Why Northeast Syria matters
Lost in the news of the deteriorating situation in Syria is the story of a burgeoning democracy that promotes freedom of religion and belief. Obviously, this is not the government of Bashar al-Assad but rather the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Most are familiar only with its military arm, the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, this courageous and autonomous people, situated between the southern border of Turkey and the northern border of Iraq, have been instrumental to U.S. strategy, fighting as our “boots on the ground” and sacrificing more than 10,000 men and women in the victory against ISIS.
We both recently visited the AANES in our separate capacities and were able to better understand why Turkey, Iran, and the Assad regime want it destroyed. These countries have embraced Islamic fascism, a political ideology where states or non-state actors use Islam to rule people with violence. To defeat Islamic fascism, we must delegitimize it by winning the war of ideas. The best way to do that is supporting those who reject Islamic fascism and embrace democratic principles. The AANES represents freedom on the very doorstep of those countries – a West Berlin to their East – making it a powerful threat to the status quo.
This community of 4 million people is multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and multi-religious with many women occupying positions of leadership. Arab and Kurdish Muslims live peacefully alongside Christians, Yazidis, and those of other religions. In fact, the Christian community in northeast Syria is among the oldest in the world with services still conducted in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. However, Christians are under constant attack and on the verge of being wiped out in Syria and Iraq. The preservation of the AANES will help ensure that Christianity and other minority religions will continue to exist in Syria.
The Turkish invasion of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria in October of 2019 began with air strikes on civilian neighborhoods, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of several hundred thousand. Turkey is now moving between 1 and 3 million Arab refugees from other parts of Syria into the so-called “safe zone,” the border region of northeast Syria, that has been ethnically cleansed of Kurds and Christians. Many in the region expect another Turkish incursion within the next few months, this time into predominantly Christian areas.
From the Syrian civil war to the rise of ISIS, this region of the world has been a crossroads of conflict for more than a decade. The emergence of the AANES is a positive development that offers the promise of self-determination for the people of this region and a blueprint for countering Islamic fascism in the Middle East. Official U.S. recognition of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria would go far to help nourish and grow this budding democracy and help bring peace and prosperity to a region long torn by war and unrest. It would also serve U.S. interests of keeping ISIS in check, providing U.S. companies with new trade and investment opportunities, and saving Christianity and religious freedom in Syria.
Ralph Abraham represents Louisiana’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Commissioner Nadine Maenza is Vice Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
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