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Syria's Assyrians, Caught in the Middle
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
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Of all the Christian communities in Syria, the Assyrians, that is, those Christians who identify as such by virtue of belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East, arguably have the most complex relationship with the Assad regime. Assyrians are concentrated in the northeast around Hasakeh, with others settled in Damascus and Aleppo. As was the case in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a problem for Syria's Assyrian community has been the traditional denial of the Assyrian identity by the pan-Arab Baathist ideology. This has culminated in the destruction of numerous Assyrian villages in the north of Iraq as part of Saddam'ss Arabization program.

This fraught relationship contrasts with the narrative that portrays the Assad regime, like that of Saddam, as protectors of Christian minorities. Indeed, in Iraq many Assyrians joined the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were opposed to the regime. In Syria today, the local branch of the Iraq-based Assyrian Democratic Movement has been a part of the opposition Syrian National Council since the beginning of the unrest in March of last year.

This local branch known as the "Assyrian Democratic Organization" has been targeted numerous times by the Syrian government, particularly after it became a signatory to the Damascus Declaration of October 2005 that criticized Bashar Assad's regime and called for a process of democratic reform in Syria.

However, the ADO's stance in support of the opposition differs from that of the Assyrian Church of the East hierarchy, which prefers to maintain a position of neutrality, similar to its stance on Kurdish-Assyrian relations in Iraq.

The tension between the Assad regime and Assyrian nationalists inside and outside of Syria contrasts notably with the relations certain Christians, who identify themselves as Aramean nationalists, have maintained with the Syrian government. Aramean nationalists, who trace an identity to the Arameans of antiquity, primarily belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church- one of the main Christian denominations in Syria after the Antiochian Greek Orthodox Church and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, whose adherents tend to see themselves as just Arabs. Like the Syriac Orthodox, they are concentrated in the western half of Syria. While exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, it is likely that there are more members of the Syriac Orthodox in Syria than there are members of the Assyrian Church of the East.

As analyst Phillip Smyth has noted, Assad was able to court the sympathies of some Aramean nationalists by promoting the teaching of Western Neo-Aramaic- the last true living relative of the language of Jesus- in the village of Maaloula in Syria. While Assad put an Arabist spin on the initiative, describing Aramaic as an "Arabic language," this did not prevent the chairman of the Aram-Nahrin organization- an Aramean nationalist group based in the Netherlands- from expressing gratitude to the Syrian president in 2009. He thanked him for his "noble efforts to revive and strengthen the Aramaic language in the lands of the Aramean forefathers. This is a shining and commendable example to the entire Middle East."

Even now, Aram-Nahrin's sympathies for Assad are apparent. On its website, the group affirms that the Syrian government is "suppressing the Aramean cultural heritage."

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