AN “evil proxy war” continues to rage in Syria, where there are fears about demographic change and the future of the country’s minorities, the Revd Nadim Nassar, a Syrian-born priest in the Church of England, said this week.
Recently returned from Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, Iraq, Mr Nassar, director of the Awareness Foundation, said that he had heard “a lot of worry” about the Turkish incursion, not only about casualties, but about the agenda driving the action.
“I think my feeling is the fear: What does Turkey want from entering into the Syrian territories?” he said. There was anxiety that the aim was demographic change in north-east Syria, where it has been reported that the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aims to resettle one million Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni Muslims.
There was also fear “that the Christian number that left after all those years of war in the north-east Syria have dropped even further”, Mr Nassar said. “Many believe that Turkey hit on purpose many churches. The first one destroyed was an Armenian church, so there is a lot of tension, anger, uncertainty, and fear about another episode of what they call ‘the Ottoman greed’ — to take either land or secure loyalty of the north-east of Syria to Turkey.”
It is now two weeks since Turkish forces entered north-east Syria in an offensive against Kurdish-held areas. The incursion has prompted about 180,000 people to flee their homes, the UN reports (News, 18 October). More than 7000 Syrian refugees, mainly women and children, have arrived in Iraq in recent days. In all, about 228,000 have fled to the country.
Concerns have also been raised by the Christian minorities living in the region. A Syriac Christian leader, Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, told National Public Radio in the United States that the offensive was “a message to the Kurds and Christians there to leave, so Turkey can move refugees there. We think it’s a form of ethnic cleansing.”
This week, the Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, visited Syrian army troops in north-west Idlib province. The army, backed by Russia, is seeking to retake the province, the last that remains out of its control. Hundreds of people were killed in the offensive, before a ceasefire was put in place in August (News, 5 July).
State media reported that, during his visit to the frontline, President Assad accused the Turkish President of “stealing our land”.
Despite the withdrawal of American troops, Mr Nassar spoke of his conviction that, “we are still dealing with a proxy war in a Syria on a big scale. . . America is very involved politically and supporting whoever they want to support on the ground. In a way, it’s a political game America is playing with Russia, Turkey, the NATO countries, plus Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, the Syrian government.
“We are still in the depths of this, what I call, evil proxy war that is squeezing the life out of Syria, destroying a lot of villages, cities, and, more importantly, destroying humanity in that country. . . We are witnessing one of the worst human tragedies in the world after the Second World War, which is continuing to unfold, and it seems we have no solution in the horizon.”
Noting the announcement last month of a 150-member committee, comprising opposition, civil-society, and government members, with the task of rewriting the Syrian constitution, Mr Nassar questioned its timing.
“How I see things usually: we end the war and then work on the constitution,” he said. “We don’t work on the constitution while the war is raging.” It was not the right time to put the constitution to the people of Syria. “I don’t think at all that Syria is ready for that.”
Suggestions that the war was over were wrong, he said. “As long as there is a victor and a loser it means the country is a loser. The country overcomes the war when there is agreement which is a win-win solution rather than win-lose, and in this situation we should have a political agreement that the people of Syria can trust. At the moment we are far from it.”
In the coming months he hoped for a complete withdrawal of all foreign armies from Syrian soil, including Turkish troops.
Asked about the personal impact of the eight-year war in the country of his birth, he said: “My heart is still bleeding, and I am personally in deep prayer for the people of Syria. As you know, I have never taken a side, neither the side of the Government, nor the side of the opposition. I take sides with the people of Syria, and my red line is the people.”
The “numeric minorities” of Syria continued to emigrate, he said, particularly Christians. “We need to engage with them constantly about how to support their presence. We should stop talking about the persecuted Church, and speak about the suffering people of Syria including the Church, and the spirit of hope that they are not abandoned, and God is still at work, even in the middle of the bloodshed. His grace is abundant through his people there. It’s not easy, but it is possible.”