‘Religious freedoms, political restrictions’: Amid dispute over local education policy, Assyrian writer reflects on minority rights in Syria’s northeast

Syria’s majority-Kurdish Hasakah province is, for the most part, quiettucked into a northeastern corner of the country far from the front lines.

But there are signs of simmering discontent in this corner of Syria, where the Kurdish-led Self-Administration wields authority over a diverse population of Kurds, Arabs and ethno-religious Christian minorities including Assyrians and Armenians.

In late August, the Self-Administration announced a decision to shut down more than a dozen Assyrian and Armenian church-run schools across Syria’s northeast that had yet to adopt the authority’s newly established curriculum.

At least one hundred Assyrian demonstrators and local residents soon took to the streets in the city of Qamishli in protest against the decision, arguing that enforcement of the new curriculum was a thinly veiled attempt to limit their community’s political rights.

Authorities later walked back the decision. But not long afterward, Isa Rashid, an Assyrian private school director in Qamishli, was found severely beaten outside his home and in need of hospitalization.

Then, on September 30, ethnic Assyrian security personnel associated with the Self-Administration’s police force reportedly burst into Assyrian dissident writer Souleman Yusph’s Qamishli home, arresting him on as-yet unknown charges. Local media reported that the writer’s captors carried off his laptop and cell phones with them.

The 61-year-old writer has been publicly critical of both the Self-Administration and the Syrian government in Damascus.

Yusph spoke with Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou just hours before his arrest, lamenting what he saw as an uncertain future for Assyrians in Hasakah province, due to the “political restrictions” imposed on them by the Syrian government and, now, the Self-Administration that is currently in control there.

“There are many question marks surrounding the future of the Assyrians,” Yusph said, reflecting on what he viewed as a history of political marginalization that has pushed Christian communities into migrating away from northeastern Syria for many years.

Assyrians have long enjoyed nominal religious freedoms—but at the expense of real political self-determination, Yusph argued.

“In Syria, there are always religious freedoms coupled with political restrictions,” the writer told Syria Direct on Septmeber 30, before his arrest.

Following his release last week, Yusph added, “The situation of Assyrians, and Christians in general, in this region [of Syria] is a growing crisis.”

[Ed.: Read Syria Direct's feature report on Assyrian discontent in Hasakah province here.]

Q: The recent controversy over school curricula in territories controlled by the Kurdish-majority Self-Administration has caused some noise in the media, but it seems the issue is much bigger than just educational policy. Can you talk about the recent history related to Christian minorities’ political and civil rights in and around Qamishli and Hasakah province more broadly?

In Syria, there are always religious freedoms coupled with political restrictions.

The Assyrians, including Syriacs and Chaldeans as well as the wider community of Syrian Christians, enjoy an acceptable margin of religious and social freedoms. But at the same time, [they] are deprived of their national and political rights.

Syria’s constitution contains sectarian articles that restrict [Christian communities’] rights to full citizenship. According to the constitution, the main religion of the state is Islam, and Islamic law is the basic source of legislation.

Racist articles like these undermine—from the outset—the possibility to transform Syria into a civil state enshrining equality and justice for its citizens.

[Ed.: Syria has no official state religion, in accordance with the constitution adopted in 2012. However, the previous constitution in place from 1973 until 2012 stipulated that the president be Muslim and that legislation be drawn from Islamic jurisprudence.]

So the Arab regime deals with all of the Syrian Christians on the basis of them being “Arab Christians,” which denies them their specific identities, histories and cultures.

This is what the Assyrians will not accept—having their rights limited to just some religious rights. You don’t find Syriac language learning in any government schools throughout Syria; teaching of the Syriac and Armenian languages in church-affiliated schools happens within the framework of “religious rights” that Christians have enjoyed since the emergence of the modern Syrian state. But these schools teach Syriac and Armenian as ecclesiastical languages, and not on the basis that it is a national, cultural and linguistic right granted by the Syrian state to the Armenians and Assyrians.

A Sutoro security officer attends a rally in Hasakah in September. Photo courtesy of Sutoro.

The Assyrian language can’t be found in any state-run television programs or radio stations, and there is no constitutional recognition of the Assyrians as a nation of people. It also changed the names of most Assyrian villages in the Jazira region of Syria.

[Ed.: One example of “Arabization” of local geographical names is that of al-Malikiyah, a town in Hasakah province’s far northeastern corner. According to a recent report by the Brussels-based Assyrian Confederation of Europe, the town’s historic Assyrian name is Dayrik—similar to its Kurdish name, Derik.]

Q: Some say that the Self-Administration’s policies are pushing local Christian minorities to leave Syria. Do you feel this is true?

The Kurdish Self-Administration talks about the Assyrians, Armenians and Christians altogether in general as if they are living in a “Kurdish paradise.” However, their actions undermine those statements.

The Assyrians emerged from Arab tyranny only to fall back under the tyranny of Kurdish [Self-Administration]. On April 22, 2015, an armed group belonging to the Kurdish Democratic Union party militia assassinated Dawoud Jundo, a leader in the Assyrian Khabour Guards and his assistant Elias Nasser, who miraculously survived despite being critically injured.

[Ed.: The Khabour Guards is an Assyrian militia formed in the early years of the Syrian conflict that is associated with the loosely pro-Baathist Assyrian Democratic Party. The militia runs a number of checkpoints in Assyrian-majority areas and villages.]

In January 2016, the Asayish forces by night attacked checkpoints and fortifications put up by the Sutoro in the central district of Qamishli. It was as if what happened, and is still happening, is focused on the areas with a majority-Assyrian and Armenian Christian population as a “punishment” for residents of these areas outside the authority of the Kurdish Asayish.

[Ed.: The Sutoro are an Assyrian police force subordinate to the Self-Administration’s Asayish security forces in northeastern Syria, and are active in Christian-majority districts. However, the branch of Sutoro attacked in the January 2016 incident were reportedly Syrian government-affiliated, rather than belonging to the Self-Administration’s own security apparatus.

Assyrian society, and Christians in general, have expressed resentment over the interference of the de facto authorities, the Kurdish Self-Administration, in the lives and affairs of the people. In October 2015, a number of churches, as well as [Christian] organizations, political parties,civil society and social committees in the Jazira region released a statement of general protest in which they denounced the laws and decisions of the Kurdish administration—[including] enforcing mandatory military conscription; issuing a law on the acquisition of property of emigrants as well as imposing the Kurdish educational curriculum.

The statement warned of the dangerous consequences of these laws and arbitrary decisions that haven’t been thought through, and what they would cause as a result, including social discord. The statement also accused the Kurdish administration of seeking to seize Christian property, including real estate and farmland on the pretext of investing it for the benefit of society. This is pushing Christians to emigrate from their historic areas, creating a demographic gap that threatens the existence of Assyrians and Christians in Jazira.

So there are many question marks surrounding the future of the Assyrians and Christians.

Q: At the same time, there are Christian figures working in high-ranking positions within the Self-Administration. How do you square their role given the abuses experienced by Assyrians and other Christian communities in Self-Administration territories?

The establishment of what is usually called the Kurdish Self-Administration came from one side. It wasn’t born out of some framework for a national democratic project giving the people of the Jazira region the opportunity to participate effectively in local administration, development or the heritage of diverse local cultures and languages (whether Assyrian/Syriac, Kurdish, Armenian or Arabic) that help enrich the region.  

Self-Administration is a Kurdish nationalist project that the Kurds are working towards, by exploiting the security and political conditions in Syria that have plagued the country [since the outbreak of the conflict after 2011].

The Self-Administration established what is often called “Syrian Kurdistan,” “West Kurdistan” or “Rojava”: terms that exclude the Assyrians in the same way they exclude all other Syrians.

The [administrative] bodies and the councils of the Kurdish administration have been supported by Assyrian Christian members, but their presence is symbolic and decorative, meant to beautify the administration for the benefit of local and external public opinion—and nothing more

Q: Given that Syria’s Jazira region has seen large displacements and migrations of Christian communities, do you expect those communities to return one day?

Migrations by Syriac-Assyrian Christians represent a kind of continuous bleeding-out from communities that has been taking place ever since the Baathist coup in 1963, and [the Baathists’] chauvinistic policies against Assyrians and all those who are non-Arab. Without a doubt, the ongoing conflict in Syria has only increased those migrations of Christian communities—along with other segments of society—from the Jazira region.

Calls are always being made by ecclesiastical and national authorities that Syriac-Assyrians and Christians should cling to their land and not migrate. But the reality on the ground is far harder than those authorities can imagine.

Opportunities [to return] may present themselves in the future—if Syria returns to being a stable, secure state governed by a democratic, civil regime that respects justice and equality for all its citizens.

But those opportunities, for people who left their land and home to return, are currently limited—not least because the conflict is ongoing. The duality of power between the Syrian regime and the de facto Kurdish authorities has created chaos.

How are people expected to return to an unstable country, and to uncertain futures?

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.