If you think the plight of Christians in Syria is a straightforward matter of Christians versus ISIS, or Christians versus various forms of radical Islam, think again. That is a major part of the story, but not the whole story. And if your only image of Assyrian Christians is that of helpless emigrants, rethink that, too.
The day for Ashur (not his real name) begins like many others: He wakes just after sunrise in the town of Qamishli, in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakah, eats a quick breakfast and hurries to his job as a military spokesman for the Gozarto Protection Forces, or GPF, and Sootoro. Normally, because of the enormous workload, Ashur will be at the office for 2-3 days straight.
The GPF and Sootoro are Assyrian Christian response forces and police, respectively, protecting Assyrian Christian cities and village in Northern Syria from terrorist groups like ISIS and the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG. While most of the world knows about the horror that is ISIS, few know of the violent, Marxist YPG. Linked closely to the Kurdish terrorist group the PKK, the YPG has a long history of bombings, assassinations and violence in the region.
In late December, 2015, a triple bomb attack, believed to have been the work of the YPG, destroyed three restaurants and killed 40 people in the Assyrian Christian neighborhood of Al-Wusta in Qamishli. In response, the GPF and Sootoro erected security checkpoints throughout their neighborhood. On January 11, 2016, YPG forces confronted the Sootoro at a checkpoint, demanding that it be taken down. When Sootoro refused, the YPG open fire with a 'technical' -- a pickup truck with a mounted machine gun -- killing young Assyrian Gabi Henry Dawoud. The Assyrian Sootoro and reinforcing GPF members returned fire. The battle raged for hours, leaving six Kurdish YPG members dead.
As of the writing of this piece, the two sides are still in an intense stand-off. Ashur is worried, but firm in his resolve. "I know that death can come for me or other Christians at any moment," he said. In December of 2015, Ashur was supposed to be at one of the bombed restaurants, the Miami, playing cards with his friends. His life was spared, because at the last minute something came up that kept him at work. Ten people were killed at the Miami restaurant that night, his card-playing friends among them.
A life of war and terror is not what Ashur envisioned for himself as a young man in his twenties. He dislikes fighting, and hates guns -- some even call him a "gentle teddy bear." He'd planned to obtain a bachelor's degree in economics and become a government minister. But on March 15, 2011, that changed.
The Syrian civil war, or what the Assyrians call the "Crisis," broke out in 2011 following the police response to three children spray-painting anti-government slogans on the wall of a government building in Dara'a, Syria. The three were picked up by the secret police and badly beaten. Two died; one has since disappeared. The incident incited protests and, by July of that year, an armed revolution had begun. In the ensuing chaos, ISIS entered the revolution and seized the Northern Syrian city of Raqqah as its headquarters. Assyrian Christians quickly realized that the Syrian government, overwhelmed by the civil war, could do nothing to stop ISIS, and began organizing the GPF and Sootoro as protection against the Islamic State.
More than two years later, they are still holding against not only ISIS but other radical Muslim groups and Kurdish Marxists. They are, quite literally, surrounded by enemies.
Prior to the Crisis, Ashur says, his people were peaceful -- they didn't want to fight. "We picked up weapons because we had to," he says. "We had to protect our lives, our property. We want to live and worship in a peaceful environment. To do that in the Middle East and live is almost impossible. We must fight to survive."
Their goals are simple, says Ashur: They want Syria to be reunited as a democratic society overseen by a government that respects religious freedom rather than imposing a theocracy.
Alongside the GPF is another response force, the Sootoro. Sootoro serve as the police in Assyrian cities, patrolling the streets and even guarding elementary schools from YPG harassment. "The YPG comes into our schools carrying guns, yelling at the teachers to stop teaching Assyrian-Christian lessons," Ashur said. "It terrifies the children, so Sootoro stands guard to make them feel safe," he added.
Another threat to the children: ISIS has verbalized their intent to kill the next generation of Assyrian Christians. They won't if the Sootoro can help it.
Ashur says that the Assyrian Christians just want to be treated like human beings. "Everybody treats us like second-class citizens," he says, "and ISIS wants to finish us; they want us dead."
According to American Jeff Gardner, Director of Operations for the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation, "What the Assyrians want for the Middle East is what the United States wants," he says. "They don't want a religious state, but a democratic, non-sectarian government. As a nation, we should be working much closer with them."
Why didn't Ashur simply emigrate? He explained that he decided to work for the GPF and Sootoro because he had to do something for his Christian faith. "I wanted to be a player instead of an observer-- or loser," he said. For him, someone who emigrates is conceding defeat.
Ashur said that he and many Assyrian Christians standing their ground in Syria are inspired to stay and fight, rather than emigrate, by a passage from the Gospel of John:
"You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:67-69)
For many, says Gardner, the permanent label of "refugee" is a cross they'd rather not bear. Besides, he says, "If every open immigration slot for someone from the Middle East was filled, that would still leave millions behind -- what is to be done for them?"
And Gardner doesn't see more open doors into Western countries as the solution. "Immigration is not the answer because immigration is not the problem; it is a symptom of a problem, namely, that the international community allows ISIS savages to roam freely," he said.
Gardner's group Restore Nineveh Now, and others like it, seek to enable the GPF and Sootoro to obtain weapons, food and provide salaries and support. While the GPF is intentionally vague with the exact number of recruits in order to protect their group, they currently have about several hundred within their ranks. Thousands are waiting to join the GPF, if only they had supplies to fight.
While the GPF is intentionally vague (for security reasons) about the exact number of their ranks, they have several hundred trained men at arms. Behind these forces are thousands of Assyrians waiting to join the GPF or Sootoro, if only they had supplies to fight.
"Restore Nineveh Now is dedicated to supporting Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria," said Gardner, "and to help them gain a semi-autonomous province where they can live in peace."
But they can't do it alone, he added. Prayers and donations are desperately needed.
For now, those able to join the GPF or Sootoro remain committed to protecting their families, communities, property and their way of life. For Ashur, this means setting aside his dreams of finishing college and becoming a minister. For now, he sees his job as standing with his Assyrian Christian brothers and sisters against terror and persecution, while they all fight for their lives.
"I'll do my best," he says, "with God's help."