Where Is Our Voice? A Look At the History of Assyrians in the Middle East

by Anet McClintock

“Wherever we go we are refugees and all alone. We left when the situation in our area started to deteriorate…no one helped us,” seventeen-year-old Nineveh notes to Al Jazeera reporters, after two of Syria’s biggest Assyrian towns were attacked and decimated by ISIS fighters in 2015. For the Assyrian community, this was only one of the more recent targeted attacks. Today, there are between two and three million Assyrians, but only half of the community still resides in the Middle East. In the chaos that followed the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, the voices of Assyrians were drowned out. How did this ancient Mesopotamian civilisation, which predates both Christianity and Islam, become a diaspora community of just a few million? Why were they forced to leave their homeland?

The Assyrian community is the last sizable community in the Middle East to speak neo-Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, one of the oldest languages in the Middle East. Aramaic is the language parts of the Christian Bible and the Jewish Talmud and Torah were written in. It was the language the Biblical figure Jesus Christ spoke. Modern day Assyrians are descendants of the Assyrian Empire, which came to an end in 612 B.C.E. The Assyrians were among the first to adopt Christianity and establish a church – the Assyrian Church of the East, founded by the apostle Thomas in 33 C.E.. By the Middle Ages, the Assyrian homeland spanned parts of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Despite their continued presence in the region, the Assyrian community has a long history of persecution in the Middle East. 

The community first faced threats from the rise of the Islamic Empire as it spread north and east across from Arabia to its borders with the Byzantine and Persian Empires. Some Assyrians converted to Islam, but many remained faithful to the Assyrian religion. The invasion of the Mongols in the fourteenth century also destabilised and displaced much of the community and many Assyrians were forced to flee into the mountainous Hakkari region of modern-day Turkey.

Although some Assyrians began migrating to Europe and North America in the late nineteenth century, it was during the twentieth century that the widespread persecution and consequent exodus took place. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire declared a jihad against the “enemies of Islam”, and hundreds of thousands of Assyrians were massacred. Between 1915 and 1917, approximately 750,000 Assyrians were massacred by Ottoman and Kurdish forces. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the remaining Assyrians were expelled from Turkey. Widespread persecution led many to flee to Syria and Iraq. The French and British mandates of the newly established countries forcibly recruited the fleeing Assyrians into their armies to fight against growing independence movements. Predictably, locals were resentful of Assyrians who were fighting for the colonial oppressors. Thus, when Britain withdrew from Iraq in 1933, the Iraqi forces took revenge by targeting more than sixty Assyrian settlements. An estimated 1,000 Assyrians were brutally murdered and many of those who survived were either forced to convert to Islam or flee to neighbouring Syria.

The Assyrian community continued to be oppressed throughout the twentieth century. Persecutions took place in Iran (1948), the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Iraq (1970s) and the Gulf War (1991). The largest were during the late eighties, when Assyrians were again targeted in Iraq. Hundreds of Assyrian monuments and churches were destroyed. Upwards of 700,000 Assyrians were either killed or forced to flee Iraq. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, an additional 600,000 Assyrians left Iraq. The Assyrian community has a complex history. Their relationships with the regimes under which they live have typically been fraught. This has led to immense suffering during times of violence and instability. 

The arrival of the US-led coalition in Iraq in April 2003 was the catalyst for the complex, destructive and highly sectarian conflict that followed. The war encompassed many groups including the majority Sunni leadership, the Shia minority, the Kurdish community, various ethno-religious minority groups, Islamist groups, and foreign countries. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) within the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in Iraq have sought to gain control of the region from Saddam Hussein’s government after decades of forced expulsions and racial violence. As part of this campaign, the Kurdish authorities attempted to consolidate control over the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, the historic home of the Assyrian community. A necessary component of this consolidation was the oppression of the local Assyrian community. The Kurdish authorities undertook an extensive campaign of Kurdification. This involved a range of oppressive acts such as intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests and detentions, coercion, and torture, in response to Assyrians who challenged Kurdish authority.

Simultaneously, the Assyrian community was facing repression from the Islamic insurgents in Iraq. Many of the Islamist groups in the Iraqi conflict, such as al-Qaeda, issued a ‘declaration of jihad’ against the United States, branding the country and their “alliance of Jews [and] Christians” as enemies of Islam, a grouping which includes Assyrians in the area. Since 2003, dozens of Assyrian churches have been bombed by Islamists, Assyrian priests have been beheaded, and multiple Assyrians have been abducted and killed. An attack on an Assyrian church in October 2010 by an al-Qaeda affiliate killed at least 56 Assyrians. A report by Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights has noted that these attacks were “targeted” and “systematic”. Since 2003, an estimated 600,000 Assyrians have fled Iraq, and many of these Assyrians have relocated to Syria.  

Unfortunately, the Assyrian community could not find stability in Syria.  During the 2011 Arab Spring, widespread protests took place in Syria. These quickly turned into anti-government revolts. Notably, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the Alawites, a Muslim minority in Syria. The Assad government responded to these revolts severely by killing thousands and detaining protestors arbitrarily. In 2012, the violence increased exponentially, not only as the Assad government’s forces increased large scale military operations, but as several pro-government and opposition militias emerged. Pro-government militias known as the shaheeba formed, defected Syrian soldiers formed the Free Syrian Army, and several Islamist organizations such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and several smaller groups emerged. Similar to events in Iraq less than a decade earlier, where the KRG terrorised any Assyrians who questioned their authority, the Kurdish forces took advantage of the instability and resulting political vacuum in Syria by attempting to consolidate control in the north while government forces were occupied in central and southern Syria. In mid-2012, the Democratic Union Party (PYK), the largest Kurdish political group, began seizing control of Kurdish towns and setting up checkpoints.

The Kurdish community in Syria is largely concentrated in the northeast, predominantly the al-Hasakah Governorate. This is also the area with the largest concentration of Assyrians. The city Qamishli has been essential to Kurdish forces’ strategic objectives in Syria owing to its large Kurdish population and its proximity to Turkey. Tensions rose between the Assyrian community, which constitutes an estimated twenty percent of Qamishli, and the Kurdish forces. Many Assyrians in the area believe the Kurdish forces will attempt to secede from Syria. Some Assyrians have asserted that “[Qamishli] is not Kurdistan”, and as such will not support Kurdish succession. This resulted in a clash between Kurdish and Assyrian forces over control of Qamishli. However, two months after the first revolt in Deraa in early May 2011, 3500 Kurds and Assyrians also protested against Bashar al-Assad in Qamishli. This is to demonstrate that the loyalty of the Assyrians lay neither with the Kurds nor with the Assad regime. This situation left the Assyrian community in a vulnerable position, and it became increasingly difficult for Assyrians to practise cultural rituals, and they faced ongoing human rights abuses. The Assyrian community became increasingly fearful that amongst the chaos and turmoil of Syria they will suffer the same fate as their Iraqi counterparts when thousands of Assyrians brutally suffered as the Kurdish forces fought for autonomous control, and jihadist groups staged widespread terror attacks during the Iraq War. 

It seems their worst fears became reality. ISIS brutally targeted Assyrians, not only for their ethnicity, but for their religion. In 2015 alone, more than 200 Assyrians were kidnapped by ISIS, and at least three of the hostages were executed. Dozens of Assyrian villages have been flattened by ISIS forces, and all but one church in Syria has been decimated. It has been almost ten years since the start of the Syrian Civil War. The War has gone through many phases, and many were speculating that the War was coming to an end after ISIS lost all its territory in 2019. However, the struggle for power in Syria persists, and the full extent of the consequences of the war remains to be seen. For Syria’s Assyrians, the war was devastating. Before the war began in 2011, 10 000 Assyrians lived in thirty villages across northern Syria. Today, only 900 Assyrians remain, with many of those thirty villages completely abandoned.

The position of Christians in the Middle East is always tenuous, but especially during times of instability, violence, and sectarian conflict. It is always these minority communities that are impacted the most. These communities are most at risk of having their voices drowned out amid large and complex wars. An Assyrian living in Lebanon lamented to Al-Jazeera reporters, “The Syrian army doesn’t protect us, nor do the Kurds, and neither does the international community. We are left to fend for ourselves. What are we supposed to do?” Through telling the history of these communities, both in times of prosperity and peril that the full extent of the atrocities of war becomes clear.

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