A month of new political and military collaborations has produced a temporary ceasefire and some progress in Syria. Representatives of Middle East churches, meanwhile, gathered to consider their future in the region and heard calls for a Christian homeland in Iraq.
The last few weeks have seen remarkable developments in Syria. It began with a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia and signs that Turkey was gearing towards changing its Syria policies. Reports revealed that the USA and Turkey have been in talks for some time about a possible Turkish invasion of northern Syria, to remove so-called Islamic State and prevent the territorial expansion of Kurdish groups west of the River Euphrates.
While Turkey was still recovering from the 15 July coup attempt, the Turkish military entered Syria and fought alongside more than 1,000 Syrian militia fighters to force IS out of the northern border town of Jerabulus. They received aerial support from the US Air Force and no opposition from Russia and the Syrian government.
Syrian Kurds in the form of the PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its military wing, the YPG (Kurdish Protection Units) condemned the move as Turkish aggression against the Kurds. Until now the Kurds, with US military back-up, have led many of the most effective incursions against IS. In supporting Turkey while also aiding Kurdish forces, who have long held hopes of their own state, the USA is attempting a delicate balancing act. Inside Turkey, the militant Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) reacted by launching further attacks against the Turkish military and the government responded by shelling Kurdish targets inside Turkey and Syria.
Now that IS no longer has a direct foothold on the important Syria-Turkey border, it finds itself land-locked and losing territory on three fronts: to Kurdish groups, to forces backed by Turkey and the wider coalition, and to Russian, Iranian and Syrian regime forces. As the jihadist group is now at its weakest in Syria and Iraq, analysts warned of higher risks of terrorism abroad now that hundreds of European IS fighters have returned home.
Apart from the conflict with IS, the USA and Russia brokered a new agreement that has resulted in a nationwide ceasefire in Syria that began on Monday (13 September). Aid and humanitarian corridors are part of this agreement but relief agencies were still awaiting guarantees of safety from all parties on Thursday before beginning their mercy missions.
Meanwhile in London last week, the main Syrian opposition groups launched their new peace plan. This would involve an immediate six-month ceasefire followed by a transition phase in which President Assad’s family and their close clique would leave the country before a national consensus could be reached. Critics pointed out that there is no sign that the Assad family are prepared to leave and that it would be a near impossible task to unite all the diverse rebel groups and fighters in a shared vision for future. So hopes for an end to a war that has claimed 400,000 lives and scattered more than 4.8 million refugees around the world still seem far off.
Chaos and conspiracy in Turkey
Next door, Turkey is still stumbling through the chaos caused by July’s failed coup attempt. Initial national unity gave way to grave concern over the massive purges that have seen some 70,000 state employees lose their jobs on allegations of being followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen. Journalists critical of the government, Kurdish politicians and civil servants are facing similar pressures, purges and arrests. Many fear being accused of being Gülen sympathisers by those who simply have scores to settle.
As Turkish newspapers continue to roll out wild conspiracy theories over the causes of the coup, Christians have suffered from these dangerous games. Some papers claimed that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Archbishop of Constantinople, was one of the masterminds of the coup, as he wanted to re-establish Greek rule in the country. While the report was ridiculed by other media outlets, it is always a cause for concern when Turkey’s small Christian community finds itself a target of suspicion and prejudice. There are less than 2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians left in a country that once hosted hundreds of thousands.
Meanwhile, newly released videos gave fresh proof of official involvement in the 2007 assassination of prominent Armenian and human rights journalist Hrant Dink. For nine years, Dink’s family and lawyers argued that the young man who killed him did not act alone. Now video footage implicates several military intelligence officers present at the scene.
Last week, Jordan hosted the 11th General Assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). Some 22 presidents of churches from Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran gathered to reflect on common challenges facing the Christian communities in the region and also met with King Abdullah. The Jordanian king gave his support by saying that “Christians in the Arab world are an integral part of the Arab social fabric, and protecting their rights is a duty of all.”
At the close of the three-day assembly, the church leaders stated how they appreciate the support of Muslim leaders in the region and valued their combatting of extremism. They asked for intervention to stop the war in Syria, to give support to the region’s refugees and urged the speedy election of a president in Lebanon. In Lebanon, the constitution requires the president to be a Christian but the post has been vacant for more than two years as the sides cannot agree on a candidate.
A more controversial note was struck by Louis Raphael Sako, the Patriarch of the Iraq-based Chaldean Catholic Church. He argued that, after the IS threat is eliminated, Christians should be given an independent homeland in the region or the right to choose an area where they can settle and live in safety. There have been many calls over the years to allow Christians to form semi-autonomous zones in the Nineveh Plains, an idea which is still regularly discussed. The patriarch proposed a referendum for Christians to decide whether they wanted to be governed by Baghdad, by the Kurdish Regional Government, or choose to belong to a Sunni-state that might emerge. Christians remain vulnerable while the three powerful people groups – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds – hold varying levels of political power and have strong militias, finance and regional backing.
Meanwhile, a Christian pastor in New York made headlines by sending $4,000 for Christians in Iraq to buy weapons to use in the struggle against IS. The incident raises the serious issue of what forms of aid and intervention Western Christians should or should not offer to help their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters. How we engage has wide repercussions and demands deep reflection.
Church building in Egypt: an amber light?
Finally, something that has been a long time coming. Promised by President Sisi and by President Mubarak before him, the Egyptian parliament finally voted through a bill relating to the building of new churches. Until now, a new church building has required permission from the President himself, and until recently, even basic repairs needed his approval. The new law gives the responsibility to the local governor. Many have welcomed this as a step in the right direction. There are still worries, however, that the law means governors might decide only after consulting with many government bodies that might oppose permission, and there is resentment that such restrictions do not apply to mosques. Time will show how the law will be applied.
The Briefing is provided by an independent Middle East analyst and does not necessarily reflect the views of SAT-7 UK Trust.