Kurds, Christians and Security in Syria

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Kurds, Christians and Security in Syria

Posted on: 7th July 2014
Balint Szlanko
Freelance Journalist covering the Middle East

The police officer looked at the driver's documents, inspected the boot of the car and then waved him through. Every hour dozens of cars pass through this checkpoint on the outskirts of Derik, a town in northeast Syria. Kurdish security forces are trying to maintain a tenuous peace not far away from the frontline where fighting has been going on for more than a year against Islamist radicals and other Arab rebels.

This police officer, however, is not Kurdish. He is Christian, a member of the northeast's Syriac minority. "The police is not just for Kurdish people, it's for all people living in this area," says Fadi. "I came to work with them because they are working to secure [this area], to keep my way of life." Like most Christians here, Fadi is worried about the rise of radical Islamist groups in Syria.

The way things have developed in the areas under Kurdish rule stands in stark contrast to the other areas of the country that have slipped from central government control. Many Syrian rebels have opted for a hard-line Islamist ideology that vilifies other groups, mainly Alawites – the government's main power base – but to some extent Christians and Kurds too. As a result, the rebellion is a Sunni Arab-only affair, while there have been reports that pro-government militias have been cleansing their own areas of Sunnis.

In the Kurdish-dominated northeast, however, fear of radical Islam has led Kurds, Christians and Sunnis to cooperate. Many Christians have chosen to join the Sutoro, the Christian police, or the Syriac Military Council, a frontline militia. Both these groups work in close cooperation with the Kurdish police and militia. It took a while for this system to emerge: until last year, Kurdish commanders did not seem keen on independent armed groups in their areas. The Islamist onslaught may have changed their minds.

A complicating factor is that many Christians openly support the Syrian government because they were treated well under the Assad regime. Conversely, as the Kurds were the most downtrodden minority under the Assads they will have no truck with the regime now that they are building their own autonomous zone inside Syria. Indeed, recently there have been clashes between their militia and remnants of government forces in the city of Qamishly. Yet the Kurds tolerate the views that many Christians espouse, if only to keep them on their side against the Islamists.

Relations between the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs are similarly tangled, reflecting different levels of interest and motivation. The Arabs of the region have split between supporters of the regime and the rebellion. But because of the misrule of Islamist groups over the last year, many Arabs have come inside the Kurds' orbit.

For more than a year there has been fighting between the Kurdish militia and both the Islamists and the more moderate Free Syrian Army, a mainly Arab grouping. The FSA, driven partly by a Syrian nationalist ideology that is opposed to Kurdish demands for autonomy, saw the Kurds as agents of the government. This fighting threatened to turn the war into a clear ethnic conflict. But instead, relations between the most radical Islamist organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and most of the other rebel groups broke down earlier this year.

This breakdown, caused by ISIS's violent intolerance, led to fighting among the rebels that has killed thousands of fighters. It has also led to the dissolution of their anti-Kurdish alliance. In some areas, such as the northern Aleppo governorate, Arab rebels are now fighting with the Kurds against ISIS. In Ras el Ayn, a key town on the Turkish border, an Arab militia was raised recently to combat the extremists. And near the Iraqi border, the powerful Shammar tribe has thrown its lot in with the Kurds after clashing repeatedly with the Islamists. This demonstrates that Syrian armed groups and other organisations may form primarily around their ethnic or sectarian identities, but are quite able to cooperate with each other if that is what their security interests demand.

Fadi, the young Christian officer in the Kurdish police force, agrees. "I don't know about the rest of the country but here we definitely have a future," he says of the Christians. "As you see, here we are all living together." A breakdown in community relations may be the norm in many parts of Syria. But, perhaps paradoxically, the same consideration – security – that has helped drive sects and ethnic groups apart, in some places can also bring them together.

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