Christian activists warn of slaughter of Syrian civilians in Afrin

IMAGE: CNS photo/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters

By Dale Gavlak

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Christian
activists warn that 1 million Syrian civilians will face certain slaughter in
northwestern Afrin, where they allege Turkey and its militant allies have
already carried out “war crimes” and “ethnic cleansing.”

They have appealed to U.S.
President Donald Trump and top U.S. officials to stop the bloodshed, warning
that failure to act jeopardizes the hard-fought U.S.-led military campaign
against Islamic State in Syria.

Civilians from other parts of
Syria and outside the country have reportedly offered to stand as “human
shields” between the Kurdish-backed fighters and Turkish forces set to
storm Afrin.

Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria, said, “I have never seen so much violence as in
Syria.” In remarks March 9, he likened the situation to the 1994 Rwandan

The nuncio called the situation
in the war-ravaged land “hell on earth,” especially for vulnerable

In March, Syria’s conflict
entered its eighth year. More than 350,000 people have died, 5 million are refugees
and 6.3 million civilians are displaced within the country.

Syria is currently “one of
the most dangerous places for children,” Cardinal Zenari said. “It’s
terrible. I always say, it’s a massacre of the innocents.”

Two Christian activists, Bassam
Ishak and Lauren Homer, told Catholic News Service of the relentless assault by
Turkey and militants from hardline jihadist movements, including the so-called Islamic

“Turkey has committed war
crimes and ethnic cleansing already in Afrin and the Federation of Northern Syria,”
or FNS, they told CNS.

Ishak heads the Syriac National
Council and is a member of the political bureau of the Syrian Democratic
Council. He is a graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington,
D.C. Homer, an Anglican, is a Washington, D.C.-based international human rights

“Turkey has already ‘cleared’
villages of Yazidis, Kurds, Christians and others, promising to replace them
with Syrian refugees. In fact, Afrin already has enlarged its population by 50
percent to house (internally displaced) Syrians, who are among those being
killed, injured or captured,” they said.

People in and around Afrin are
facing the warplanes, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons of NATO’s second-largest
standing army, Turkey.

A local health authority reported
more than 220 dead and 600 civilians injured in this mainly Kurdish area of
northwestern Syria, some 30 miles from Aleppo.

Videos and photos from Afrin
taken by both Kurds and members of the Turkish forces depict bombed-out houses,
mangled bodies of children killed by the blasts and civilians being herded

Largely untouched by Syria’s
deadly conflict until recently, this part of the Federation of Northern Syria
succeeded in creating a nonsectarian, pluralist, inclusive government system
not seen elsewhere in the Middle East in which there is religious freedom and
equal rights are granted to all.

Activists are calling for an
immediate no-fly zone over Afrin, enforced by U.S. drones or warplanes;
implementation of the Feb. 24 U.N. Security Council resolution requiring a
cease-fire by Turkey in Afrin; humanitarian aid and safe passage out for
civilians; and mediation of a long-term cease-fire and withdrawal of Turkish
troops to its own borders — potentially with promises of U.S. or U.N. border

Meanwhile, the Kurdish council
that governs Afrin demanded the U.N. Security Council establish a no-fly zone
over Afrin and forcibly respond to the Turkish offensive.

“This U.N. and U.S. and
NATO inaction will go down in infamy as an inconceivable abandonment of our ‘allies’
the SDF and the FNS. Genocide seems to be only something we are interested in
in retrospect, to mourn and wring our hands over,” Homer warned.

Anti-aircraft weapons are needed
to stop the attacks, observers say, but the Syrian Democratic Forces, composed
of Kurdish and Christian fighters, were never given the necessary arms. At this
point, U.S. aerial patrols would be needed. The Kurds and Christian fighters
largely won the U.S.-led battle against Islamic State in Syria.

“Military solutions are no
real solutions. Taking Afrin will not solve any problems, neither the internal
problems for Turkey in the long run, nor will it help solve any issue that is
part of the Syrian question,” Ishak told CNS. Turkey says it is battling
Kurdish “terrorists” as its pretext for invading Afrin.

“Instead, it will just
further complicate the situation and increase the level of competition between
actors jockeying for influence in Syria,” Ishak said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian military,
backed with Russian airpower, carried out intensive ground and aerial assaults
on the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Syrian government
forces have reportedly captured more than half of the area.

The international medical
charity Doctors Without Borders said more than 1,000 civilians have been killed
in the area since late February, while almost 400,000 residents are living
under heavy bombardment, after having been subjected to nearly five years of
siege, lacking food and medicines.

Pope Francis has repeatedly
called on the international community to intervene in Syria to help end the
violence. Calling the war in Syria “inhumane,” Pope Francis urged for
an end to the fighting, immediate access to humanitarian aid and the evacuation
of the injured and infirm.

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