A religious freedom scholar told the United States’ top religious freedom panel that the U.S. troop pullback in northeastern Syria has created a “vacuum” that has allowed Turkish forces and affiliated opposition groups to carry out war crimes against Christians and other religious minorities.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom held a hearing last week focusing on the opportunities and challenges related to religious freedom in northeast Syria amid the Turkish occupation and President Donald Trump’s decision to pull back U.S. troops in the region.
It is the same region where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria held territory and severely persecuted religious minorities until the jihadis were pushed out by Kurdish-led and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and coalition partners in 2017.
But since early 2018, operations by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed Islamic militant groups have taken over areas that were once under the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and have reportedly killed, abducted and persecuted civilians. The offensive has led to the displacement of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.
“It was in the northeastern pocket of Kobane that Syrian Democratic Forces staged what began as a last stand but with the support of U.S. military and a committed multinational force became a four-year effort to turn back and eventually defeat ISIS,” USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins said at the beginning of the hearing.
“It was also in this part of Syria that those same democratic forces and their supporters forged a unique initiative to introduce local governance autonomous from the Assad regime based on principles of inclusion, diverse representation and personal freedoms, including religious freedom, that aligns more closely with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights than anything else in that region.”
But in October 2019 after a phone conversation with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. military would pull back its troops in advance of a Turkish offensive against SDF-controlled areas. Critics feared the move was an abandonment of allies in the fight to defeat the Islamic State.
The Turkish offensive caused thousands to flee from their homes. Because it is led by Kurdish fighters, Turkey has considered the U.S.-backed SDF to be a terrorist group and accuses it of being aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
“I visited northeast Syria in late 2019 where I was able to see for myself the devastation brought upon the Christian villages near the area Turkey had invaded,” USCIRF Vice-Chair Nadine Maenza said. “I met with religious and community leaders and heard about the remarkable religious freedom conditions under the autonomous administration and how that is now nonexistent in the area Turkey occupies.”
“Turkey is now threatening the crucial population centers of Kobane and Qamishli even as it has used the world’s complete inattention to forcefully repopulate abandoned towns with refugees from other parts of Syria, just as it had done in Afrin [in February 2018],” she added. “[These] are actions that Genocide Watch has just indicated are war crimes fitting the legal definition of crimes against humanity.”
Amy Austin Holmes, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a professor at the American University in Cairo, told the panel that Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities that have existed in the region for centuries are again facing existential threats.
Holmes noted that some of the fighters in the Turkish-backed militias are former members of the Islamic State.
“They have been killed, disappeared, kidnapped, raped, detained, subjected to forced religious conversions and held for ransom until their families pay exorbitant sums of money to secure their release,” Holmes explained. “They have been forcibly displaced and driven from their homes. Their places of worship have been defaced, destroyed and looted. Even their cemeteries have been demolished and vandalized. The international community has failed to take action.”
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