Image: Natalie Wu
By Matthew Petti
As the fight against ISIS winds down, Syria’s minorities once again have to choose sides in the struggle for their country’s future. Syriac Christians, also known as Assyrians or Chaldeans, are one of the smallest ethnic and religious groups in Syria. But they have an important role to play in the US presence in Syria, and by extension, the politics of the entire Middle East. The Realist Review called Syriac National Council (SNC) founder Bassam Ishak to hear his perspective on US forces and the future of Syria.
Before the interview, Ishak humbly warned the Realist Review that his perspective would be limited by his personal and political biases. But local voices like his are important for understanding the American role in the Middle East.
Syriacs, who live alongside Kurds and Arabs in northern Syria, have mostly thrown their lot in with two groups: the prewar government of Bashar al-Assad, and the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Supporters of the SDF and its “Democratic Self-Administration” claim that is it the vanguard of a multi-ethnic, secular, socialist Syria. But the its opponents accuse the SDF, which was founded by left-wing Kurdish militants backed by US special forces, of supporting Kurdish separatism and US occupation.
Last month, these tensions within the Syriac community came to a head. After several Syriac Orthodox Church schools refused to adopt the Democratic Self-Administration’s new curriculum, the National Review reported that SDF fighters forcibly shut down the schools. While the Self-Administration claimed that it was reviving the Syriac language and reversing the Assad government’s “denial of all non-Arab identities,” activists accused the curriculum of harming Syriac students’ chances at getting into university—and pushing a Kurdish nationalist agenda.
The conflict did not erupt into violence, but US forces have been dragged into previous clashes between the SDF and the central government. Whatever decision the Trump administration makes, it needs to understand what the US is getting itself into.
Below is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation with Bassam Ishak:
Thank you so much for agreeing to talk. To start off, would you be able to explain what the Syriac National Council’s role in Syria is?
You need to know how it was put together and why. It was a reaction to the experience that we were having as Syrian Syriacs from northeast Syria in 2012. In the northeast of Syria, you have three main groups, the Arabs, the Kurds, and the Syriacs. These are the three major ethnic groups. There are other groups as well.
In 2011, the Syrian National Council was established. I was a member in it. Then some of the Arabs in the council who were from northeast Syria, started a council for the tribal Arabs. And then the Kurds of northeast Syria started the Kurdish National Council. And then, in 2012, [al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat] al-Nusra came into northeast Syria and caused many Christian Syriacs to leave. They occupied churches, they arrested Christians and accused them of being pro-regime, pro-Assad. That started mass emigration.
At the time, I was a member of the Syrian National Council’s General Secretariat, so I tried to object to what was happening, because I thought, “We have a revolution to change the regime in Damascus. Not to go take over northeast Syria and to persecute Christians.” It wasn’t democracy as I understood it. I thought democracy was about human rights for all Syrians, regardless of religion or sect or ethnicity, and I thought the focus should be on Damascus, the seat of power. I was disillusioned with the whole institution of the opposition when this happened, and disillusioned more by their cold reaction—they didn’t care.
For me, it was a very close call. These were my community, my own people that I identify with, who are harmless. Even those who are with the regime—the Christians are not going to make or break the regime. As someone who respects democracy, I have to respect the opinions of Muslims, or Christians, whoever who is with the regime or against the regime. But it wasn’t the way things were done. And then I said that if I want to be true to the principle of pluralism, we have to say that we are here also. Just like there is Kurds, there is tribal Arabs, there is also Syriacs.
So this is where I got the idea of starting the Syriac National Council. The idea wasn’t just Syriacs as Syriacs, but pluralism. It’s to promote true pluralism, not just pluralism for one group or two groups, but pluralism for all, human rights for all. That was the idea why I started with other Syriacs from northeast Syria. We started the Syriac National Council. This is what we do wherever we are. We are not an institution, we don’t have a budget, we’re not registered anywhere. We’re just a loose network of people who coordinate their views together.
So the SNC does not have any official role in the Democratic Federation of North Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces?
No, the Syriac National Council doesn’t have any official, because it’s not an official entity. It’s just a sort of loose alliance of people who coordinate and check with each other on what’s going on, and try to promote pluralism for all Syrians, especially disadvantaged Syrians, which of course includes the Syrian minorities. We have a pluralistic model in northeast Syria. It’s not everything that I want, but it’s better than nothing. I feel that my call is to help improve it as much as possible. The role of the Syriac National Council is to help improve it as much as possible.
You mention that you have to respect the views of Syriacs who are pro-regime, pro-Assad. Do you have people in the Syriac National Council who are pro-Assad?
No, they are all opposition to Assad. But they are all democrats, and they do not want to impose their views on others. They are trying to change the views of others through dialogue. That’s how we do it. I am long-time opposition, my father was opposition, and I was executive director of the Syrian Human Rights Organization. I was travel-banned by the Assad regime for my human rights work.
But I am not going to try by force to change somebody’s view about anything. I will try with all my intellectual power, but not to do it by force like al-Nusra or ISIS or the other religious extremist groups who call themselves opposition.
Speaking of peaceful opposition, back in February you told the Washington Kurdish Institute that the Geneva peace talks were not working because they were not “representative of the Syrian people and regions.” How do you think the peace process has changed over the past few months.
It hasn’t changed. Actually, the more I learn, I realize that this is simply not a peace process, but a “catastrophe process.” Because now we have Mr. De Mistura, who is the ambassador trusted by the UN to manage this peace process. There was an agreement to have three groups to negotiate a local solution for Syria: one group that would represent the opposition, about fifty people; one group that would represent the regime, about fifty people; and a group of forty or fifty people chosen by Mr. de Mistura. They will be independent of both the opposition and the regime, more from the civil society of Syria.
But I have learned lately that the opposition group is mostly manipulated by regional powers, and has people who have no track record as opposition, and who would be there as a mouthpiece as these leaders in power who are putting them in the process. People from the north and northeast of Syria are vetoed by Turkey from being part of this negotiation. Also, both the opposition and the regime are now objecting to Mr. de Mistura nominating the group. That means that both of them would like to beat the other, and they don’t want a third group that will side with any one of them on each issue. Then they will be defeated.
This shows how the process can be stalled when you’re not including everybody. They’re trying to negotiate a constitution using a quota system. Turkey gets so many, Iran gets so many, Russia gets so many. How many do the Syrian people themselves get? Zero! I don’t see how this will really be reflective of the political reality, the social reality on the ground in the Syria, and consequently will not be something that will lead to long-term stability. This is the way I see it now. I may be wrong, but based on the information I have, this is what I see.
In your view, what role is the United States presence in Syria playing in all of this?
The United States is very important political actor. Them trying to balance the different actors who are seeking dominance in Syria could be positive for Syrians in the long term. I think it’s good for us as Syrians to have the US playing this role, balancing Turkey, Iran, Russia—because as Syrian minorities, with any of those dominating, we lose.
For example, if Turkey is to dominate Syria, then Turkey is going to support the Syrian Turkmen, and it’s going to exclude and marginalize the Syrian Kurds. Would that be a good way to unify Syrians and support stability in Syria? It won’t. They pit against each other―Syrians Turkmen against Syrian Kurds.
The US trying to contain Turkey’s influence and Iran’s influence—which would also lead to instability in Syria—could be used by Syrians to create something that is more pluralistic so we could have more stable and unified country. I think that this is a possibility. I don’t know if it will happen, but I hope it could happen.
In September, the United States announced that it was going to keep its troops in Syria as long as Iran had its troops in Syria. But five months before that, President Trump was saying that he wanted to leave Syria. Are you worried that the United States will change its mind again? Do you think there’s a problem with America’s intentions constantly changing?
Of course I am worried if the US was to leave Syria, because I just explained to you that their role could be positive, vis a vis Turkey and Iran’s ambitions in Syria. And Russia’s. And yes, I am happy to hear the latest comments made in September by US officials that they will stay indefinitely as long as Iran is there. We know that if Iran is there, it’s going to be hard for us as Syrians to get them to leave.
As long as Turkey is in Afrin, it’s not going to be easy to get them to leave Afrin, or leave Jerablus, or al-Bab. Turkey is a neighboring country with a huge military that nears 700,000, which is a much better equipped military than any other military force in Syria. We all saw how they were able to take Afrin with overwhelming power. So yes, we are worried if the US was to leave. We all know that without the US presence east of the Euphrates in the northeast, Turkey would come in like they did in Afrin.
So yes, we are worried, but we are happy with the comment. We look positively at the comments made. We hope that the US will continue to be present so that we are able, as Syrians, without excluding any group, to put together a political solution for Syria.
Also in September there was a kind of back-and-forth where National Security Adviser John Bolton said that the United States was in Syria to keep Iran out, but Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the US was in Syria only to fight ISIS. Do you think that the United States will stay in Syria long enough for the political process?
I don’t know if they will or not. I understand why James Mattis would say that, because he is a defense minister. He has a specific task, which is to clear up ISIS this time. But I think that the US cannot afford to leave Syria at this time, because if they do, it’s not just about Syria. It’s also about Iran’s influence in the Middle East in general. It’s about US credibility in the Middle East, and in Iraq. There are far more important goals than just Syria that can be accomplished by staying in this northeast region.
It only takes two thousand American troops. It’s not like it takes serious military presence. I don’t think that Russia or Turkey or Iran are willing to have a fight with the US. Looking at the economies of Turkey and Iran and Russia at this time, I don’t think that these guys are up for having a war with the United States.
It’s not just the United States. You have Syrian Democratic Forces, who are local, who are resisting the influence of Iran and Turkey and Russia. I think the US pushing for the Geneva process to resume soon signals that they want a fast resolution, and that they don’t want to be there for a long time. We all know that the US doesn’t want to be there forever. But if Turkey is there, they want to there forever. If Iran is there, they want to be there forever. If Russia is there, they want to be there forever.
In that sense, really we respect the US. It’s not an occupying power that wants to stay. Look at what Turkey did. They marched into Afrin and they put their country’s flag on the city center of Afrin. The US in northeast Syria has not acted like an occupying force. It’s a smaller number of fighters. They are helping the SDF, which is about 70,000 fighters. They’re very much wanted by the locals. We hope that this relationship will continue to be positive and have a good return on the SDF and the United States.
Speaking of the SDF, there was recently the incident where there was a dispute over the Syriac schools, and some Syriac groups were accusing the SDF of kidnapping journalist Souleman Yusph. Do you think that this crisis was resolved, or do you think that there will be more conflicts between the SDF and local groups in north Syria?
Well, SDF is only operating as a military against ISIS. It doesn’t get involved with internal issues. I know the incidents you’re referring to. It was not the SDF who was involved. The school issue was an internal Syriac issue that was basically between the Syriac Church, who runs these schools, and between the Syriac Union Party, which is part of the Democratic Self-Administration in northeast Syria. It was not a dispute that any other party was involved in.
I think in this dispute, others like Souleman Yusph and the Assyrian Democratic Organization wanted to be involved as well, to say “we are here, too. And we are important to this community, our opinion should be respected.” And we do respect—I think as democrats, we should respect—everybody’s opinion, as long as it is not trying to just make things fail for ulterior purposes, or just for trying to do good in the eyes of the people. Sometimes, political competition between political parties would be the motivation, not really serving the community. I think that applies to Souleman Yusph and his attack on the Syriac Union Party, and it also applies to the Assyrian Democratic Organization’s attack on the Syriac Union Party.
There was no Kurdish forces involved. Yet the Syriac Union Party wanted to teach the mother tongue language to Syriac students, just like the Kurds are teaching Kurdish as a mother tongue language to Kurdish students, and Arabs teaching in Arabic to Arab students. That was the agreement between the three components of the Social Contract [constitution] that set up the Democratic Self-Administration. But the frustration was, for the Syriacs in the Democratic Self-Administration, that these Church schools were not applying this agreement.
They kept asking for time to apply it, and the reason was that they were being pressured by the Assad regime. If they agree to teach more Syriac to the Syriac students, which they called “a curriculum other than the Assad regime’s curriculum,” then the Church will lose its school licenses in areas under regime control. So the Church didn’t want to lose its licenses for its schools in Damascus and Homs, and many other places. The regime had just given the Syriac Church recently a license to open a university in the suburbs of Damascus. If they had agreed in Hassakeh and Qamishli and these other towns to teach Syriac to Syriac students, then they would have lost all these others privileges they had. So this is, I think, where the conflict is.
The agreement that was reached was that the Syriac Union Party agreed that the churches continued to teach whatever curriculum they want for science subjects, and teach Syriac for other subjects, like history.
This was the disagreement. I think Mr. Yusph, and the Assyrian Democratic Organization—the Assyrian Democratic Organization is a member of the opposition that is based in Istanbul, and that is dominated by [Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan. [Editor’s note: the Assyrian Democratic Organization is affiliated with the Syrian National Transition Council, which is based in Istanbul, but predates the Syrian civil war by decades.] This opposition that is dominated by Erdoğan seeks every opportunity to attack this model of the Democratic Self-Administration, because Mr. Erdoğan accuses it of being a model that is run by terrorist Kurds. So it was a big media campaign.
The other thing is that they thought if they could appeal to Christians in the United States with a disinformation campaign, that the Kurds are persecuting the Christians, then they can pressure the Trump administration to stop supporting SDF and the model in Syria.
I think it was all blown out of proportion. I think it was a mistake to arrest this man, Souleman Yusph, because he is a loner, one person who writes to a small group and exaggerates and tries to twist facts to make himself look like a big leader. I think if you arrest people like this—they exist everywhere in the world, they always want to attract attention—you give them more attention. So I think it was a mistake. The Self-Administration released him very fast, like three days later.
Given how bad the relationship between the opposition and minorities in the rest of Syria is, and given historical problems between Syriacs and Kurds, why do you think that the Self-Administration in north Syria has managed to include all three groups?
There is a common suffering for all the groups at the hands of the Assad regime since 1971. So for the last almost 50 years, they’ve all suffered the same oppression. The regime oppressed Kurds and Syriacs just the same. They couldn’t teach in their own mother tongue, for one thing. This is why you see them today pushing very hard for this. Then they were pitted, one against the other. This has increased recently. The regime wants to keep reminding the Syriacs of bad deeds that happened historically by Kurds towards Syriacs.
But we know, as Syriacs, that not all Kurds are one and the same, and not all Syriacs are one and the same, and not all Arabs are one and the same! So what we have in northeast Syria are those Syriacs who believe in a pluralistic society, and power sharing, and religious freedom, and gender equality, have gotten together, and decided that this is the model that they want to promote. Now you have also Syriacs and Kurds and Arabs who are sitting in Istanbul, and they want to apply the model of Afrin, the Turkish model of Afrin. And they call it democracy! I am not quite convinced that Afrin is democratic, and that it’s a better model for Syria than the Assad regime. There’s so many reports of human rights abuses on a daily basis in Afrin, and it gets no attention, while a dispute over teaching the mother tongue language has gotten so much attention, and turned into a campaign of disinformation. And we are talking about four schools! While what’s happening in Afrin is that you have hundreds of thousands who have been ethnically cleansed, and put out, and nobody is paying attention to that. [Editor’s note: The Democratic Self-Administration claimed to have shut down 14 schools. According to Human Rights Watch, over 140,000 people from Afrin remain displaced.] And all the attention was last month on the Christian schools, and disinformation about the situation.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you, Matthew.
Matthew is a senior and Foreign Language Area Studies (Arabic) fellow at Columbia University, and a former documentary production intern at CNBC. Matthew’s work on minority rights and migration has been published in Reason Magazine, the National Interest, and America Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewpetti!