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Friday, 7 February 2014

Syria's Christian Minority Are Fighting Back | VICE Media

The security office is so neatly tucked away into a small side street that it’s a little difficult to take it seriously as a threatening resistance operation. Inside, young guys are sitting around with rifles, some in uniform, others in civilian clothes. It's a typical scene in today’s Syria – a country with more armed groups than is possible to count – except for the fact that the office is so clean you could eat off the floor, and most of the men are strikingly well-groomed. Also, the sign on the office wall is in a language other than Arabic or Kurdish, the two main languages of the region, and there is a cross in its centre.

Sutoro, the name the organisation goes under, means "police" in Syriac, the language of the Assyrian Christians of the area – the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast of the country. The group has been described as a Christian militia, but it’s really a neighbourhood watch, albeit with arrest powers and automatic weapons. Its members patrol the streets of Qahtaniya, Al-Malikiyah and Qamishli, towns and cities where people – mostly Kurds, but also Christians and Sunni Arabs – are locked in a brutal struggle against Islamist militants, some of them with ties to al-Qaeda.

Syria’s Christians – many of whom are richer and more comfortable than the country’s mostly poor Sunni majority – have mostly featured in the news as victims of the country's civil war. The fighting between Islamist rebels and government forces in Maaloula, a Christian town north of Damascus where Aramaic – the language of Christ – is still spoken, has been widely reported and seen as another ominous development for a community that was, until a few years ago, thriving not just in Syria but also in Iraq. Since the conflict began, 450,000 Christians are thought to have left the country, more than a quarter of the original total. But some are now resisting.

"We started this group to allow our people to defend themselves, and to assure them that they don’t have to leave their land. The jihadis are targeting us,” says the Sutoro’s commander in Qahtaniya. Like most Syrian Christians – organised or not – he is fearful enough of publicity to ask me not to print his name. The Sutoro doesn’t operate independently, but in cooperation with Kurdish security forces, the northeast’s dominant power. Patrolling and manning checkpoints, they are mostly busy with town security, deterring crime and solving smaller local problems. One group is said to be active on the frontline that divides the region declared an autonomous Kurdish territory at the beginning of this year from the areas controlled by the mainly Arab rebels.

The Kurds have made a point of not tolerating rival armed groups on their territory – a key to the region’s relative calm – but they don’t seem to mind that some of the Christians are forming militias. "All the communities are equal here, so these guys have the right to protect their areas,” says Shahin Yakub, Kurdish police spokesman in Al-Malikiyah. "They coordinate everything with us and there are only about 20 of them in this town.”

The attitude wasn’t always so tolerant; a few months ago, when the Sutoro first tried to set up shop in Al-Malikiyah, the Kurds disarmed them. The intensifying war against the Islamists, and the resulting suicide-bombing campaign that has targeted Kurdish towns, may have helped to change their minds.


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Syria's Christian Minority Are Fighting Back | VICE Media
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