Remembering Genocide, Preventing Disaster Exclusive to The California Courier
Posted on May. 16. 2019
By Andy Khawaja and Nadine Maenza, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Mr. Khawaja was appointed by Sen. Schumer and Ms. Maenza by President Trump to USCIRF
Nearly 104 years ago, against the ghastly backdrop of the First World War, the dwindling Ottoman Empire set out to commit genocide against its ancient Armenian Christian population. Driven by ethnic and religious nationalist fervor, Ottoman officers ordered their soldiers and tribal allies to force Armenian men, women, and children on “death marches” into the Syrian desert and to commit other well-documented atrocities. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Ottoman authorities massacred between 664,000 and 1.2 million Armenians during that terrifying 1915-1917 ordeal. They also killed around 275,000 Syriac Christians, and Greek Christians concurrently faced mass deportations and indiscriminate violence that only ended with a 1923 “population exchange” that displaced 1.1 million members of that community from their ancestral homes in the new Republic of Turkey.
Why reconsider these tragedies now, over a century later? In addition to honoring the memory of Armenian Genocide victims, the horror of that era also reminds us that history has remained especially unkind to some of the same communities. Widespread violence since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq displaced more than half of that country’s nearly 1 million Christians, many of whose families had settled there following the 1915-1917 atrocities. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) then ushered in a new era of brutality in 2014 with its genocidal attacks against Christians, Yazidis, and other vulnerable communities across Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, a new crisis has emerged in war-torn Syria. Ethnic Kurds have represented Turkey’s most recalcitrant foes since the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched a separatist movement in eastern Turkey in 1984. Now, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers synonymous with the PKK, leads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in protecting a large swath of Syria’s autonomous northeast. The SDF has been the United States’ most important local partner in the fight against ISIS, but this partnership has infuriated Turkey. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to send his military into northeast Syria and destroy the YPG, and most recently, his government announced plans to establish a “safe zone” that would extend 32 km from the Turkish border– implicitly predicated on the elimination of Kurdish fighters from the area by Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army allies.
Hundreds of thousands of people from religious and ethnic minorities, including Syriac Christians and Yazidis, also live in that same territory, where they found refuge after surviving repeated internal displacement and the 2014 ISIS onslaught. These communities now fear the potential implications of a full U.S. withdrawal, particularly given Turkish threats. They fear that such an operation could replicate and magnify the ethnic and religious cleansing that followed Turkey’s 2018 operations to wrest Afrin from Kurdish control. In that instance, Turkish forces stood aside as factions of their Free Syrian Army allies persecuted ethnic Kurds, attempted to forcibly convert Yazidis to Islam, and forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee the chaos. The replication of that scenario across northeast Syria would be devastating for Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis, and they would also threaten thousands of Armenians descended from those who fled to the area a century ago.
In light of this looming crisis, the Trump administration which formally recognized in 2017 the genocidal threat that the religious and ethnic minorities of Iraq and Syria have faced from ISIS must ensure that plans for the U.S. military withdrawal from northeastern Syria include explicit strategies to prevent the emergence of an atmosphere of chaos, impunity, and intolerance that could follow a large-scale Turkish incursion. To not do so risks opening the door to new atrocities and even an ISIS resurgence.