by Martin Accad
On 7 October 2019, US President Donald Trump announced that he would begin the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, where they had been providing airpower support primarily to Kurdish forces on the ground, in the fight against ISIS. By 9 October, Turkish troops were on the offensive in Syria, over 60,000 Syrians had been displaced, and intelligence agencies were warning of the impending reactivation of ISIS fighters and the possible escape of up to 100 ISIS prisoners who had been under the guard of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The subtitle of a recent article published in The Atlantic on 25 October sums it up: “Donald Trump, who vowed to get troops out of Syria altogether, incurred all the strategic costs without getting any of the political benefits.”
One of the dominant narratives that emerged after the US military redeployment, was the common perception of this act as a betrayal of the US’ Kurdish allies in the region, who would now likely face severe reprisals from Turkish forces, intent on creating a “safe zone” at their southeastern border. Even Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump supporter, tweeted on 9 October: “Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration. This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS.”
These positions and the narrative of betrayal are likely driven by a perception of the Kurds that has become increasingly prominent among Christians around the world. It has become customary in the global media in the last few years to depict Kurdish forces as the champion protectors of religious minorities, and the regions under their control as havens of liberty and freedom of worship for Christians. The YPG (a Syrian Kurdish militia) and the Peshmerga in Iraq, who “have defended Armenian enclaves against ISIS in those regions,” recognized Stepan Piligian in Armenian Weekly, shortly after the recent developments. But to those more familiar with twentieth-century history, there is something of an ironic twist in this narrative. As a recent article by academic researcher Morgan Hunter, on the Antiwar.com website, rightly points out, it is a fact well known to most people in the Middle East that “among the most enthusiastic participants in the Armenian massacres of 1915 were Kurdish Muslim tribesmen, who largely inhabited the same regions of Anatolia as Armenian Christian peasants.” Piligian concurs, affirming that the “complicity of many Kurds is a fact.” Although he also recognizes that “it is also a fact that many Kurds saved Armenians 100 years ago.”
The brutal force used by the Turkish military during their incursion into northern Syria since October is certainly having tragic consequences on both Kurdish and other minority groups in the region. But it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether Christians would be better off under Kurdish control in the longer term, as many have been claiming. To find out, I interviewed a Syrian Kurdish convert originally from the city of Afrin in northwest Syria, who very recently visited Qamishli in the northeastern governorate of al-Hasakah. Pastor Nihad Hassan was part of a compassionate mission carried out by a church group that visited refugees displaced by the recent Turkish offensive. He has not been secretive about his Christian faith in the social media, referring openly to his pastoral ministry to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. His message is one of love, forgiveness and compassion, modeled on the life and teaching of Jesus. And his regular sermons in the Kurdish language, posted on his personal Facebook page, have had such an impact that he was stopped several times by shop keepers and passers-by in Qamishli who recognized him and expressed to him how encouraged they were by his message.
Nihad described to me the atmosphere among Christians in northern Syria as one of fear following the Turkish invasion. Many spoke to him of the peaceful lull – fragile as it is – what they have been experiencing under Kurdish control since Kurdish armed groups took control of the area soon after the start of the Syrian war. They are now worried about their future.
Is it possible, then, that Kurdish society has gone through a form of redemption since the 1915 atrocities? Pastor Hassan thinks so. He believes that the murderous acts perpetrated by Sunni militant groups in the name of Islam against Syrian communities of all kinds have contributed to a deradicalization of many Muslim Kurds. Many have become interested in the Gospel and dozens, particularly in Lebanon, have embraced the peaceful message of Jesus.
In 2015, on the occasion of the hundredth-year commemoration of the Armenian genocide, Public Radio International published an article that documented the beginnings, in the city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey, of a process of Kurdish repentance for the role their ancestors had played in the perpetration of these atrocities. “Many Kurds felt ashamed of their participation in the massacres. “I felt ashamed of it”, Kurdish Nurcan Baysal is quoted as saying. “I travel a lot, and when I meet Armenians, I always apologize for what the Kurds have done.” Kurdish politician and former mayor of Diyarbakir’s old town, Abdullah Demirbas, agreed that Kurds had the moral responsibility to apologize for their role in the massacre of Armenian and Syriac communities as they develop a new national consciousness. “Part of this vision is apologizing for our part in the genocide,” he was quoted as saying in the PRI article. “Our silence makes us guilty.”
Theological Reflections and Missiological Implications
A previously cited article by Stepan Piligian points out that “in Turkey (western Armenia), the Kurds have gone through many years of public remorse for the past with credible efforts in the present.” His message is a call to young Armenians to live out of Christian values of forgiveness and redemption in order to get rid of historical bitterness. “If we lead with human compassion,” he says, “it will not only serve our moral responsibility, but serve as a reasonable method of engaging people we have traditionally shunned.” Piligian is hopeful about changes currently occurring among young Armenians. He closes with the following vision of compassion for his community: “We would all be wise to open our minds and let the fresh air of human compassion guide us. Our church has a major role in teaching compassion as a core value.”
Pastor Nihad Hassan is part of a new generation of Kurds who have opened themselves to repentance and to the redeeming power of Christ. The global church must respond to its call to pray and support the efforts of this emerging community of Christ followers. The tale of violence, forgiveness and redemption between Kurds, Armenians, Syriacs, and other minorities, amidst the turbulent political events currently unfolding in northern Syria, is one that may yet captivate the world’s attention. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” Jesus is quoted as saying in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John (vv. 34-35).