Jul 25, 2020
This op-ed originally appeared in Newsweek, on July 25, 2020.
By USCIRF Vice Chair Anurima Bhargava and Commissioner Nadine Maenza
As the world passively watches, Turkey is currently amassing troops on its border in preparation of once again invading and adding to its disastrous occupation of northeast Syria. It is imperative that the U.S. and the international community consider the consequences of Turkey’s actions on religious freedom in Syria—particularly on Yazidis, Christians, and Kurds—and take action before it is too late.
The Yazidis of Syria, who faced a devastating, genocidal campaign at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are once again suffering—but this time at the hands of a NATO ally. They and other vulnerable minorities have borne the brunt of violence against civilians as the Turkish military and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) invaded and occupied a major swath of northern Syria, beginning with Afrin in early 2018 and continuing to this day.
Only three months ago, in April 2020, Yazidis in the village of Basofan watched in horror as one TFSA group razed their precious Sheikh Ali shrine to the ground—sadly, just one among at least 18 sacred Yazidi sites destroyed in the last two years, along with 80% of Yazidi shrines across the country.
During that same period, human rights organizations, the United Nations, and civilians on the ground have documented horrid and repeated abuses and traumatization of the area’s Yazidi, Christian, and Kurdish minorities—atrocities that have resulted in tens of thousands forcibly displaced from their homeland, still unable or simply too terrified to return home. And since Turkey extended its occupation across a wider swatch of territory since October 2019, they and their TFSA allies have escalated violence against those civilians who remain, as reports of killings, rapes, and kidnappings have continued to emerge.
As expert witnesses repeatedly and powerfully underscored at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) June 10 hearing on conditions in northeast Syria, this situation is precarious. Sara Kayyali of Human Rights Watch explained that, “Since the incursion began, Turkey and the factions it supports have indiscriminately shelled civilian areas, carried out at least seven summary killings, unlawfully occupied private civilian homes and shops and looted the owners’ property, and have not accounted for aid workers who may have been forcibly disappeared while working in their zones.” According to Genocide Watch, Turkey and its TFSA allies are “perpetrating the full ethnic, religious, and demographic destruction of northern Syria,” and thereby committing “horrific crimes against humanity.”
Today, Turkish-TFSA forces occupy a large band of territory that had been under the protection of the SDF and the leadership of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) who, with the help of U.S. forces, wrested it from ISIS control—at the cost of nearly 11,000 of their soldiers’ lives. Turkey’s immediate goal is to stamp out Kurdish influence, which played an important role in the creation of the increasingly inclusive AANES. But religious freedom may be one of Turkey’s victims in northeast Syria where, against all odds, the AANES created a multi-ethnic and multi-religious government with legitimacy, representing a crucial refuge for vulnerable minorities as well as a unique safe space for religious freedom. As USCIRF described in its 2020 Annual Report, “AANES authorities continued to allow Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and others to openly practice their faiths and express their religious identities.” There, Syrian citizens may worship, convert, or even choose to disbelieve according to their conscience—a remarkable environment within a region long plagued by religious repression.
U.S. policy must clearly recognize and reflect the reality that Turkey’s cross-border operations do not just threaten its perceived Kurdish opponents; they also represent a clear and present danger to religious freedom in northeast Syria. The Trump administration has made religious freedom an explicit foreign policy priority; protecting religious freedom in northeast Syria is essential to putting that priority into practice.
We urge the United States to elevate its engagement with the AANES, including recognizing it as a legitimate, local government and lifting sanctions from all areas it governs. This engagement would complement the pre-existing U.S. partnership with the SDF. The U.S. should also demand AANES’s inclusion in all negotiations regarding a post-conflict Syria per United Nations Resolution 2254 “as the basis for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition in order to end the conflict in Syria.” In addition, the United States should pressure Turkey to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from Syria, particularly given the disastrous consequences that its presence in northeastern Syria could precipitate: the tragic disappearance—and feared religious and ethnic cleansing, if not worse—of Yazidis, Christians, and other marginalized communities.