President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria will have dire consequences for tens of thousands of Assyrian and Kurdish Christians in the northeast, self-administered part of the war-torn Middle Eastern nation, a global affairs expert warned.
It was reported Wednesday that planning is underway for a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of the about 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. Trump even went on Twitter to declare that the Islamic State had been defeated and that defeating the group was the only reason for U.S. presence there during his presidency.
However, that decision could make it easier for Turkish-backed jihadi groups to come into the Kurdish-majority areas of northeast Syria and carry out attacks like the one seen last year in the city of Afrin, said a European international relations expert who works closely with the Syrian Christian community. Additionally, it could make it easier for Iran to have greater influence in the region.
“ISIS is not defeated,” Johannes de Jong, a Netherlands-based director of Sallux, an association that serves as the political foundation for the European Christian Political Movement, told The Christian Post. “[The U.S. withdrawal] means basically that you sacrifice the Christian community of northeast Syria for the Jihadists. If that happens, it is the end of the ten thousands of Christians in Northeast Syria.”
De Jong and others fear that another offensive like the one that happened in Afrin, where over 167,000 Yazidis, Christians and others were displaced earlier this year, could bring about the end to a self-administered part of northeast Syria where Syriac/Assyrian Christians, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and others people groups are coexisting peacefully.
The news of the planned U.S. withdraw comes as Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened this week to launch attacks against Kurds in the U.S.-controlled areas of northeast Syria.
In Afrin, de Jong said, Turkey used jihadi militias (of which some fighters are formerly of IS) as “front forces” to launch the offensive while Turkey used its airpower and equipment to back them up.
“This will happen a similar way as in Afrin,” he said. “The first thing the Christians or northeast Syria [will see] when Trump withdraws from northeast Syria is a bunch of jihadis coming for them.”
De Jong states that Turkey is accusing the Syrian Democratic Forces — an alliance of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian/ Syriac militias that has fought to defend northeast Syria from IS — of being part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. and other countries
“Turkey is playing the PKK card,” de Jong explained. “This is the same thing all over again. They will kill the Syriac/Assyrians, they will kill the Kurds, they will kill the Arabs simply because these people don’t want Turkey to rule in Northeast Syria. There, the Kurds are free, which is not the case in Turkey. For this reason, they are all called PKK.”
Earlier this year, the Self Administration in Northern and Eastern Syria (SANES) was established to link together self-administrations working in Arab and Kurdish regions. SANES also encompasses areas like Deir al-Zor and Raqqa, which were once under the control of IS.
The self-administration, de Jong says, has brought “freedom” to millions of people and created much-needed civil stability in an area about one-third the size of Syria.
Although Turkey claims to be focused on Kurdish militants, de Jong states that history shows that the offensive will impact Christians.
“We don’t consider these [Turkish] threats to be against Kurds only. It is a threat against this democratic project, and all the people who live east of the Euphrates, including Christians,” Sanharib Barsoum, the deputy head of the Syriac Union Party in Syria, told Kurdistan 24 in a recent interview. “We fear that we will become victims of new wars started by Erdogan. … Erdogan’s goal is to implement his radical project, to replace the democratic project.”
In the area under the SANES umbrella, there are thousands of Assyrian/Syriac Christians as well as a new community of Kurdish Christian converts.
The new community of Kurdish converts, de Jong said, is located around the city of Kobane.
“These are all converts and we know from the experience of Afrin that when Turks invade, they will be killed, hunted down or driven away,” de Jong explained. “Turkey is planning to deploy the same jihadis again they have used in Afrin. There is no denial they're on the side of Turkey, that they will use the same forces. These are the same forces that attacked Christians in Aleppo, Christians in Afrin and now they will attack Christians in northeast Syria.”
Not only will another Turkish offensive destabilize northeast Syria but it will create a new refugee stream, de Jong argued. He asserted that another Turkish offensive will not help the fight against IS.
“ISIS still there in the deep south,” he asserted.
“[We are] looking at the total slaughter of millennial-old Christian communities, bombed churches, people are driven away, women raped.”
While the Trump administration has vowed to protect Christians in the Middle East, de Jong contends that a withdraw from Syria and allowing Turkey to advance its offensive in northeast Syria “would be a major, moral defeat of the Trump agenda.”
“This is a Christian community that has fought against ISIS together with the Kurds and Arabs in the same region. The Syriac/Assyrian Christians have been fighting together with the U.S. Army against ISIS and now after having [almost] defeated these terrorists, then the U.S. Army will simply look on and allow them to be destroyed.”
Additionally, de Jong added that a defeat of SDF forces will mean that “Iran will take Eastern Syria.”
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Iran are clearly warming up towards each other. … [Yesterday], Turkey, Russia and Iran were sitting together talking about their big plan for Syria,” de Jong said. “Turkey will give away Eastern Syria to Iran. that will mean a major defeat for the U.S. and a major threat for Israel.”
“Northeast Syria — this one-third part of Syria — is the only deterrence against Iranian influence in the region. The Federation of Northeast Syria is the only area that is Iran free, where Iran has no foothold. That would mean Iran would have all the big oil fields of Syria and they will exploit that. Basically, if Turkey is allowed to take 40 kilometers of northeast Syria, that will be the end of SDF and the end of any deterrence against Iran.”
Also warning about the implications this could have on Iran’s influence in the region is conservative pundit David French of National Review, who wrote that a U.S. withdraw from Syria would be a “great gift to Putin and Iran and a betrayal of our allies.”
Considering that conservative evangelical Christians are one of Trump’s most supportive voting bases, de Jong is calling on Christians in the U.S. to pressure the Trump administration to urge Trump not to withdraw from Syria.
“Tell President Trump to protect the Christians of Northeast Syria against jihadists,” de Jong urged. “The U.S. should say on no uncertain terms that a Turkish attack in northeast Syria will be an attack against the U.S. The consequence of the Turkish rule will be a whole bunch of jihadist forces that are plundering killing and raping everything. That will be the legacy of President Trump in Northeast Syria. I think it will be very difficult to explain that as a victory for Trump against Islamic extremism because in this case, he has given the victory to Islamic extremism."
On Wednesday, the White House clarified that the withdrawal of U.S. troops does not mean the end to the global coalition fight against IS.
“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” the White House tweeted.