6 things you should know about the conflict in northern Syria

October 18, 2019 by Christopher Summers in Middle East

Over the last week, you’ve helped Christians in northern Syria through the danger and stress of a new conflict in this war-torn region. But this fighting between Turkey and forces in northern Syria is complicated, and confusing. Why are they fighting? Are Christians at risk? What does it mean that there’s a ceasefire—and is the fighting over? How can you help?

 

We want to help you engage with your sisters and brothers in Syria, and help them through your prayers and support. So here are 6 things you should know about the conflict in northern Syria.

Why did Turkey attack northern Syria?

Turkey attacked northern Syria, starting on October 9. Their stated goal was to create a “safe zone” that would extend about 20 miles south of the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey believes that Kurdish militants—particularly one group of them—represent a threat to Turkish security. The Kurdish forces had previously worked with American troops in efforts to defeat ISIS militants that had taken over large chunks of eastern and northern Syria. When American troops were withdrawn, this allowed the Turkish military to begin an operation into northern Syria to attack armed Kurdish groups since there was no longer any fear of attacking American military personnel.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are a people group who mostly live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They are primarily Muslim, though there are minority religions among them, including Christians.

Who are the Christians in this part of Syria?

Open Doors estimates there are around 40,000 to 50,000 Christians in northern Syria who could be impacted by this conflict. These range from evangelical groups like Christian and Missionary Alliance churches, to traditional groups like Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic and Armenian Christians. Before this most recent crisis, Christians in this region had put aside denominational differences to help deal with the challenges of the Syrian Civil War and attacks from ISIS. In Qamishli, a city in northern Syria where Open Doors partner churches have helped during this crisis, evangelical and Syriac Catholic leaders helped each other to fill in ministry gaps where needed.

What is the danger for Christians because of this conflict?

Christians are at risk in several ways. Of course, they are caught up in the broader conflict as Turkey has attacked cities and towns where Christians live and have churches. Just like their surrounding communities, they are at risk for airstrikes, bombings, shelling and other dangers. So far there has been no evidence that Christians have been singled out for additional attacks or violence.

But the more alarming danger for Christians in northern Syria is that the group whom Turkey is targeting to remove from the “buffer zone” that Turkey hopes to establish is the same group who helped defeat ISIS and is currently overseeing prison camps of ISIS fighters and sympathizers. The Kurdish militant group runs prison camps that have around 100,000 ISIS members and their families; if they are pushed out of power, or forced to abandon those camps, there is a real concern that ISIS could have a resurgence in northern and eastern Syria, once again endangering the lives of the believers who live in the region.

There’s a ceasefire—is the danger over?

Praise God for the cessation in violence. “We thank God [for the ceasefire], we were praying God to intervene and we’ve asked for so much foreign, Arab and local churches to pray with us for a cease fire,” says Pastor George, a pastor in Qamishli, a city near the Turkish-Syrian border. “People might think it’s a political decision but we trust that the Lord is higher than human kingdoms. We know it was a prayer response, He moved His hand due to our prayers and our friends’ prayers in those tough times.” The five-day ceasefire negotiated by the United States on October 17 is, no doubt, an answer to prayer!

However, there is also need for caution and continued prayer. “Turkey gave a deadline to the Kurds of 120 hours last night for the Kurdish troops to leave,” Pastor George said on October 18. “If they don’t, there will be consequences.”

Another Open Doors partner in the region, Aziz, agrees with Pastor George’s assessment—and he points out that the need for believers in the region was great before the recent conflict, simply due to the Syrian Civil War and attacks from ISIS. “Yes, it calmed down, but there is no agreement yet,” he says. “It’s a precarious calm. Whatever happens, the need that existed before the Turkish incursion is still there.”

Two church workers in Qamishli in northern Syria discuss relief aid. Open Doors partners with this church to help believers in the region.

What is Open Doors doing in northern Syria?

Open Doors is on the ground through partner churches and groups in northern Syria. “Before the Turkish incursion that started on Wednesday, October 9, we were already working through one church denomination, our main partner in the North [of Syria],” Aziz says. “We worked in Malikiyah, Hasakah and Qamishli. These three places have the biggest populations of Christians in the north of the country.

“We supported the church in these places with financial help for relief as food and hygiene packages or vouchers, medical aid and winterization support. We just had transferred new money to the churches for this, as normally families spend more on schooling of the children in October. But then the [Turkish conflict] happened. We immediately said to the churches to use the money as much as possible for those families who directly were hit by this attack.”

In the first moments of the conflict between the Kurds and Turkey, the general expectation was that a big displacement of civilians would take place, including many Christians who would want to leave. “[With the] expectation that this could turn into a big crisis, we responded [right from the] start,” Aziz says. “It was amazing that we immediately could start helping people and that so many people around the world prayed. Maybe these prayers were heard; after some days, the situation calmed down.”

Early in the crisis, about 90 families were displaced to Hasakah. They are supported through Open Doors’ partner organization. “That city is farther away from the Turkish border and from what the Turkish want as a safety zone in Syria,” Aziz says. “In Hasakah ,we work through the Alliance Church and now have an agreement with the Syriac Orthodox church. By now, we think it unlikely that the situation will deteriorate further.” In addition to helping the 90 families, churches have helped individuals as well.

What are the continuing needs and how can I help?

Christians pray for peace and relief in Qamishli, Syria.

Believers pray for peace and relief in Qamishli, Syria.

First: Continue to pray for Christians in northern Syria. Even with a ceasefire, the needs are great—the Christian community was already stretched thin recovering from a civil war and the brutality of ISIS. The chaos caused by a new conflict between Turkey and Kurdish militants has resulted in new displaced people, new challenges for local churches and pain for people who have suffered as a result of the brief conflict.

Please also continue to pray that ISIS will not regain a foothold in this part of Syria. Pray that God will give wisdom to all the parties involved—Turkey, Kurdish militants, Russia, Syria, the United States, and other international groups—to keep ISIS from attacking Christians and returning to a reign of terror over believers.

You can also help Christians on the ground in Syria with immediate relief, both for this conflict as well as for continuing needs due to ISIS attacks and the impact of a decade-long civil war. As Aziz noted, the needs before this most recent conflict were already great—now, they are even greater.

And finally, thank God for the ceasefire. Pray that peace continues, even as reports suggest there may be skirmishes still taking place. Pray for Christians to remain safe and that they would be salt and light to their neighbors and communities, helping to be the church in a dark time and a chaotic place.

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