Assyrian Christian commander: Turkey is a threat to security and stability in Syria

TEL TAMR, Syria (North Press) – In a special statement to North Press, Khabur Guards spokesman Nabil Warde stated that Turkey posed a great threat to the stability and security of the area surrounding the Khabur River in northeastern Syria, and called on the UN and guarantor countries to protect the vulnerable religious minority.

A duty for self-defense

The Khabur Guards formed in August 2012 after the collapse of the Syrian government in the Khabur region in order to protect the approximately 12,000 Assyrians living in the town of Tel Tamr and 33 Assyrian villages surrounding it. Initially formed by a five-member council, the defense group now has over 140 soldiers, including ten women known as the Nishet Khabur, or Khabur Women.

The Khabur Guards’ most arduous test of their abilities came in 2015, when the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked the area, overrunning the small and under-equipped force. Many Assyrians were massacred and hundreds were kidnapped, and released only after large ransoms were paid. With the help of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syriac Military Council (MFS), ISIS was eventually expelled from the region. 

However, with the latest Turkish operation in Syria, which began in October 2019 when the Turkish military and its affiliated armed opposition groups invaded the cities of Sere Kaniye, Tel Abyad, and their surrounding villages, the peace and stability that Assyrians hoped for was shattered once again.

Warde sees the current Turkish operation as nothing new, but a mere continuation of the same attacks his people suffered in 2015.

“Just because of the Turkish presence on the borders, before they even entered, the Assyrian people in the Khabur [region] have fear, fearing that what happened in 2015 will be repeated,” he told North Press, adding that Turkish forces “have the same mentality and ideology” as ISIS.

Hopes of return dashed

Warde explained that after the expulsion of the Islamic State by the various forces that would eventually come together under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), some Assyrians began to return to their homes, finally feeling comfortable working and living in their region.

“But since the approach of the Turks on the outskirts of Khabur, they abandoned the idea of returning to their region […] there is no safety, no stability, no life with their presence here,” he added.

A century-old genocide continues

The Khabur Guards’ spokesman did not mince words when it came to his perspective on the Turkish threat to the region, particularly when speaking about the long and violent history between the Turkish state (and its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire) and the Assyrian people.

“The only thing that we have seen from Turkey, from 1915 until now, is the same threat and the same fear,” he said, referring to the Seyfo Genocide, when Ottoman soldiers and their allied forces massacred and forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of Assyrian Christians living within the Empire, many of whom fled to modern-day Syria and settled in the Khabur region. “We will not feel secure and stable as long as Turkey is around,” he added.

“Turkey did not come here for the sake of its so-called Peace Spring operation. What kind of peace is it talking about? It made hundreds of thousands homeless, displaced them to camps during these hard times,” Warde said of the current Turkish invasion, adding that not only Assyrians, but other communities in the region, such as Kurds and Arabs, are also afraid of the Turkish attacks. Turkey threatens all the people of the region.”

A call for help

According to Warde, per the agreements made between Russia, Turkey, and the US which stipulated that the SDF withdraw their forces from the border regions, Assyrian, Syriac, and Armenian militias stand alone at the frontlines defending against any further Turkish incursions into the area.

However, Warde stated that “we, as military forces, are not a power that can resist the Turkish forces and their mercenaries.” Turkey boasts the second-largest army in NATO, and its tanks, heavy weapons, and reconnaissance and fighter aircraft would no doubt easily overrun this small militia. “All we can do is defend ourselves.”

Warde called on the UN, Russia, and other guarantor countries to intervene and protect the Assyrian people and the region’s other communities and find a solution to the Syrian crisis. “I hope that they could help us and keep Turkish aggression away from the people of the region,” he said.

“As Assyrians, we have suffered more than any other people. An entire people were uprooted and displaced in the world; an entire culture could be lost. We may not be able to bring them back to their land to live their lives in peace,” Warde added. “This is my request; we have had enough of the Syrian crisis.”

Reporting by Lucas Chapman