with the Catholic Church in 1692. Ruled by the Mar Shimun line, with headquarters based in the Hakkari village of Qudshanis, they enjoyed a kind of a vassal enclave up to 1915.
However, as northern Mesopotamia was initially a recognized Russian sphere of influence according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), which imposed the foundation stone for the partition of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia was eager to pay court to different peoples living in the region. Russia was thereby supportive of the creation of an Assyrian entity in northern Mesopotamia.
Late in 1914, Sheikh Abdul Salam of Barzan, the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Shimun Benjamin, and the Armenian military commander Andranik Ozanian visited Tblisi (Tiflis) to meet Russian officials. While details of the meeting(s) remain sketchy, the impact of the trilateral discussions were to unravel soon. Returning from Tiflis, Abdul Salam was trapped, captured, and eventually hanged to death by the Turks in December 1914. Months later, in April 1915 to be exact, Mar Shimun declared war on the Ottoman Empire, rendering invaluable help to Russia. However, following the Russian withdrawal from the war in the wake of the October Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Assyrian nation was abandoned.
To make matters worse, Mar Shimun was treacherously killed in March 1918. This murder was a turning point which resulted in the Assyrians being leaderless. In turn, the Assyrians and Armenians formed a line of defense against the advancing Ottoman forces, but not for long. Had the Assyrian commander Petros Elia of Baz coordinated with Ozanian, they would have been able to keep their hold on Urmia until the Mudros Armistice was signed, but both commanders were defeated by the Turks, one after another. Petros was a tactician but not a strategist, resulting in his ultimate defeat with tragic consequences.
On July 8th, a plane piloted by British Captain K.M. Pennington landed in Urmia with a scheme. Pennington had a letter from the Commander-in-Chief of the British troops in Mesopotamia, saying, “We are aware of all your exploits and your bravery against the Turks. Resist yet three or four days more, and we will arrive with help, we are at Sain Kaleh and Pizhder.”
On July 31 – three exact months ahead of Mudros – and on the day Urmia fell to the Ottomans, the Assyrians left the city. The masses of displaced people reached Sain Kaleh on August 3. Moving 300 miles south-eastward in disordered retreat with their families, livestock, and possessions, the nation arrived at Hamadan on its last legs on August 21, having been nearly decimated on the road. From Hamadan, where a small British detachment resided, survivors were relocated to Ba’quba, where a modern city of refugees was founded under Britain’s supervision. In Iraq, destitution and inflated by British promises to return home, Assyrians were enlisted in the Levy Forces. Unfortunately, the Assyrian people were unknowingly brought into the shifting sands of British policy and national interests.
The Armistice of Mudros which came into effect on October 31, 1918, and officially declared the Ottoman Empire as a dead entity, gave rise at the same time to legal – though controversial – grounds for further Allie occupations of territories still held by the Ottoman Empire when the deal was signed. The dispute over the takeover by the British forces of Mosul, lay at the heart of the Assyrian plight. Dictated by victorious Allies, Mudros set new borders in the Middle East, ushering in endless political disputes and most importantly long decades of oppression to which Assyrians, among many others, had their bloody share.
The idealist notion of self-determination, coined first by American President Woodrow Wilson, raised the hopes of peoples formerly under Ottoman rule. Great Britain and the U.S. (pushed by oil-related reasons and promises from Great Britain) denied the Assyrian delegates the right to present Assyrian demands (to return home and have a separate entity) at the Paris Peace Conference.
While the initial peace treaty of Sevres guaranteed full protection of Assyrians, the Lausanne Treaty omitted such a scheme. The question of restoring the Nestorians to their homeland was not raised at all. Consequently, they were not permitted to return to their ancestral lands. The Mandate over Iraq by Great Britain raised Assyrian hopes of a peaceful solution, in either returning home or be treated as a nation within the Iraqi state. As the “Mosul Affair” was eventually excluded from the second round of Lausanne Conference, the dispute over the former Ottoman vilayet of Mosul (roughly overlapping the current day Kurdistan Region of Iraq) became a contesting issue between Great Britain and Turkey.
However, Britain succeeded in reducing the issue to an “exact” delimitation of the northern border of Mosul. Yet while Britain on the surface allegedly sought to include Beit Shabab (Elki in Kurdish), Julamerg, and Shamdinan in the newly invented state of Iraq, the strategic aim was to secure a border that could guarantee the defense of Iraq against any Turkish invasion. To serve that end, Britain used Assyrians as a pressing card against Turkey.
When the issue reached a deadlock, Great Britain referred the case to the League of Nations, which on December 16, 1925, handed Mosul over to Iraq. While Turkey was begrudgingly assuaged with 10% of oil revenues for 25 years, the issue fell short of Assyrian expectations. Their homes remained in Turkey, while they became a minority in Iraq, while they were also isolated culturally and environmentally. While the decision of the League of Nations – the precursor body to the United Nations – dashed Assyrian hopes, it marked a new era of migration and displacement.
Nearly at the same time and following the repression by Turkish forces of the Sheikh Said Rebellion in 1925, Assyrians in Azakh were systematically targeted and accused of mediating between the Kurdish Sheikh Said and the British Mandatory authorities in Iraq to provide the Kurdish resistance with arms and ammunition. While the Turkish version of the mediating role played by the Assyrians could not be verified, oppression was unleashed in Azakh.
Essentially, the proposal to settle Assyrians in northern Iraq failed. In 1932, as the British Mandate was drawing to a close, the Assyrian people refused to become part of an Arab-predominant state of Iraq. Instead, they chose to be recognized as a “nation within a nation.” The damage caused during the Simele Massacre in August 1933, which has since been marked as the Assyrian Martyr Day, was beyond repair.
The Simele massacre served as the final blow to settle Assyrians on Iraqi soil. And showing how history always haunts the present, the Assyrians of today are the grandchildren of the Simele Massacre’s survivors. From 1933 up to 1935, the Assyrians of Hakkari were relocated to the Syrian Jazira, which was at the time under the French Mandatory authorities. Turkey conditioned that France settle Assyrians some 50 km distance to its borders.
According to Assyrian figures, nearly 17,000 people crossed into Syria in 1933-1935. Due to the French, and against voices of Syria’s political elite represented in the National Bloc, Assyrians were granted Syrian citizenship. Since then, they have lived in 33 villages along the Khabur River extending between the city of Hasaka and the town of Tal Tamr. The latter remained purely Assyrian up until the 1960s. However, from the 1970s up to the 1990s large numbers of Assyrians migrated to Australia, Canada, and the United States among other countries.
Yet, prior to 2011, there were still nearly 17,000 Assyrian people in Tal Tamr affiliated to the Assyrian Patriarchate of the Church of the East in Syria. But by 2015, that number had already been reduced by half. Then following February 2015’s attack, 90% of the population living on the Khabur River left their villages. As the years 2015-2016 marked the culmination of the Christian exodus from Syria, including Assyrians. Tragically, today, less than 1,500 Assyrians live in Hasaka and Tal Tamr.
Continuing Turkish Aggression
Exacerbating the tragedy, since Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” in Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tal Abyad (Girê Spî) in 2019, Tal Tamr has become a frontline between Rojava’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Turkish-backed mercenaries of the Syrian National Army (SNA)—a group whose barbarity is not that different from the ISIS extremists which preceded them.
As a result, the Assyrian villages of Tal Tawil, Um Waghfa, Tal Kefji, Um al-Keif, Tal Juma’, Tal Ahmar, and Tal Shanan are constantly shelled by Syrian opposition factions, or bombarded by Turkish war planes and drones. In May 2022, Turkish forces targeted the Assyrian village of Tal Tawil causing structural damage to the Mar Sawa Church, and a number of villages have been rendered inhabitable. Moreover, isolated Turkish drone strikes are ordinary occurrences in Tal Tamr, sporadically induced by Ankara to terrorize the population into leaving.
In the aftermath of Turkey’s operation, mass numbers of people fleeing Sere Kaniye relocated to Assyrian villages on the Khabur. Initially meant to be temporary, the settlement has become a permanent one, arousing Assyrian fears of unintentional demographic change with the passage of time. For their part, the Assyrian people say they have been betrayed by the international community.
Today, Tal Tamr occupies a vitally important position. The town which is located at a juncture on the strategically important Aleppo-Hasaka highway, commonly referred to as the M4, is a contested point between U.S., Russian Forces, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey, and its affiliated SNA.
Regrettably, it seems the systematic agony of the Assyrian people is meant to trail on endlessly. A century ago, the Assyrian people were uprooted from their historical lands. Like the Kurds, they were ignored by the international community represented then by the League of Nations. The recent Assyrian plight also bears a striking resemblance to that of the Yazidis of Şengal. Attacked by the same radical group, both communities have been shattered and dispersed. As their voices go unheard, in the Middle East, history could and usually does repeat itself.