All photos by: Achilleas Zavallis. A volunteer from one of the Christian militias in the Hasakah Governorate, northeast Syria
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 center.
Sutoro, the name the organization 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 neighborhood 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,” said the Sutoro’s commander in Qahtaniya. Like most Syrian Christians—organized 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,” said 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.
An abandoned Syrian Orthodox church in Ras al-Ayn
However, there are some issues with the Sutoro. The groups in Al-Malikiyah and Qahtaniya are under the control of the Syriac Union Party (SUP), which is an anti-government organization. The sympathies of the Qamishli branch are less clear. Many Christians say that the group is riddled with regime loyalists and informants, though that may simply reflect the reality that, in Qamishli, the government is still very much present. This situation also reveals the splits and confusions within the community as a whole and the fact that many Christians want nothing to do with the three-year anti-government uprising, which, as they see it, has brought them only misery.
A good example of these divisions is Father Mallek Mallous, the Chaldean Catholic priest in Al-Malikiyah. Living in something approaching more of a palace than a rectory, and with what appears to be his own church in the courtyard, he openly displays the Syrian government flag on the wall of his home. When I ask how the tricolor can still be there 16 months after government forces gave up these areas, effectively leaving them to become a Kurdish-run mini-state, he said: "This is Syria and no one can cancel this flag without the people’s support."
Father Mallous also has a picture of President Bashar al-Assad in the room where we talked. This makes perfect sense, since he, along with most Christians I interviewed here, genuinely seemed to think that the time before the war was an unadulterated blessing for every Syrian. "After Bashar Assad became leader [in 2000], salaries increased fourfold in Syria. Most people lived comfortable, middle-class lives,” he said. Although it's true that the economy was growing rapidly in the years before the war, his comments did make me wonder whether he has ever left his compound. He also thinks that "Islamism has only increased in Syria because of Saudi sponsorship and propaganda," which is basically the government line on the increase of extremist Muslims in the country.
Many Christians here echoed these views. This is perhaps understandable if you remember that, compared to their Sunni Arab and Kurdish neighbors, the community had a relatively good deal under the Assads. So it's hardly surprising that they view the Islamist-dominated rebellion as the main threat.
"You know what will happen to people like us if the they get here?” Father Mallous asked, shaking his head. "They’ve announced a war against Christians. They are kidnapping and killing us." However, the expectation, heard from many Christian men, that the government will soon return and that "all will be well," solving the conflict and protecting the Christian community, seems highly delusional.
Syrian Christian militia volunteers in Al-Malikiyah
Men like Barsoun Barsoun, who runs the Qamishli office of the opposition Syriac Union Party, an Assyrian-Christian organization, would agree. The main city of the northeast is a fearful, oppressive place, full of government security personnel and informants, regime flags and pictures of the president. Control is uneasily shared between the regime, Kurdish forces and the Sutoro. "We have lots of problems," Barsoun said, casting a nervous glance at the small, silent street from the door of his office. "Kidnappings, arrests… We had two members taken, one in June, still missing, and another who they said had died in custody. But they’ve never shown us the body."
He pulls back into the safe anonymity of the courtyard.
Barsoun—young, softly-spoken, English-speaking—and his guys are trying to distribute aid and organize various community activities to convince the Christians, many of whom are trying to get to places like Sweden, to stay. He articulated an attractive vision, rarely heard in Syria any more. "We want to work with the others—the Kurds, the Arabs—since it’s not our land alone," he said. The SUP took up seats in the new administration of the Kurdish-majority areas, to an extent implementing this vision. "This could be the blueprint for the rest of the country, a solution to the Syrian problem," he insisted.
Perhaps. But amid Syria’s struggle for survival, and among far stronger groups, split among themselves and with so many of them trying to leave, the Christians still have a difficult time ahead of them.