The Islamic State-perpetrated genocide in Iraq and Syria and the ongoing Syrian Civil War are dual tragedies that have fallen disproportionately on Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in the region. Many who were not murdered were compelled to leave the region entirely, resulting in a massive drop in their populations. Yet even after all of this, the tragedy is not over—it may have just begun. The survivors of the ISIS genocide are now threatened by aggression from Turkey, which now menaces the social structures and institutions that have been built to protect them.
Since 2016, Turkey has invaded northern Syrian three times, expanding its territory with each successive incursion carried out under the pretext of counter-terrorism. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is once again threatening an all-out invasion of northern Syria, purportedly to complete an “anti-terror” buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border that will stretch thirty kilometers deep into Syrian territory. However, in this case, history is our best guide. Since 2016, the territory invaded and held by Turkey has become a hotbed for Turkish-backed jihadist groups, which govern their territory under Shari’a law.
Turkey’s threats, if brought to fruition, could displace upwards of a million people. Such aggression represents a direct threat not only to the interests, lands, and livelihoods of these minorities, but also to their very lives.
Erdogan’s robust but cryptic threat to “come down on them suddenly one night” leaves no doubt as to his intentions. It is no secret in Washington that the Turkish Embassy is seeking support in the United States for such a move. On the flip side, a coalition of diverse organizations has already been working to challenge this aggression.
It would require a fair amount of intellectual gymnastics to assert and believe that Erdogan is really attempting to create any sort of legitimate security zone. He is clearly looking only to eradicate his foes and expand his geopolitical foothold.
The Syriac Military Council, a Christian militia, has fought as a vital part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and other extremist groups. For nearly a decade, the Syriac Military Council has served to protect the Syriac Christians of northeast Syria—one of the world’s oldest and final remaining Aramaic-speaking Christian communities in the world—and now finds itself in Turkey’s crosshairs. A recent report by the Wilson Center puts this quite starkly, saying, “What was once a ‘Turkish-Kurdish’ conflict, now impacts every single religious and ethnic group in northern Syria, the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, and the Sinjar region of western Iraq.”
This is not the first time that Turkey has attempted a similar maneuver. In fact, it would be the fourth since 2016. Since the most recent invasion in 2019, Turkey has violated the U.S.-brokered ceasefire with frequent aerial bombings of civilian towns. Erdogan’s current rhetoric reflects his intent to claim Syrian territory stretching all the way to the Iraqi border, once and for all. This rhetoric promises a particularly bloody outcome.
During the October 2019 Turkish incursion into northern Syria, paradoxically named “Operation Peace Spring,” the Turkish military and its jihadist proxy forces captured three U.S.-allied Syriac Christian soldiers while passively guarding the final remaining Christian towns in the region. The captives were transferred to Turkey in violation of the Geneva Conventions. There, they were beaten, tortured, and forced to sign confessions in Turkish (a language foreign to them) without the assistance of counsel or an interpreter, leading to them being sentenced to life in prison. As a result of international pressure, they’ve been docketed for retrial, which hardly makes up for the ongoing systemic abuse.
Indeed, according to Nadine Maenza, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and newly appointed president of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Secretariat, the fate of the region’s minorities is on the line: “If this area falls [to Turkey], there won’t be any Christians or Yazidis left.”
Not only is Turkey driving out Christians and other ethno-religious minorities, but it also seeks to replace them with the roughly 3.6 million Syrian, mostly Arab, refugees currently within Turkish borders. An act of unchecked aggression would be compounded by an act of ethnic cleansing and replacement.
Turkey’s eventual and conditional acquiescence to Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications has caused too many around the world to ignore Turkey’s long list of sins, all of which are completely inconsistent with the values of NATO. Sustained Western arms sales to Turkey will intensify Turkey’s existential threat to the area’s ethno-religious minorities. Such minority communities, many of which are America’s most loyal regional allies, should not be forsaken on the altar of Turkish appeasement. If the United States is interested in defending some of the region’s most vulnerable communities, it should make clear to Erdogan that aggressive action, as threatened, will be met with swift and sure consequences.
Cliff Smith is the Washington Project Director of the Middle East Forum.
Richard Ghazal is the Executive Director of In Defense of Christians.
Diliman Abdulkader is the President of American Friends of Kurdistan.