A disturbing report from the Assyrian Policy Institute provides details on an incident in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli in which Kurdish militia fighters supposedly opened fire during a protest by local Assyrian Christians. Footage of the incident was first posted on YouTube, and tweeted by opponents of the Kurdish autonomous administration. According to the report, the unrest began on Aug. 28 when private Assyrian schools in Qamishli were invaded by a mixed force of “militiamen belonging to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD),” and allied Sutoro and Dawronoye militias. The PYD militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is the central pillar of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Sutoro, affiliated with the Syriac Military Council, and Dawronoye are both leftist Assyrian formations in the orbit of the PYD. The militia forces attempted to order the schools closed; staff resisted, and protesters gathered. Children reportedly held signs reading “Don’t deprive us of our right to education” and “We want our schools, our freedom, and our childhood.” Protestors chanted, “We will remain Assyrians and die in this land.” The report actually said it was Sutoro fighters that fired in the air to break up the protest—contrary to representations on YouTube and Twitter portraying Kurdish troops firing on the demonstrators.
Despite this distortion, the report is of course extremely ominous. The dispute apparently began Aug. 7, when PYD-led authorities in Qamishli issued an edict closing the schools. This followed the refusal of school administrators to accept a “new curriculum imposed by the PYD.” No further detail is given, but social media posts on the affair suggest the new curriculum was either too secular, or too propagandistic—especially in its glorification of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish revolutionary leader imprisoned in Turkey.
The Assyrian Policy Institute tells us that these private schools are administered by the local diocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and have been in operation since 1935. These schools “follow the Syrian Government’s curriculum, but also offer classes in Assyrian as a liturgical language.”
The city of Qamishli, known to Assyrians as Beth Zalin, was founded by Assyrians in the aftermath of the Assyrian Genocide, carried out by Ottoman Turkish forces of 1915. The Assyrian Policy Institute states: “Prior to the start of the war in Syria, upwards of 25,000 Assyrians inhabited the city. Today, it is estimated that only half remain.”
Qamishli is now within Jazira administrative region of the Kurdish-led autonomous zone of Rojava. With the Rojava Kurds and Syrian opposition now pitted against each other by Great Power manipulation to the point that ethnic war threaetens, the opposition has been quick to jump on claims both that the PYD-YPG is committing “ethnic cleansing” against non-Kurds, and collaborating with Assad. Recent claims of the YPG press-ganging youth for military service in areas it has taken from ISIS have further polarized the situation.
There is a certain irony to this unfortunate incident in Qamishli, however. Syria’s Christians have been widely portrayed as supportive of the Assad regime due to their (well grounded) fear of persecution at the hands of Sunni jihadists. The Assyrians especially have every historical reason to distrust Turkey, patron of the Syrian opposition. Indeed, one photo on Twitter shows protesters in Qamishli draping the flag of the Assad regime and portraits of the dictator over the windshield of a Sutoro patrol vehicle.
One senses propaganda exploitation of the Qamishli incident to score points against the PYD. As usual, the Kurds are getting it from both sides. For all the accusations against the PYD from supporters of the Syrian opposition, it is supporters of the Assad regime that have been jumping on this incident on social meida. For all their enmity, regime and opposition seem equally hostile to Kurdish autonomy.
But neither does a propaganda campaign against them mean that the PYD are blameless, of course. The PYD’s own propaganda partisans are practically certain to say nothing about the incident at all. More honest grappling with the realities on the ground in northern Syria is urgently called for if a potentially disastrous ethnic war is to be avoided: potentially, a three-way war, pitting not only Kurd against Arab, but both against Assyrians.
Image: Assyrian Policy Institute