In northern Syria, a small band of Assyrian Christians are defending their people -- and their religious identity -- from the Islamic State and Assad alike.
TAL HAMIS, Syria — Johan Cosar sits on the floor of a cold, dark room with his knees pulled up to his chest, an AK-47 leaning casually against his leg. The electricity has cut out, but he is unconcerned. Sudden darkness is a regular occurrence in war-ravaged Syria.
Without lights, it is still possible to make out the checkered pattern of the blue and white scarf tied tightly around his head and the thick, dark stubble that covers his face. Directly above him on the dirtied wall, there’s a reproduction tapestry of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, intricacy obscured by the darkness. He’s a long way from home, but Cosar, who has been fighting in Syria for more than two years, now looks like he belongs on the front lines of Syria’s civil war much more than he would in the Swiss city of St. Gallen, where he was raised by Assyrian Christian parents.
Cosar, 32, is the commander of the Martyr Obdar Company — named after a fallen comrade — and one of the founders of the Syriac Military Council, or MFS, after its name in the ancient Assyrian language. MFS is an Assyrian Christian militia, one of the countless battalions embroiled in Syria’s four-year war. The MFS is the armed military wing of the Mesopotamia National Council (MUB), which represents the Assyrian people in Syria, who are based mainly in al-Hasakah province.
On Tuesday, Feb. 24, Islamic State militants advancing on al-Hasakah’s southern border kidnapped between 70 and 100 Assyrian civilians from the village of Tal Shamiram. The kidnapping has captured the world’s attention, in part due to the infamous brutality with which the Islamic State treats its captives. But it is only the latest horror in an ongoing battle between Assyrians and the Sunni jihadis.
Assyrians, an ethnic minority, represent one small faction of prewar Syria’s 1.8 million Christian population. The Syrian government, to the exasperation of Assyrians, has never regarded the Assyrians as a separate ethnicity, instead classifying them as Arab, while Assyrians consider themselves a separate ethnic group with roots in the region dating back more than 4,000 years. Their identity is closely associated with Christianity, the faith Assyrians have followed since shortly after the religion’s beginning. Historically oppressed and underrepresented in political life, the Assyrians in northern Syria have armed themselves in an effort to protect their identity amid the chaos of civil war.
“We cannot give a specific number of Assyrians that have fled, but it hasn’t been a very large number of people, because Assyrians are a very small minority in Syria,” says Rami Abdul Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London, a leading group tracking refugee movement in Syria. “The only areas where Assyrians are left, even before the war, is in Hasakah province and small villages surrounding there.”
A dozen men occupy the Obdar Company’s makeshift barracks on the front line in Tal Hamis, a small town in the province of al-Hasakah. The MFS boasts 800 fighters — a small player in the war — yet it remains the only fighting group solely representing the Assyrian population on the battlefield. Working in tandem with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), small groups of fighters are positioned across the front lines that hem off al-Hasakah from the rest of Syria’s war.
But that doesn’t mean that Cosar’s men are only playing defense. Some members of his battalion participated in operations against the Islamic State in Sinjar in neighboring Iraq. By fighting alongside the YPG, which has firm control over al-Hasakah, Cosar believes he is securing Assyrians a spot in whatever political gains are made by the Kurds after the war.
The men in the barracks say they are motivated by the Islamic State’s persecution of their fellow Christians. When the Islamic States takes a Christian village, its militants blow up churches and destroy houses. Residents are given the choice to convert, die, or run. Instead, the MFS decided to fight back. Its bullets, however, are not just reserved for the Sunni extremists: The Syrian government is also a target, the young men in the barracks say.
Inside the barracks, a small diesel-powered heater in the corner warms the main room, filling the cramped, damp space with fumes. A dirty picture of the Virgin Mary sits in a plastic picture frame on a splintered shelf. The old house — abandoned late last summer when Islamic State militants advanced into the province — was retaken by the Assyrian militia last November. The men sit barefoot and cross-legged on mats, chain-smoking and ashing cigarettes in empty tuna cans. Their machine guns are never more than an arm’s length away.
Cosar’s parents are Assyrians from Turkey who moved to Switzerland before he was born. He left his home more than two and a half years ago to come to Syria as an aspiring journalist. He says he hoped to fill the information void left behind after media outlets started pulling reporters from the war as it became increasingly dangerous.
“I wanted to explain to European people outside what was really happening here because everyone talked about Syria but no one was actually in Syria,” says Cosar.
“But when I came to Syria in the Rojava area [the autonomous Kurdish area], we had, of course, my people here too. I started looking at their lack of organization, so I began to give some tips to the Assyrian guys here on starting the militia, and that became my new role.” Cosar had been a sergeant in the Swiss Army. Within six months, he found himself gun in hand, with a fledgling militia at his command.
As Cosar tells his story, fighters cross in and out of the room and hang their M6 and AK-47 rifles from the rusted pins that jut out of the crumbling walls. Above Cosar, the muffled sound of shuffling feet can be heard through the thin ceiling.
The feet belong to Matai Nazha, a 20-year-old fighter from Qamishli, a city near the border with Turkey that has a large Assyrian population. Positioned inside a crude shelter made of bricks and sandbags on the roof of the barracks, Nazha stares out and struggles to see through a thick curtain of fog and rain. The Islamic State’s fighters are only about a mile away; Nazha’s job is to keep watch.
From Nazha’s position, a ransacked church is visible a few hundred meters away. “The Islamic State” is scribbled in Arabic on one of the church’s walls, pockmarked with bullet holes. The roof is destroyed, blown up by the retreating jihadis when a joint force of YPG and MFS fighters took back the church and surrounding area from the Islamic State last November.
Nazha, a young Assyrian with no previous battle history, was among the fighters who repelled the Islamic State. Crouching behind soggy sandbags, below a corrugated metal sheet that provides little cover, Nazha scours the land beyond the ruined church. The blue, white, and red flag of MFS, ripped and dirtied, flaps in the winter wind, somehow hanging onto a pole that has been shoved into the mounds of dirt used as cover from Islamic State sniper fire.
“For me, I just want the Islamic State to know that despite how many people they kill, bomb our churches, we are Assyrian Christians, we will never leave our people here or our country,” Nazha says.
Back inside, the electricity has returned momentarily. Two flickering bulbs illuminate the room. The tapestry of The Last Supper can be made out in full. Cosar says he never imagined he’d become a militiaman in the bloody Syrian civil war, but six months into his trip he realized that his people, the Assyrians, were under threat and were going to need a fighting force.
The Kurds inspired him. “I thought, ‘OK, the Kurdish people they moved — they moved to fight for something in this new Syria,’” Cosar says. He sits up straighter when he begins to describe his plans for Assyrians in the region. “We are not fighting to defend only our religion; we are trying to take back again our identity in this new Syria we are building.”
While the Kurds are largely leading Rojava’s struggle toward independence, the Assyrians want to be included and represented in the final outcome. By helping the Kurds secure and defend the region, they believe they are guaranteeing themselves a place at the table.
While most of Syria’s territories have been carved out in the fight along ethnic and sectarian lines, the struggle for al-Hasakah seems to be a fight for unity and inclusion of those who are willing to defend the small province. MFS fighters say their fight is to defend their homeland, but not just for their people. All are in agreement that they fight for all people — Muslim or Christian, Arab, Kurd, or Assyrian — who call al-Hasakah province and Rojava home. They say the aim is for every group to have equal rights and representation in the province. “I am not a religious guy,” Cosar continues. “And no one here [in the MFS] is fighting for religion.”
Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images