Tuesday, October 15, 2019

RLPB 524. TURKEY IN SYRIA: Chaos Unleashed; Christians Imperilled

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 524 | 16 Oct 2019
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.

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-- an extended RLPB
by Elizabeth Kendal

BACKGROUND: In July 2012 the Syrian government withdrew its armed forces from the north-east so it might concentrate its war effort in the west, in particular, the north-south Damascus-Aleppo corridor. As explained in After Saturday Comes Sunday, 'the Syrian Kurds exploited the opportunity afforded them by the SAA [Syrian Arab Army] withdrawal to carve out an autonomous region in the north-east. President Assad made no effort to rein in the Syrian Kurds, not simply because he was focused on securing the west, but because he knew that Kurdish empowerment would threaten and distract nemesis Turkey which was hosting rebel bases, arming and training rebel fighters and facilitating their entrance into Syria to fight the Syrian government.' (Excerpt from After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016, p 151.) In short: Damascus permitted Kurdish empowerment as a bulwark against belligerent Turkey -- no surprise there. However, when the US (Obama administration) decided in 2014 to use the Kurds as proxies against the Islamic State (IS) -- thereby further empowering the Kurds -- Turkey was furious. Turkey -- which has facilitated the entry into Syria of thousands of transnational Islamic jihadists from its side of the border -- was never going to tolerate the presence of PKK-linked Kurdish nationalist militants on the Syrian side of the border, on the grounds that it would pose a threat to Turkey's national security.

NOTE: the Kurd-Arab-Christian Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is dominated by the YPG which, as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is Kurdish nationalist and anything but democratic [see RLPB 477, Assyrian Crisis in Iraq and Syria, 17 Oct 2018].

Turkey has been talking about invading northern Syria for well over 18 months. When the mostly Kurdish city of Afrin, about 45km north-west of Aleppo, fell to Turkish forces and their jihadist allies in March 2018 it was quickly ethnically-religiously cleansed of all Kurds and Christians in Turkey's 'Operation Olive Branch'. At that time, Turkey's President Erdogan expressed his intention to extend his control 'all the way to the Iraq border' [see RLPB 447 (21 March 2018)]. Erdogan then set his sights on Manbij, 90km north-east of Aleppo. In order to stop the Turkish advance, the US brokered the 'Manbij Roadmap', in which the US agreed to facilitate the removal of all YPG elements from the strategic city of Manbij. The deal, however, was never implemented. Now, 18 months down the track, the Battle for Manbij -- stage one in the war for northern Syria -- is about to commence.

Syria, December 2018 (circled: Afrin and Manbij)
click on map to enlarge.

On Saturday 5 October Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened that, since the US has not fulfilled its promise to remove Kurdish YPG 'terrorists' from Manbij, Turkey will take matters into its own hands and launch a unilateral invasion east of the Euphrates 'as soon as today or tomorrow'. On Sunday 6 October US President Donald Trump issued a statement clarifying that the US 'will not support or be involved in the [Turkish] operation', adding that, if Turkey invades northern Syria, it will then be 'responsible for all ISIS fighters captured over the past two years'.

Turkey's threat set up a scenario in which US troops would find themselves positioned in between their anti-IS proxies (PKK-linked Kurds) and their belligerent NATO ally (terror-sponsor Turkey). On Monday 7 October President Trump ordered the withdrawal of the roughly 50 US troops stationed in observation posts on the Syrian border. In the coming weeks around 1,000 US troops will be withdrawn from Syria, leaving some 150 US soldiers stationed in the southern base of Al Tanf near the borders with Jordan and Iraq. According to reports, some residual US troops have also been positioned south of Manbij. President Trump made it clear that if Turkey behaves badly, the US will respond with crippling sanctions. On Wednesday 9 October Turkish troops crossed into Syria, launching 'Operation Peace Spring'.

click on map to enlarge
Turkey has been shelling border towns -- from Kobani to Qamishli -- knocking out infrastructure, killing and wounding while displacing hundreds of thousands of residents. Images have emerged showing Turkish-backed Islamic militants executing civilians, including journalists and Kurdish female politician Hevrin Khalaf (35). Responding to the carnage, US President Donald Trump ended talks on a US-Turkey trade deal he valued at US$100 billion and re-imposed tariffs of 50 percent on Turkish steel.

By Monday 14 October Russia had brokered a deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government which immediately deployed the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) north to 'confront the Turkish aggression'. After more than seven years, the Syrian government is back in the north-east. Images have emerged of Kurds and others welcoming the SAA troops. By Monday night (14 October) the SAA was in Manbij to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a battle against the Turkey-backed jihadists amassing around the city in preparation for war. Russian troops are patrolling the territory separating the Turkish-backed militants from the SAA-backed Kurdish troops. Turkey's moves will drive a wedge between Ankara and Moscow and possibly shatter the Ankara-Moscow-Tehran axis. Denouncing Turkey's invasion as 'unacceptable', Russia has opened 'real time' negotiations between Ankara and Damascus. As one analyst observes: 'Turkey stands in splendid isolation' and will soon be 'joining Saudi Arabia as a fallen angel in the Beltway'.


Syriac soldiers with the SDF
pray before deployment.
"Our duty is to protect our land."
According to Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, Turkey's shelling of border towns is putting the lives of some 40,000 to 50,000 Christians at risk. Christians have already been killed in Ras el-Ain and Qamishli. As Ishak rightly notes, this is pure ethnic cleansing as Turkey's plan in setting up its 'safe zone' is to replace the Kurdish and Assyrian population with some two million Syrian Arab refugees currently resident in Turkey. According to Dale Gavlac (15 October), 'Christians and other religious minorities said they feel particularly vulnerable as Turkish artillery targeted a predominantly Christian neighbourhood in Qamishli, the largest city in north-eastern Syria.'  The Turkish bombing has already created a humanitarian crisis; in particular, the A'louk water station is now out of service, leaving some 400,000 residents without water.

With no choice but to confront the Turkish invasion, SDF fighters are abandoning their posts at key prisons and camps housing some 12,000 IS fighters, some 4,000 IS women and over 8,000 children. Amidst Turkish bombardment, prisoners attacked guards at the Ain Issa camp (55km north of Ar-Raqqah), enabling 785 relatives of IS jihadists to escape.

Christians in Syria's far north are today imperilled not only from an aggressive Turkish military and its jihadist proxies, but also from a resurgent IS (itself a Turkey-Saudi creation). Thousands of Christians are again on the move. Emanuel Youkhana, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East who administers Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq in Dohuk, told Catholic News Service that he is expecting a new wave of refugees as Assyrians flee east from Syria's Hasakah Province to Iraqi Kurdistan.


* intervene to protect, preserve and sustain his precious Church in Syria and across Mesopotamia; may all who seek her demise be frustrated; may their plots come to naught.

'Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.' (Psalm 57:1-2 ESV)

'But my eyes are toward you, O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; leave me not defenseless! Keep me from the trap that they have laid for me and from the snares of evildoers! Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I pass by safely.' (Psalm 141:8-10 ESV)

* intervene to rescue his people, provide all their needs and 'work [all things] together for good for those who are called according to his purpose' (Romans 8:28 ESV).

'The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.' (Psalm 34:15-18 ESV)


America's belligerent NATO ally, terror-sponsor Turkey, has essentially declared war against America's anti-Islamic State proxy (PKK-linked Kurds). The US might have withdrawn, but the Syrian government has returned. On 14 October Russia brokered a deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government which immediately deployed troops to 'confront Turkish aggression'. Denouncing the Turkish invasion as 'unacceptable', Russia has deployed troops in between the Turkey-backed jihadists and the Syria-backed Kurds on the front-line in Manbij. Meanwhile, Turkey's bombing of Syrian border towns has created a humanitarian crisis and is threatening the lives of some 40,000 to 50,000 Christians. It has also allowed nearly 800 Islamic State fighters to escape from a camp north of ar-Raqqah. Assyrian Christians are again on the move, this time heading east to Iraqi Kurdistan. Please pray.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com