Eiad Herera is a Syrian-Canadian activist and writer who is a student in political science at Concordia University in Montreal.
When the Syrian Revolution broke out in 2011 – one of the uprisings brought about by the Arab Spring – I was among the many people who saw it as a glimmer of hope. Coming from a Christian background in Syria, a place that holds many cultural, ethnic and religious minorities like me, I had hoped that Syria could evolve into a democratic and secular state.
Instead, the revolution and the resulting crackdown have only inflamed deep-seated domestic, religious and historical issues – in particular, political Islam, jihad, sectarianism and the oppression of minorities. Bashar al-Assad’s brutal despotism, which continues eight years after that revolution, has mainly fuelled this bloody civil war.
And just three years later, I was among the many Syrians who were forced to flee from my home in the Middle East, for fear of being swallowed up in the deadly conflict that was tearing my country apart.
I’m one of the lucky ones. But now, from the safety of Montreal, I can only watch helplessly as a long-standing potential threat has become reality. The United States has announced that it is withdrawing its troops from northeast Syria, a region controlled by Syrian Kurds, who fought as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a militia mostly composed of various Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Syriac fighters who have been taking on the Islamic State on the ground.
In turn, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decided to use this opportunity to pursue a “safe zone” along the Syrian side of the border, where up to two million Syrian refugees can be resettled – and has threatened to release the refugees into Europe if the West opposes his invasion of the region. He’s added a healthy dose of religious rhetoric, too: Beating the war drums, Mr. Erdogan has called his army and the Turkish-backed jihadi militias the “army of Mohammad.”
With the U.S. exiting, Turkish forces have marched forward, shelling cities and towns full of civilians, looting houses and stores, and reportedly committing war crimes. Hervin Khalaf, a prominent female political leader, was reportedly brutally tortured and killed; the SDF accused Turkish-backed fighters of the slaying. The SDF has been forced to align with the Assad regime for its own survival, which has only strengthened Mr. al-Assad. After negotiations with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Mr. Erdogan agreed to a five-day pause in fighting on Thursday to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw, but the situation on the ground remains highly fraught; the Kurds have already accused Turkey of violating that agreement by reportedly continuing its campaign of gunfire and shelling.
And all I can think of is a book I read as a part of my coursework: The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King. The book refutes North American history as passed down by the colonizers who wrote it, and shows that First Nations’ memories courageously remain alive despite the catastrophic events that Indigenous people have faced.
The unimaginable sacrifices made by these brave nations resonated with me. And that’s especially true since this Turkish invasion has unleashed nightmarish parallels to the Ottoman Empire – which conquered Syria, systematically impoverished the region, persecuted Christians for centuries, purged the indigenous people and minimized their history. Mr. Erdogan is among those who do not acknowledge what this really was – colonialism – and in fact, he has only invoked the Ottoman Empire in admiring terms as he pursues the revival of its legacy.
By the 16th century, the Ottomans had moved in from Siberia and, in defeating the Mamluk Empire, invaded Syria, a region that was home to Christian Syriacs, Assyrians, Muslim Kurds and Arabs. Many cultural and traditional aspects of Syrian natives’ lives were changed forever by this colonizing force: They had to learn another language on top of their native tongue and Arabic, and deal with different people who looked at them as a lower class. Christians, for instance, had to dress differently so they could be easily recognized, and were ruled by millets, or small independent courts that governed non-Muslims.
The past 400 years have not been kind to Syriac and Assyrian nations. The last century of the empire was the worst for the native Syrians, who have suffered through many massacres and physical and cultural genocides at the hands of the Ottoman invaders. In 1860, under the watch of Ottoman authorities, barbaric groups were allowed to arm and gather for more than 10 days around old Damascus, near the Christian quarter, before massacring Syrian Christians; many more were forced to flee. In 1915, the same Empire launched military campaigns to purge the natives of Syria and Anatolia in what is referred to as the Armenian genocide. Over the course of the next few years, at least 1.5 million Armenians, Syriacs and Assyrians died and many more were displaced; entire towns, cities, churches, schools and facilities were erased. To this day, the Turkish government denies that this ever happened.
After the Ottomans were defeated in the First World War, the remains of the empire were parcelled out among the Allied powers, and the Kurds were left without a home. While the West has admitted to its part in colonizing the region, and all the problems that come with that, the Ottoman Empire is rarely accused of this – even though it should be.
This might be shocking to students who went to school in the region, thanks to an education system that valorized all things relating to the idea of the Islamic caliphate. Up until the time of the Syrian revolution against Mr. al-Assad, who Mr. Erdogan once publicly endorsed, Syrian students were taught that the Ottomans were the continuation of a legacy of Islamic caliphates – and therefore, at least culturally, were seen as legitimate rulers of the region, rather than invaders. This historical dogma ignores many communities’ history and deep-rooted traumas in the area.
It might appear odd that in 2014 – 100 years later – Mr. Erdogan did not seem particularly ruffled when the Islamic State besieged Kobani-Ayn Al Arab, a city that sits just south of Turkey’s border with Syria and whose inhabitants are Kurdish, Arab, Armenian and Turkmen, for six months. Instead, it was the Islamic State-fighting SDF – which Turkey sees as deeply tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatist movement that wants an independent state, by any means necessary – that Mr. Erdogan accused of terrorism. That was the case even though those Kurdish “terrorists” liberated Kobani in March, 2015, founded the SDF to regain lands from the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, and established a new base from which they could work to transition to political and social peace.
It might also appear paradoxical that Mr. Erdogan wants to make northeast Syria a “safe zone” for refugees that had fled to Turkey. According to the U.S. and the EU, Idlib – a province southwest of Turkey – is controlled by the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian division of al-Qaeda. Despite this, there has been little support for an effort to restore Syrian rule in Idlib to make it safe for refugees to return to their land.
But it’s not so strange when the scope of history is taken into account. Mr. Erdogan wants to restore the greatness of the Ottoman Empire, with everything that comes with it, even if traditionally oppressed communities must return to that place of colonized pain. If the international community continues to allow Mr. Erdogan to pursue his dream, and lets him off the hook as it did with Mr. al-Assad when he used chemical weapons on his own people, we will only bear witness to more tragedy in the future. The world wouldn’t need to wait for the climate crisis to bring in our doom – these empowered autocrats will be up to the task themselves.
And through all this, my people have been caught between Turkey’s military incursion, whenever it restarts, and a hateful Assad government – suffering through it all as forgotten figures under the thumb of more powerful forces, once again. History repeats itself, in all ways.
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