Assyrians in Syria
Assyrians in Syria (Syriac: ܐܬܘܪܝܐ ܕܣܘܪܝܐ, Arabic: الآشوريين في سوريا) are an ethnic and linguistic minority that are indigenous to northeast Syria (known in Syriac as Gozarto). Syrian-Assyrians are people of Assyrian descent living in Syria, and those in the Assyrian diaspora who are of Syrian-Assyrian heritage. They constituted 4% of the pre-Civil War population of Syria of 23 million
|920,000 - 400,000|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Neo-Aramaic and Arabic|
They live primarily in Al-Hasakah Governorate, with a significant presence in the provincial capital and the cities of Qamishli, Malikiyah, Ras al-Ayn, and Qahtaniyah, as well as in Tell Tamer and nearby villages, although some have migrated to Damascus and other western cities.
During the Old Assyrian Empire (2000-1750 BC), Middle Assyrian Empire (1365-1020 BC) and Neo Assyrian Empire (911-599 BC) much of, and often the entirety of the modern country of Syria, was under Assyrian rule, with the north eastern part of the land becoming an integral part of Assyria proper during the 2nd millennium BC. Thus the presence of originally Akkadian-speaking and later Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrians in the northeastern part of the modern country dates back over 4000 years, where they originally lived alongside a diverse set of other peoples such as Hittites, Hurrians and Amorites throughout the ages. Traces of the long era of Assyrian settlement can be seen at numerous archaeological sites across the region. Important Assyrian cities in the region in ancient times included; Til-Barsip, Carchemish, Guzana, Shubat-Enlil and Dur-Katlimmu.
The north east of Syria was a part of Achaemenid Assyria (Athura) between 546 and 332 BC, then to Seleucid Syria (312-150 BC), when the name Syria which was originally a 9th-century BC Indo-European corruption of Assyria and had hitherto referred only to Assyria itself, also became applied to a region long known as Aramea/Eber Nari - in other words what is today modern Syria. During the Parthian Empire (150 BC-224 AD) and early Sassanid Empire (224 -650 AD) (when the land was renamed Assuristan) a number of Neo-Assyrian kingdoms arose, and parts of north east Syria became a part of the Neo-Assyrian state of Osroene until the mid 3rd century AD. Christianity became established amongst the Assyrians as early as the 1st century AD, and the region of Athura became the birthplace of Eastern Rite Christianity and Syriac literature, with the Assyrian Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox Church being founded in the region.
After the Arab Islamic Conquest of the mid 7th century AD, Assyria/Athura/Assuristan was dissolved as a geo-political entity, and the region gradually saw an influx of Muslim Arabic, Turkic and Iranic peoples. However, settlement in the northeastern areas often proved unsustainable in the long-term, leading to numerous episodes of population exodus. In addition to experiencing such destabilising factors such as climate shifts and over-cultivation of land, the area was also vulnerable to attack from nomadic peoples. Following the Mongol and Timurid invasions and subsequent massacre of Assyrians, it was left with only a scant permanent population. In the centuries that followed, a number of nomadic and semi-nomadic Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking tribes wandered the area with their livestock into the 20th century, when most of them were forced to settle by governmental policies.
When Turkey conducted ethnic cleansing against its Christian populations, Kurds were responsible for most of the atrocities against Assyrians. At the onset of the 20th century, Kurds cooperated with Ottoman authorities in the massacres against Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Upper Mesopotamia. Many Assyrians from Hakkari settled in Syria after they were displaced and driven out by Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century. During the 1930s and 1940s, many Assyrians resettled in northeastern Syrian villages, such as Tel Tamer, Al-Qahtaniyah, Al Darbasiyah, Al-Malikiyah, Qamishli and a few other small towns in Al-Hasakah Governorate.
Most of the current population of Assyrians in Hasakah dates back to the French Mandate of Syria, when refugees from the now-Turkish areas north of present-day Syria (such as Tur Abdin) were settled together with displaced Armenians who had survived the Assyrian Genocide and Armenian Genocide in the area by the authorities as part of an effort to promote economic development. Given preferential treatment on the basis of their Christian religion by the French, they soon formed most of the new urban elite in the region. An additional influx of Eastern Assyrians began to resettle along the Khabur River in 1933 after the massacres of Assyrians in newly-independent Iraq (see Simele massacre) forced the flight. These were refugees twice over—originally from the highlands of Hakkari, they had initially sought refuge amongst other Assyrians in Iraq in the face of the Assyrian genocide before the attacks.
In 1936, religious and political leaders—mainly from the Assyrian and Armenian Christian and Kurdish communities, with a few Arab groups as well—pressured the French authorities to give autonomous status to the Syrian Al-Jazira province (nowadays the Al Hasakah) for its mixed-ethnic population, like in the Sanjak of Alexandretta, the Alawite State, or Jabal al-Druze. The push for autonomy was marked by civil strife and inter-communal violence in the province, and angry hostility on the part of the mainly Arab nationalists pushing for outright independence for Syria. Long having viewed the settlement of Assyrians and Armenians in the country as the product of French colonialism, they were further incensed by the arrival of additional Assyrian refugees on the Khabur, and mobilized support from many Arab tribes and some Kurdish groups to counter the autonomists. The French forcibly cracked down on both sides as they grew increasingly violent, and the movement for autonomy soon failed. Later on, in 1957, the Assyrian Democratic Organization was set up in Syria by center-left intellectuals.
Though officially and incorrectly designated as Arabs by the Syrian Arab Nationalist Baathist government, the Assyrians are a distinct pre-Arab ethnic group with a history in the region dating perhaps as far back as the 25th century BC. They are a Syriac speaking community that traditionally belong to the Ancient Church of the East, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church. The modern Assyrians are native to "northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria".
First settled by Assyrians fleeing the Assyrian Genocide and then the Simele Massacre, there are over 30 Assyrian villages on the Khabur river in Syria. According to a 1994 report they are: Tell Tawil, Tell Um Rafa, Tell Um Keff, Tell Kefdji, Tell Djemaa, Tell Tamer, Tell Nasri, Upper Tell Chamran, Lower Tell Chamran, Tell Chamran, Tell Hafian, Tell Talaa, Tell Maghas, Tell Massas, Abu Tine, Tel Goran, Fouedate, Dimchij, Kabar Chamie, Tell Balouet(Dezn) , Tell Baz, Upper Tell Rouman, Lower Tell Rouman, El-Kharita, Tell Chame, Tell Wardiat, El-Makhada, Taal, Tell Sakra, El-Breij, Arbouche, and Tell Hormiz. About 9,000 ethnic Assyrians moved from northern Iraq to join already extant Assyrian populations in northeastern Syria following the Simele massacre of 1933. They settled in the Jazirah near Tall Tamir on the upper Khabur River. The French established this Assyrian settlement with the assistance of the League of Nations, and in 1942 it became an integral part of Syria. The Assyrian settlement on the Khabur valley consists of about 20 villages, primarily agricultural. They have faced severe economic pressures over the years, despite owning their own irrigated lands, and some of them immigrated to the US, where there exists a large community.
Assyrians speak two dialects of Eastern Aramaic; Eastern and Western Syriac. This language is classified as "Syriac-Aramaic" in the DFNS controlled territory where it is officially recognized. Prior to this, the Syrian government never recognized the Syriac language as part of its Arabization ideology, thus, the language had to be taught in churches as no schools were allowed to teach the language.
All Assyrians celebrate Assyrian New Year, known as Ha b'Nison or Kha b'Nisan, on the 1st of April each year to celebrate the turn of the new year in the ancient Assyrian calendar. Assyrian New Year festivities have previously been outlawed in Syria.
Assyrians in Syria have produced notable musicians in both the Eastern and Western dialects. Popular Eastern Assyrian musicians include: Juliana Jendo, Adwar Mousa and George Homeh. Some notable Western Assyrian musicians include: Habib Mousa, Elias Karam and Jean Karat. Two well known Assyrian composers were Gabriel Asaad and Nouri Iskandar.
The majority of Assyrians in Syria adhere to both the East and West Syriac Rite. These include the following churches:
Chaldean Catholic Church
The Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of Aleppo, under the tenure of the Bishop of Aleppo, Mar Antony Audo, was established in 1957 and is divided into 14 parishes.
Syriac Catholic Church
There are four dioceses of the Syriac Catholic Church in Syria including the:
Syriac Orthodox Church
The Syriac Orthodox Church's patriarchal seat is located in Damascus after being transferred in 1959. The Syriac Orthodox Church in Syria is represented by the Patriarch, Ignatius Aphrem II with three archbishopric's located across Syria in the following:
- Patriarchal Office Director in Damascus Archbishop Timotheus Matta Al-Khoury.
- Archbishopric of Jazirah and Euphrates under the spiritual guidance and direction of acting Archbishop Maurice Amsih.
- Archbishopric of Aleppo under the spiritual guidance and direction of Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim.
- Archbishopric of Homs & Hama under the spiritual guidance and direction of Archbishop Selwanos Petros AL-Nemeh.
- Patriarchal Vicariate for the Archdiocese of Damascus under the spiritual guidance and direction of Archbishop Timothius Matta AlKhouri.
Assyrian Democratic Organization
The Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), more commonly known as "Mtakasto", was founded in 1957 and serves as the oldest Assyrian political party in Syria. The principles of the party are based around huyodo/khoyada, unity, and gained a foothold amongst Western Assyrian youth. Gabriel Moushe Gawrieh, the current leader of the party, was detained by the Syrian government and imprisoned for 2 years, until his release in June 2016.
Assyrian Democratic Party
The Assyrian Democratic Party (ADP), were founded in 1978 as an Eastern Assyrian splinter group from the ADO, separating due to perceived differences to Western Assyrians. The party is based in Qamishli and has generally sided with the Assad government in contrast to the ADO.
Syriac Union Party
Syriac Union Party (SUP), are a secular Assyrian political party founded in 2005 by members of Dawronoye. The party has positioned itself with the Kurdish PYD and is opposed to the Ba'ath government of Syria. They are currently represented as part of the TEV-DEM coalition and possess 3 seats in the Syrian Democratic Council.
Syrian Civil War
Assyrians have been caught between different political sides from the onset of the Syrian Civil War with some Assyrian groups allying with the Syrian Government and others with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
With the onset of the Syrian Civil War, Assyrians have formed numerous military forces in order to protect their communities. These range from military groups to police forces concentrated in the Al-Hasakah Governorate, mainly in Qamishli and Khabur. These militias include:
Gozarto Protection Force
Gozarto Protection Force (GPF), or Sootoro, are a light infantry militia formed in 2012 that are aligned to the Syrian Government. The militia is composed mainly of Assyrians, with a smaller number of Armenians in the group. GPF mainly clash with ISIL, although they have also been involved in clashes with Kurdish forces stationed nearby.
Syriac Military Council
The Syriac Military Council (MFS) are a militia of the Dawronoye ideology that are a component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and under the Syriac Union Party. MFS have been involved in numerous offensives alongside the YPG, as well as in Iraq (Nineveh & Sinjar). The Bethnahrain Women's Protection Forces are the female brigade of the MFS and assume guard roles in the Assyrian communities of northeast Syria.
Sutoro are the police wing of the Syriac Military Council and have been active in Syria from 2012 onwards. Sutoro police the Assyrian communities of northeast Syria, as well as working in concert with Asayish to safeguard the region.
Khabour Guards, as well as Nattoreh are a militia tied to the Assyrian Democratic Party and are active in the Khabur Valley of Syria. Founded in 2012, Khabour Guards have been involved in SDF campaigns and in 2019, merged with the Syriac Military Council to form the Syriac-Assyrian Military Council.
Clashes with Kurdish Forces
The main group aligned with the Assad-government are the Sootoro forces stationed in northeast Syria. In early 2016, Sootoro forces set up checkpoints in the Assyrian-controlled districts of Qamishli due to increasing terrorist attacks targeting Assyrians in the city. Members of Asayish, the security-wing of the YPG, approached the checkpoints and demanded they be dismantled. When Sootoro refused, Asayish fired at Sootoro soldiers, causing several casualties on both sides.
Persecution by ISIL
The Syrian Civil War initially put much strain on Assyrians in Syria. As of November 2014, due to occupation by the ISIL, only 23 Assyrian and Armenian families remain in the city of Raqqa. Christian bibles and holy books reportedly been burned by ISIL militants.
On 23 February 2015, ISIL abducted 232 Assyrians from villages near Tell Tamer in the Khabur valley. According to US diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez, of the 232 of the Assyrians kidnapped in the ISIL attack on the Assyrian Christian farming villages on the banks of the Khabur River in Northeast Syria, 51 were children and 84 women. "Most of them remain in captivity with one account claiming that ISIL is demanding $22 million (or roughly $100,000 per person) for their release." On 8 October, ISIL released a video showing three of the Assyrian men kidnapped in Khabur being executed. It was reported that 202 of the 232 kidnapped Assyrians were still in captivity, each one with a demanded ransom of $100,000. In early 2016, ISIL freed the remaining 42 hostages in exchange for an undisclosed ransom mediated by the Assyrian Church of the East.
On 30 December 2015, 16 people were killed and 30 wounded when three blasts struck restaurants in the Assyrian district of Wusta in Qamishli. An IS-linked news agency, Amaq, said the group carried out the bombings. This prompted the Gozarto Protection Forces to set up checkpoints in the district as the Syrian government, nor the Kurdish-led DFNS could guarantee their safety.
Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria
The decrease of political repression after government withdrawal and the inclusion of Assyrian political and military movements in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria has led to greater inclusion of Assyrians in the governance of the region. The Syriac Union Party (SUP), committed to the secular leftist "Dawronoye" ideology, is a part of the governing Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) coalition. The Sutoro is an Assyrian police force, working in concert with the general Asayish police force with the mission to police ethnic Assyrian areas and neighbourhoods.
While Syriac-Aramaic was an official language of the Jazira Region from the outset, in August 2016, the Ourhi Centre in the city of Qamishli was started by the Assyrian community, to educate teachers in order to make Syriac-Aramaic an additional language to be taught in public schools, which then started with the 2016/17 academic year. With that academic year, states the region's Education Committee, "three curriculums have replaced the old one, to include teaching in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac."
Human rights violation claims
The region, however, has been accused of closing down 14 Assyrian schools that have refused to adhere to a curriculum produced by the Kurdish-led government. Many Assyrians have rejected the new curriculum, stating that the curriculum is not recognized or accredited elsewhere, while the Syrian government-led curriculum is. There is also opposition by Assyrians against the curriculum produced by the region's administration, which some Assyrian leaders say has been an attempt to impose a Kurdish nationalist curriculum across the region.
In April 2015, David Jendo, the leader of the Khabur Guards, was assassinated after being kidnapped alongside fellow commander, Elias Nasser. Both men were blindfolded and driven to a remote location, supposedly to have an urgent meeting with YPG leadership. Jendo and Nasser were then shot and David Jendo immediately died, while Elias Nasser was severely wounded. Jendo had publicly spoken against the YPG looting Assyrian homes in 2015. The attackers were allegedly arrested and tried in a regional court, resulting in 20 years prison for the two killers, 4 and 1 years respectively for the other two attackers.
In November 2015, sixteen Assyrian and Armenian civic and church organizations issued a joint statement protesting Kurdish expropriation of private property. The statement accuses the PYD of human rights violations, expropriation of private property, illegal military conscription and interference in church school curricula.
Kurds in Syria have been accused of silencing Assyrian critics of their administration, usually using Assyrian proxy forces such as Sutoro to intimidate these critics. On September 30, 2018, prominent Assyrian writer Souleman Yousph was arrested without being informed of charges, in what is alleged to be in response to an article published by Mr. Yousph in which he criticized the de facto Kurdish authorities for closing Assyrian schools, as well as the assault on Issa Rashid, a fellow Assyrian writer. One day after his arrest, Sutoro announced a statement saying that "Action had to be taken against those spreading lies, that democracy has rules and limitations, and that defamation is punishable by law in Western countries".
- "Syria's Assyrians threatened by extremists - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East". Al-Monitor. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
- "Syria - Christians, Armenians and Assyrians". Minority Rights Group International. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
- "The ethnic and religious groups of Syria".
- Lam, Aron (8 March 2012). "Minorities Fear Persecution in a Post-Assad Syria". Epoch Times. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
- "IS entführt mindestens 90 Christen in Syrien". Die Welt (in German). 24 February 2015. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
- "ISIS Attacks Assyrian Villages in Syria, 4 Killed, Dozens Captured, Churches Burned Posted". Assyrian International News Agency. 23 February 2015. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
- Shoup, John A. (2018), "Syria", The History of Syria, ABC-CLIO, p. 6, ISBN 1440858357,
Syria has several other ethnic groups, the Kurds... they make up an estimated 9 percent...Turkomen comprise around 4-5 percent. of the total population. The rest of the ethnic mix of Syria is made of Assyrians (about 4 percent), Armenians (about 2 percent), and Circassians (about 1 percent).
- Joan A. Argenter, R. McKenna Brown 2004 199" On the Margins of Nations: Endangered Languages and Linguistic Rights, Foundation for Endangered Languages. Eds:Joan A. Argenter, R. McKenna Brown
- A brief history of the plight of the Christian Assyrians* in modern day Iraq Archived 2015-04-17 at the Wayback Machine. American Mespopotamian.
- R. S. Stafford (2006). The Tragedy of the Assyrians. pp. 24–25.
- Betts, Robert Brenton, Christians in the Arab East (Atlanta, 1978)
- Dodge, Bayard, "The Settlement of the Assyrians on the Khabur," Royal Central Asian Society Journal, July 1940, pp. 301-320.
- "RIGHTS: Assyrians Face Escalating Abuses in "New Iraq" | Inter Press Service". www.ipsnews.net.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-24. Retrieved 2011-07-24.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century". Retrieved 24 April 2016.
- El-Deeb, Sarah. "Syria's tiny Assyrian community celebrates its survival". AP. Retrieved 10 July 2019.
- Parry 2010, p. 259.
- Joseph 1983, p. 110.
- Travis, Hannibal (20 Jul 2017). The Assyrian Genocide: Cultural and Political Legacies. Routledge.
- "Christians Under Threat in Syria". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 10 July 2019.
- "Assyrian faction linked to Syrian opposition meets with Kurdish TEV-DEM after office closure". AraNews. Retrieved 10 July 2019.
- Al Rifai, Diana. "Assyrians and Kurds clash for first time in north Syria". Al-Jazeera. Retrieved 21 June 2019.
- Isaac, Mardean. "Under Fire From All Sides: Syria's Assyrians". NewsDeeply. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "23 Christian Families Trapped in ISIS Stronghold Raqqa Facing Violence, Forced Taxes". Christian Post. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
- "Agenzia Fides News". Retrieved 24 April 2016.
- "Islamic State 'abducts dozens of Christians in Syria'". BBC. 23 February 2015. Retrieved 23 February 2015.
- "Islamic State: Fears grow as jihadists abduct 220 Assyrian Christians in north-eastern Syria". ABC Australia. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "Dozens of Christians abducted by ISIL in Syria". Al-Jazeera. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- Fernandez, Alberto M. (June 16, 2015). "The "Sayfo" Continues Responding to Global Christian Persecution". Berkeley Center Cornerstone. Georgetown University Religious Freedom Project. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
- "'Isis appears to have killed three Christian hostages in Syria'". The Guardian. 8 October 2015. Retrieved 13 November 2015.
- "Islamic State 'releases Assyrian Christian hostages'". BBC. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "Islamic State gets millions in ransom money for kidnapped Christians". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "IS releases last of kidnapped Assyrian Christians after ransom payment". DW. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "Syria conflict: 'At least 16 dead' in three restaurants blasts". BBC. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- Loveluck, Louisa. "More than 55,000 died in Syria in 2015 as Isil claims twin attacks in Syrian Christian neighbourhood". The Telegraph. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "16 dead, 30 wounded in three blasts in northeast Syria: Monitor". Hurriyet Daily News. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "Syriac flags adorn the city of Hasaka". Syriac Military Council. 20 March 2017.
- Carl Drott (25 May 2015). "The Revolutionaries of Bethnahrin". Warscapes. Retrieved 18 September 2016.
- "Syriac Christians revive ancient language despite war". ARA News. 2016-08-19. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
- "The Syriacs are taught their language for the first time". Hawar News Agency. 2016-09-24. Archived from the original on 2016-09-24. Retrieved 2016-09-24.
- "Hassakeh: Syriac Language to Be Taught in PYD-controlled Schools". The Syrian Observer. 3 October 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-05.
- "Rojava administration launches new curriculum in Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian". ARA News. 7 October 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-07.
- Souleiman, Delil. "Syriacs protest Kurdish authorities over Syria school curriculum". Yahoo! News. Retrieved 21 June 2019.
- "Assyrians in Syria Protest PYD's Closure of Schools in Qamishli". Assyrian Policy Institute. Retrieved 21 June 2019.
- Safi, Marlo. "Closure of Syrian Schools: Another Bleak Sign for Christians in Syria". National Review. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "Assyrians Under Kurdish Rule: The Situation in Northeastern Syria" (PDF). Assyrian Confederation of Europe. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
- "TRIAL OF MARTYR DAWUD JENDO". Twitter. Syriac Military Council. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
- "Assyrians, Armenians in Syria Protest Kurdish Confiscation of Property". AINA. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
- "Prominent Syrian writer Yousph arrested in northeastern Syria, held for five days". Committee to Protect Journalists. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
- "Syrien: christlicher Journalist Yusph freigelassen". Vatican News. Retrieved 22 June 2019.