The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has revealed that Turkish-backed fighters are persecuting Christians and Yazidis in the wake of the withdrawal of American troops from Northern Syria.
The region was previously overrun by ISIS fighters before the Islamic terror group was driven back from the territory in 2018 by a coalition force of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and US troops. However, in October 2019 President Donald Trump announced that he would be withdrawing US personnel from the region, allowing a Turkish military offensive on SDF-held areas. According to a testimony made at a recent USCIRF hearing, the action has put thousands of Christians in grave peril.
USCIRF Vice-Chair Nadine Maenza said: “I visited northeast Syria in late 2019 where I was able to see for myself the devastation brought upon the Christian villages near the area Turkey had invaded.
"I met with religious and community leaders and heard about the remarkable religious freedom conditions under the autonomous administration and how that is now nonexistent in the area Turkey occupies.”
She added: “Turkey is now threatening the crucial population centers of Kobane and Qamishli even as it has used the world’s complete inattention to forcefully repopulate abandoned towns with refugees from other parts of Syria, just as it had done in Afrin [in February 2018]. [These] are actions that Genocide Watch has just indicated are war crimes fitting the legal definition of crimes against humanity.”
Amy Austin Holmes, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a professor at the American University in Cairo, also warned the hearing of systematic oppression against Christians and Yazidis at the hands of Turkish-backed militia.
“They have been killed, disappeared, kidnapped, raped, detained, subjected to forced religious conversions and held for ransom until their families pay exorbitant sums of money to secure their release.
"They have been forcibly displaced and driven from their homes. Their places of worship have been defaced, destroyed and looted. Even their cemeteries have been demolished and vandalised. The international community has failed to take action.”
Holmes added that the brutal oppression of religious minorities had been made possible because of the withdrawal of US military from the area.
She explained: "Partial withdrawal of U.S. forces in October 2019 created a vacuum allowing these crimes to take place. Christian and Yazidi organizations warned that this would happen before the Turkish intervention."
Holmes also noted that Christians and Yazidis are being subjected to kidnapping as a way of cleansing the area of people from a minority background. "This is a way to engage in ethnic cleansing and demographic change without actually killing people because they cannot afford to pay this ransom,” she explained, adding that her submitted testimony contained details of "the villages from which [Christians] have been forcibly displaced."
She added that the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, is attempting to “dismantle the laws that guarantee religious equality, religious freedom and gender equality that were created by the autonomous administration" and noted that 35 Assyrian Christian villages are within less than six miles of the Turkish front lines.
The Turkish-backed forces are attempting to "force Yazidis, in particular, to renounce their religion and convert to Islam," she explained.
"This includes signs that have been placed in Afrin that demand that women wear a veil. Women have been arrested by Turkish-backed militias in Afrin and elsewhere who travel without a male relative. This is the same policy that ISIS enforced on women in areas that ISIS used to control. They required that Muslim women if they wanted to leave their homes, had to travel with a male guardian.”
Holmes said that the historically Kurdish-majority SDF are now "the only armed group in Syria that has a policy of not discriminating on the basis of religion, ethnicity or gender." She added that people of other religions are now joining its ranks in order to protect the region from Turkish invasion. She added: "My survey data shows that the SDF has incorporated members of all religious groups, of all ethnic groups. Arabs from every major and minor tribe in Syria have members how joined the SDF.”