The kidnapping of up to 150 Assyrian Christian men, women and children by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marked the latest tragedy to strike the region’s long-persecuted Assyrian community, which has been unable to shield itself from the region’s sectarian violence as its ancestral homeland across Syria and Iraq is pillaged.
At dawn on Monday, residents of about 10 lightly guarded Assyrian villages south of the Khabur River in northeastern Syria awoke to ISIL fighters sweeping through the area, burning homes and churches, and taking hostages, activists told Al Jazeera. The roughly 3,000 residents who were able to escape from the captured villages and from those nearby have mostly taken refuge at Assyrian churches in the nearby Kurdish towns of Qamishli and Hassakah, many boarding crammed buses organized by relatives outside the ISIL strike zone.
“We woke up to the sounds of clashes and didn’t know what it was, until we saw everyone in the villages was fleeing because [ISIL] had entered,” said one woman, Dareen, speaking from Qamishli, where she fled with her children. “We didn’t understand what had happened fully, but there was so much fear in our hearts,” she said, in a video interview posted to Facebook.
It isn’t clear what ISIL has planned for the hostages, although many fear the worst. In a video released last week, an ISIL affiliate in Libya beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, unnverving their co-religious across the region. But the abduction was a departure from ISIL's policy toward conquered Christians in Iraq, who have typically been allowed to remain in their homes if they agree to pay a jizya, or protection tax.
For Assyrians, Monday’s raids were a disturbing harbinger of their fate in the region, in the midst of a power vacuum that has formed since the Syrian regime — long seen to protect religious minorities — pulled out of the country's northeast and groups like ISIL swooped in.
The Assyrians — also known as Syriac or Chaldean Christians — are an Aramaic-speaking group who consider themselves the last indigenous people of Syria and Iraq, tracing their lineage back 7,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. Their modern history has been marred by violence and persecution, most infamously during the 1915 Armenian genocide, when as many as 300,000 Assyrians were killed. Sectarian massacre and emigration since the 2003 Iraq War has since shrunk the community even further, from about 1.4 million living in Iraq in 1987 to just 400,000 at last count.
More recently, Christians were among the more than 500,000 religious minorities who fled last summer’s ISIL surge across northern and western Iraq, which included the bulk of Assyrian Iraqi land in Nineveh province. In their conquered cities, most notably Mosul, ISIL fighters have razed or repurposed churches, extorting Christians who choose to stay by way of the jizya and causing an historic exodus from land they have inhabited for generations. Some headed to the Khabur River area in Syria, where they were targeted once again this week.
"After 100 years, Assyrians are meeting the destiny of their grandparents,” said Osama Edward, the director of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, noting that his own grandfather was killed in 1915. “The whole world is watching and doing nothing as history repeats itself."
Despite their best efforts at defensive self-preservation, Assyrians of the Khabur River are increasingly being dragged into the chaotic war between the Alawite regime and the largely Sunni rebel groups.
Most of Syria's Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of the population, have sided with President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite community, who has typically been seen as a defender of Syria's religious minorities. Since the uprising against Assad erupted back in 2011, Christians have feared that the rebels wanted to install some form of Islamist state in his place.
But the regime decided to pull its forces out of northeast Syria in 2012, ceding that territory to the Kurds and leaving Assyrians to fend for themselves. Unlike the region's Sunnis, who have allies in the West and among the Gulf states, and Shias, with backing from Iran and Hezbollah, many Christians say they have essentially been abandoned by the world.
Mardean Isaac, an Assyrian writer in London who works with A Demand for Action, which advocates for religious minority rights in the Middle East, said Assyrians have forged an alliance of convenience with the Kurds, who have been the most effective force on the ground against ISIL. According to Isaac, the Assyrian self-defense forces — including the "Sutoro," or "God's Protectors" in Aramaic — are "really just young men with rifles protecting the now empty villages."
The Kurds are largely secular and willing to incorporate Christians into their autonomous "cantons" in Syria, but the partnership may have come at a price. One explanation for the hostage-taking on Monday is that it was intended as retaliation by ISIL against Assyrians for taking up arms to fight alongside the Kurds. “They could be saying, ‘you guys thought you could defend yourself by allying with the Kurds, so now we’re going to treat you like prisoners of war,'" Isaac said.
In a statement Tuesday night, the U.S. State Department confirmed the assault, saying that "ISIL’s latest targeting of a religious minority is only further testament to its brutal and inhumane treatment of all those who disagree with its divisive goals and toxic beliefs." It said more airstrikes on ISIL by the U.S.-led coalition were in order.
Assyrians said they would welcome that step, calling on Western powers to also consider a hostage exchange with ISIL for the release of the up to 150 hostages. But they realized that the chances of wider intervention by the U.S. or its allies on the Assyrians behalf remained remote.
"The villages and towns being ransacked by the Islamic State hold the presence of time and extend rituals and ways of life passed down through generations," Isaac wrote in a statement on Tuesday. "We are watching a living history and all that comprises it disappear."