While a veritable cloud-burst of 350+ rockets fell on Israel last week, a violent onslaught of death and destruction also swept across northern Syria. An invasion, under orders of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, features his national army assisted by jihadi shock troops storming Kurdish, Christian and Arab villages in northeast Syria’s so-called “Peace Corridor.”
Voice of America reported, “While announcing the operation on October 9, Erdogan tweeted in English that the operation by the Turkish army and its allied Syrian militants was to neutralize terror threats against Turkey by the Kurds and to establish a safe zone for the return of Syrian refugees.”
“In his tweets in Turkish and Arabic, however, Erdogan described his forces as ‘the heroes of the Mohammadian army’ – a term dating back to the Ottoman Empire,” the report continued.
The VoA article went on to say that during public speeches preceding the invasion of Turkish violence, Erdogan claimed that it was “to protect the dignity of the ummah,” meaning the Muslim world. He went so far as to praise the Turkey-backed rebels as “jihadists who even intimidate and kill death itself.”
Israelis have long been aware of the rancorous nature of Turkey’s president, whose animosity toward the Jewish state knows no bounds. And of course Jews have a very long history of dealing with sudden pogroms against their people in the Middle East. To this day, there are only handfuls of Jews left in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya or Iraq. And Turkey’s regime has become increasingly worrisome to its shrinking Jewish population.
So it came as no surprise to Israelis that Turkey’s Muslim strongman unleashed his troops on the Israel-friendly Kurds – and their Christian neighbors.
What did come as a shock to millions – including US military personnel who fought alongside courageous Kurdish fighters during operations to destroy ISIS – was US President Donald Trump’s thumbs-up to the attacks and its inevitable results: since the invasion began on October 6, Turkish forces have displaced some 400,000 residents, while killing and wounding hundreds. This is taking place along an approximately 20-mile wide strip of northeastern Syrian land that Erdogan now claims as his own.
It also came as a surprise to some that an ancient Christian community has quietly survived in that area of Syria since the first century. But now thousands of them have urgently fled – thanks to Erdogan’s “heroes of the Mohammadian army.”
The flight of the Christians bears a strong resemblance to ISIS’s overnight assault on Iraq’s ancient Christian communities in the Nineveh Plains in August 2014. They, too, left with little more than the shirts on their backs, and tens of thousands of them remain virtually homeless to this day.
Today’s Turkish onslaught also calls to mind the expulsion of 850,000 Jews from Muslim lands between 1948 and 1970. The slogan, “First comes Saturday, then comes Sunday,” has long signaled violence against Jews and Christians. It continues to play out in the Middle East one way or another. And it is noteworthy that the Armenian Genocide was, in Adolf Hitler’s mind, a prototype for his genocide of Jews.
I SPOKE to Elizabeth Kourie, who represents the Syriac Christian humanitarian group www.syriaccross.com and the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAA). She visited the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom on November 6. Her descriptive words were chilling:
“Following Trump’s phone call with Erdogan, within three days, Turkish troops began to move south across the Turkey-Syria border. They bombed all along the border. They were attacking anybody who was there; their targets were not military. Civilians were killed and wounded.”
“One of the first bombs that came from Turkey struck a Syriac Christian house in Qamishli, severely injuring parents and their children,” she said. “Our people were very much afraid. We knew that Turkey was coming with its Sunni jihadist mercenaries. We faced them a year ago in Afrin. We faced them in the history of the Ottoman Empire. We have had experience with Turkey with a couple of genocides, the largest being 1915. We know that if Turkey is coming, it’s coming with jihadists. And we know that we Christians will be targeted more than anyone else. Today, we estimate that 100,000 Syriac Christians are still somewhere in the area. A hundred thousand already fled in 2015.”
As of now, the Syriac Christians’ most immediate concern – apart from guns, mortars, drones and Turkish aircraft – has to do with the impending arrival of winter.
“Places to shelter, blankets, jackets, gloves, boots, and more are needed,” Kourie told me. “Those who wish to be of help need to act quickly, before freezing weather settles into the Middle East. We are the indigenous people of our land. We are the first Christians, still speaking the language of Jesus. And we need help.”
I spoke to Charmaine Hedding, president of Israel-based Shai Fund (theshaifund.org), which has been working in northeast Syria for the past five years, since ISIS attacked the region and attempted to drive out all the religious minorities. Hedding explained, “What’s left of the 100,000 Christians are now facing extinction or exile along with 400,000 Kurds, Arab tribes and Yazidis, who are fleeing from Turkish-paid jihadis that are committing human rights abuses, looting and occupying stolen lands. This is a humanitarian emergency in what was once a stabilized region.”
For now, a shaky ceasefire seems to be settling across Israel’s jittery neighborhoods. And as I write this, an email regarding northeast Syria tells me that violence “is still going on the last three days, is really bad with the Turkey air support… a lot of casualties.”
These conflicts come and go, and the long war is far from over. Meanwhile, in the eyes of our fervent enemies, we Jews and Christians still remain the Saturday People and the Sunday People. And the common ground we share continues to be stained with blood.
Lela Gilbert is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, award-winning author and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. She lived in Jerusalem for over a decade and her book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner received wide critical acclaim. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @lelagilbert.
This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post