That purge made use of sectarian Judaism, the worst of sectarian Islamists, led by the Saudis and Muslim Brotherhood groups, and ethnic cleansing carried out by US-backed Kurdish separatist projects in both Iraq and Syria.
Many sources tell of the recent purge of Christians from the Middle East. Members of the oldest Christian communities themselves wrote of the “ethnic cleansing [of] Assyrians from Iraq”, soon after the US invasion of 2003. Later, the terrorist group ISIS was blamed.
In 2015, Pope Francis demanded an immediate end to the “genocide” of Christians taking place in the Middle East. In 2018, he repeated this call to ROACO, a group assisting the Eastern Churches, speaking of the risk of “eliminating Christians” from the Middle East and of the “great sin of war”. Yet he did not point his finger at any particular state or group responsible; a failure for which he was chastised by the Syrian Priest Father Elias Zahlawi.
The western war media has blamed everyone from ISIS to Hamas to Muslims in general for the steady expulsion of Christians from Israel, Iraq, and Syria. But all those claims miss the mark. The USA and its collaborators, including Australia, are the prime movers of this great crime.
Western liberal society has also played a role, priding itself on giving refuge to ‘persecuted minorities’, while ignoring responsibility for the wars which drive these refugees.
The aims of Washington’s ‘crusade’, initially said to be against ‘terrorism’, were made clear in subsequent years. The growing cluster of wars was part of a greater project which former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in 2005 and 2006, called the ‘creative chaos’ involved in the ‘birth pangs’ of Washington’s vision of a ‘New Middle East’. That meant “taking out” multiple independent states, which General Wesley Clarke said are, after Afghanistan, “Iraq, then Syria and Lebanon, then Libya, then Somalia and Sudan, and back to Iran.”
Those who focus only on the ISIS purges, or claim some ‘organic’ Muslim reaction to the various US invasions and proxy wars, miss the directing hand of Washington. That has been the key driver behind the catastrophe which has befallen the entire region and in particular the world’s oldest Christian communities in several West Asian countries.
As ‘fighting ISIS’ became the main false pretext for occupying both Iraq and Syria, let’s take a look first at the evidence of US responsibility for ISIS, before moving to the purge of Christians in Palestine, Iraq, and Syria.
Washington’s responsibility for ISIS
In early 2007, US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote of ‘the redirection’ in US policy, which would focus on using “moderate Sunni” Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, to counter the influence of Shia Muslim Iran. The sectarian conflict was at the core of the “creative chaos” idea.
ISIS was created over 2004-05 in Iraq as AQI or ISI, by the Saudis at Washington’s direction, to inflame sectarian violence and in particular to keep apart the (post-Saddam Hussein) Shia dominated governments of Iraq and Iran. This terrorist group committed shocking sectarian atrocities against Iraqi civilians, especially Shia Muslims. By 2007, US army papers showed that the largest group of foreign ISI/AQI fighters in Iraq had come from Saudi Arabia.
In August 2012, US intelligence agency DIA predicted that a “salafist principality in eastern Syria” was likely, as extremist forces dominated the insurgency, and that was “exactly” what the US wanted, so as “to isolate the Syrian regime” in Damascus.
The resurgence of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, over 2012-2017, followed the failure of other proxies to overthrow the Damascus government and Washington’s fear of the growing ties between Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran, which faced common security threats.
Practicing the old ‘divide and rule’, Washington was determined to maintain barriers between Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Yet it was the combined forces of these three neighbors that eventually drove ISIS out of major cities and towns. Former Secretary of State John Kerry made the partial admission that Washington watched as the terror group grew, hoping it could be managed – while ISIS took over the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa and Palmyra in Syria.
By late 2014, senior US officials including Vice President Biden and head of the US Military General Martin Dempsey were admitting that their ‘major allies’ in the region had been arming and funding all the extremist groups in Syria, including the UN Security Council proscribed groups Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, in attempts to overthrow the Syrian government. Dempsey acknowledged that “major Arab allies” fund ISIS, while Biden named Turkey, the Saudis, and the Emiratis as having poured “hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons” into “anyone who would fight against Assad.” It was disingenuous for Biden and Dempsey to suggest that their ‘major allies’ would take such a course independently.
Despite these admissions, and despite the successful Iran-Iraq-Syria purge of ISIS announced by Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in November 2017, US direct military intervention in both Iraq and Syria was maintained, under the pretext of “fighting ISIS”.
Israel’s Christians are not Israeli citizens
Christian ‘residents’ (“Israel” will not recognize them as ‘citizens’) in Israel are subject to the same ethnic cleansing as their majority Muslim brethren. Washington and its NATO allies occasionally complain about the expanding Israeli ‘settlements’ in Palestine, but in practice, Washington is the Israel’s major foreign funder while the USA, Germany, and some other Europeans are “Israel’s” main weapons providers.
Christians are now a very small minority in Israel, but they were once many more, at least in certain areas. One church source put Israel’s Christians at 11% at the end of the Ottoman era in 1922. Yet Ramzy Baroud says “the most optimistic estimates” today have Christians at less than 2% of Israel’s population.
Some declines have been quite recent. The Christian population of “Bethlehem” in 2020 was only 22% but was said to have been much more just ten years earlier. Other villages have seen big losses. In Beit Jala, the Christian majority fell from 99% to 61%; in Beit Sahour, from 81% to 65%. A study by Dar Al-Kalima University found that the sharp decline of Christians in Beit Jala was due to “the pressure of Israeli … discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of lands [which] added to the general sense of hopelessness among Palestinian Christians.”
The Israeli media blamed the Islamic resistance party ‘Hamas’ for the decline of Christians in Gaza. But Christians there blame “Israel”. The Syrian priest Father Zahlawi posed this question to Pope Francis,
“If you want to suggest that the Muslims are the ones who force Christians to leave ‘the land they love’ … how can you explain their emigration at a worrisome rate since the establishment of “Israel” while they [Christians] throughout hundreds of years, lived … side by side with the Muslims?”
No doubt the atrocities committed against the youth in “Bethlehem” have contributed to the purge in that town. In Dheisheh ‘camp’, now an outer suburb of “Bethlehem”, a young third-generation refugee told this writer in early 2018 that the Israeli southern command had a declared practice of systemically shooting Palestinian youth in the legs and knees, to cripple them. Many published accounts support his story. It was and is a systematic campaign against both Muslims and Christians.
Purges in Iraq after the 2003 invasion
While Iraqis feared Saddam Hussein, many Christians also feared his removal, as his government had been “largely tolerant of their faith and included high-ranking Christians”. By late 2004, that generalized fear persisted, with Christians believing they were “high on the target list”. They were only 3% of the Iraqi population but their community was “one of the oldest in the Middle East … [and had] long played an important role in Iraqi politics, society and the economy”.
Just one year after the illegal US invasion of March 2003, Islamic extremists were reported to have bombed many Iraqi churches, with 59 Assyrian churches bombed; “40 in Baghdad, 13 in Mosul, 5 in Kirkuk, and 1 in Ramadi”. This was around the time al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, later ISI, and later still ISIS) began its operations.
A 2007 report (revised in 2017) spoke of the “incipient genocide” of Iraqi Assyrians, most of whom were Christians. By then, 118 churches were said to have been attacked or bombed. The report said that “Assyrians comprised 8% (1.5 million) of the Iraqi population in April of 2003. Since then, 50% have fled the country.” By 2007, there were more than 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in neighboring Syria.
The Assyrian report blamed extremist Muslims but also the newly empowered Kurdish administrations.
“Kurdish authorities denied foreign reconstruction assistance for Assyrian communities and used public works projects to divert water and other vital resources from Assyrian to Kurdish communities. Kurdish forces blockaded Assyrian villages. Children were kidnapped and forcibly transferred to Kurdish families.”
As early as the 1970s, Washington had enlisted the support of Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq, at first as a counterweight to Saddam Hussein (who was also a US collaborator in the 1970s and 1980s) and later as a tool to divide and weaken any government in Baghdad. “Israel” has also had a long-standing presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, “more conspicuous” in recent years.
The strong 2014 resurgence of ISIS in Iraq, after it had been reactivated and rebadged to help divide both Iraq and Syria, renewed these pressures. A 2015 report wrote that while ISIS had “killed Sunni and Shia Muslims, they are clearly engaged in a systematic campaign to rid Iraq of non-Muslims and ethnic minority communities, including Assyrian Christians”. The terror group, essentially an instrument of Washington through the Saudis, gave the Christians in Mosul the ‘options’ of conversion to Islam, paying a religious levy, or death. Many fled.
When the second wave of ISIS attacks hit Iraq in 2014, the terror group seized Mosul and drove thousands of Christians from that large city and from the nearby smaller city of Qaraqosh, near the ruins of ancient Nimrod and Nineveh. Most of those Assyrians fled north into the Kurdistan region but many others left the country. The US had warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe’ from the ISIS attacks but was more concerned with dismembering the Iraqi and Syrian states.
Before ISIS, Mosul had more than 15,000 Christians; by mid-2019 only 40 had returned. A Christian report of 2019 spoke of the “genocide” of Christians and Yazidis, and of a 15-year climate of violence and turmoil, following the US invasion. Sargon Donabed’s book ‘Reforging a Forgotten History’, concludes that the 1.4 million Iraqi Christians in 2005 had been almost halved to 750,000, by 2014.
Kurdish separatists in Iraq and Syria, backed by the US war coalition, added to the pressures on Assyrian and other Christian communities. After the sectarian Islamists, mostly recruited by the Persian Gulf monarchies, Kurdish separatists became Washington’s second tool to divide and weaken those independent states. Indeed in north Iraq, the notion of a ‘second [Kurdish] Israel’ was widely touted.
In September 2017, when a Kurdish referendum in north Iraq sought to convert federal status into a separate state, this attempt at secession was repudiated by the Iraqi parliament and government. “Israel” was “the only state to [openly] support the Kurdish secession from Iraq”. Iraqi forces moved in and took control of Kirkuk in a matter of hours, crushing the secession plan.
Nevertheless, the northern Iraqi region had developed strategic relations with both the US and “Israel” and became a base for covert operations aimed at dividing Iraq and destabilizing both Iran and Syria. But these plans met resistance. From at least 2007, Iran began shelling anti-Iran insurgent groups on its border, which were sheltering in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian shelling of these US proxies inside Iraq’s northern borders was ongoing in late 2021.
Washington was thus the prime mover and mastermind of the demise of Iraq’s Christians, by invading Iraq, destroying the relative protection which had been offered to Christians; then destabilizing new Baghdad administrations with terror through the Saudi-styled sectarian Islamist creations (AQI/ISI and later ISIS), which purged Christians and other minorities; and finally by backing a Kurdish controlled northern zone, which further purged indigenous Christians and in particular Assyrians. That operation was later ported into NE Syria, where Assyrians and Armenians had fled a century back, seeking refuge from the massacres of the Ottoman Empire.
The US role in the purge of Syrian Christians was apparent from the first months of 2011, but warnings came earlier. In 2005, CNN’s Christine Amanpour, closely linked to senior Washington officials, told Syrian President Assad, “The rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you.”
At about the same time, Iraqi Christians, fleeing into Syria had warned Syrian Christians, “You are next!” They believed that Syria was next in line for “regime change” and that “Christians, in particular, would be targeted in a planned sectarian war – just as in Iraq.”
They were indeed targeted by the proxy terror armies which former Vice President Joe Biden and General Martin Dempsey acknowledged in 2014 had been funded and armed by US allies.
Sectarian violence was apparent from the beginning of the dirty war on Syria, as the slogan “Masehi la Beirut wa alawi altabut” (Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave) was reported from sectarian Islamists in Homs city over April – May 2011. And indeed, while the western media blamed all violence on the Syrian Government, Alawis were murdered while many Christians did flee to Beirut. The internationalized assault on Syria displaced half the country’s population, creating the world’s largest refugee crisis.
Yet, in 2011, it was well reported that Syria’s Christians had more faith in President Assad than in the US, Saudi, and Qatari-backed armed ‘opposition’. In 2011, the US media knew very well and acknowledged that both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria protected Christians. Wingert and Hoff in their book ‘Syria Crucified’ document the suffering of many Christian families “at the hands of radical terrorists” supported by western countries.
In 2014, Jabhat Al-Nusra terrorists (called ‘moderate rebels’ by the NATO media) from Turkey attacked the mainly Armenian-Christian town of Kesab, in NW Syria, kidnapping, murdering, and desecrating churches, with graffiti which reminded the Armenian residents of the Ottoman massacres a century earlier. All 14 churches were burned and vandalized. In December 2021, Kesab Mayor Sebouh Kurkjian told this writer, “we know the Turkish language … they are talking together in the Turkish language … the Turkish government helps them.” Priest Father Nareg Iwisyan said the gangs had robbed valuables and graves, and then destroyed all the religious artifacts and books, leaving sectarian graffiti and even human excrement in his church.
ISIS, ported in from Iraq, also terrorized Syria’s communities, until Iraqi and Syrian forces backed by Iran and at great cost in lives, drove them out.
Assyrians and other Christians in NE Syria formed their Sootoro militia, armed by and allied to Damascus, at first to defend the Christian communities from ISIS. The Syrian government also armed the Kurdish groups but these began looking for outside support, to serve their own regional agenda.
When Washington began to arm and rally popular support for the romanticized ‘Rojava’ Kurdish homeland project in Syria, western histories were rewritten to erase the other minorities of North and Eastern Syria, in particular the Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, and other Christian groups.
A key focus became Qamishli, near the Turkish border, a city founded by Christian refugees fleeing the Ottoman Empire’s massacres of the early 20th century. Kurdish groups, mostly Muslim, did not suffer from Ottoman persecution but did face repression under the modern Turkish state. As a result of that conflict in Turkey, combined with Saddam Hussein’s repression in Iraq, and the purges by ISIS, NE Syria received many Kurdish immigrants from Turkey and Iraq.
Yet Kurds never dominated the populations of NE Syria. Near the end of the French occupation, the colonial power carried out a census of Qamishli and Hassakeh, the core of areas claimed by western states to be some sort of natural Kurdish homeland. The table below shows Kurds to have been a small minority in the region’s major cities, but a slight majority in the countryside of Qamishli. Yet in the region, as a whole, Kurds had been about 31%, while Christians were 40% and Arabs 28%.
In other words, in a region which since the 1940s has been a governorate or province of Syria – but which Washington and its military occupation in about 2015 designated as the heart of an ‘autonomous administration’ to be handed over to separatist Kurds – Christians had historically been the largest group.
Many recent western media accounts falsely paint Kurdish separatism in Syria as a heroic ‘indigenous’ movement, criticizing the Syrian government for alleged ‘abuses’ against Kurds. However, Damascus granted citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurdish immigrants in early 2011. Most likely they had come from Iraq and Turkey. Nevertheless, with around 15 million Kurds in neighboring Turkey, Syria would always place limits on immigration.
The US aim of dismembering Syria and using parts as a springboard for Turkish-led Kurd agendas was both an illegal blow to the territorial integrity of the Syrian nation and a direct assault on the Christian communities of Syria’s northeast. After fighting the US-Saudi sectarians of ISIS, a discriminatory Kurdish project fell upon the Christians and Arabs of the NE region.
In early 2015 Amnesty International accused the Syrian “Kurdish fighters” and their militia, the YPG, of the “forced displacement and home demolitions” of “Arabs and Turkmens.” Several US media reports called this the Kurdish “ethnic cleansing” of these other groups. Yet there was no mention of the purging of Christian communities.
The Amnesty report also claimed that Kurds had been “subject to long term discrimination and human rights violations” in Syria before 2011; in particular by “restrictions on the use of Kurdish language and culture” and being “denied the rights enjoyed by Syrian nationals.” The report later admitted that “the Syrian Government [in April 2011] granted nationality to most of these Kurds.”
Preparations for a 2015 US land invasion of north and east Syria made use of the ‘Kurdish Card’. In October 2014, Kurdish forces had gone from Erbil in north Iraq across into north Syria, via Turkey, supposedly to bolster YPG efforts against ISIS; and the US began airdrops of weapons to the YPG. In March the US sent trainers to assist the YPG, and by August, US firepower was reportedly used in support of what they had converted into another anti-Syrian Government militia. The ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF or QSD in Arabic) were formed from a YPG base in October 2015, including a draft constitution that contained a unilateral separatist Kurd declaration.
After direct US intervention had bolstered this SDF/QSD, Amnesty said no more about Kurdish “forced displacement and home demolitions”. Yet Christians still faced expulsion from Qamishli. This SDF was nominally (but not practically) wider than Kurdish separatists, as Washington knew there were precious few Kurds in the cities of Manbij, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor, key centers which were to be included in Washington’s SDF-led ‘autonomous’ region, carved out of Syria.
In October 2021, this writer visited Qamishli and its Christian community. Suheil and George from the former city council told me that the Christian community in Qamishli had been 62,000 before the war, but was down to about 50,000. This followed ISIS terrorism and the seizing of many properties by the US-backed SDF/QSD.
Because of its US military backing, QSD controlled most but not the entirety of the northern city. The Syrian Arab Army still protected the airport, the main hospital, and several military and ‘security zone’ areas, which included residences and schools. The Christian militia Sootoro had checkpoints in several adjacent areas. Yet all these facilities faced obstruction from QSD. The Council still operated in the ‘security zone’ and Christian areas, and to some extent outside. An uneasy peace had been in place for some months, with few direct clashes.
One visible feature of life in the occupied cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh was the large number of students attending Syrian schools. Many thousands of children flocked into the ‘security zone’ schools, every day. We were told and could see, in some cases, that QSD had closed many of the provincial schools. The Kurdish curriculum schools were few and had not been well accepted.
In both Qamishli and Hassakeh cities, I was told by school teachers that some QSD leaders were sending their children to secular Syrian curriculum schools. Director of Education for Hassakeh Province, Ms, Ilham Sourkhat, showed us three overcrowded schools in Hassakeh city and told me that, of the 2,189 schools in Hasakeh Province, most were now closed, with many used for SDF/QSD militia purposes. However, Syria was running 145 schools, including 22 large ones in Hassakeh City and 20 in Qamishli City. One primary school we saw had over 4,000 students
Christians in Syria were thus attacked and purged in the west of the country by US and NATO-backed sectarian Islamists (‘moderate rebels’) and in the east by the death cult ISIS. As Father Elias Zahlawi wrote, in the name of “Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights” Washington “declared war on my home country, Syria, and drove to it, from a hundred countries … jihadis, haunted by the evil of money, blood, avarice, and power.” After that the SDF proxy militia in the northeast seized many non-Kurd properties, adding to the exodus of more Christians.
How Australia helped purge Iraqi and Syrian Christians
Under the guise of assisting ‘persecuted minorities’, US allies like Australia and Canada helped this purge. In late 2015, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott won praise for announcing 12,000 new ‘humanitarian visas’ for ‘persecuted groups’ in the Middle East. They would mostly come from Iraq and Syria and were mostly Assyrian Christians. Yet at the same time, Abbott said that the Australian military would join in US “airstrikes” against ISIS.
In fact, in September 2016, the Australian Airforce, alongside that of the US, attacked and killed more than 120 Syrian soldiers at the mountain behind Deir Ezzor Airport. That carefully planned attack, which allowed ISIS to take control of the mountain, was dismissed by the then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a “mistake”. Yet evidence showed this to have been a well-planned operation, designed to assist ISIS in its efforts to take Deir Ezzor City.
There had been more than 40,000 Assyrian immigrants in Australia, the biggest group in the Fairfield suburb of Sydney. A new wave came after the US attacks and ‘sanctions’ on Iraq in the 1990s. Frederick Aprim’s book ‘The Betrayal of the Powerless’ charts the displacement of Iraqi Assyrians after the 2003 invasion. Initially most came from Iraq but, after 2015, many also came from Syria.
In January 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told US President Donald Trump, in typical servile style, “we will take more, we will take anyone that you want us to take.” Of Turnbull’s program to bring in “12,000 Syrian refugees, 90 percent … will be Christians … it is a tragic fact of life that when the situation in the Middle East settles down — the people that are going to be most unlikely to have a continuing home are those Christian minorities.”
Of course, it was Washington’s successive war projects which deprived them of their homes. In this way, collaborators helped Washington with its ‘New Middle East’ project.
Behind the shallow declarations of Christian values and the cynical use of ‘humanitarian intervention’ claims as pretexts for wars of aggression, Washington has been the central engine behind the purging of the world’s oldest Christian communities in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. Let’s not remain naïve.
Author: Tim Anderson
Tim Anderson is an Australian academic and activist and the author of several books on independent development and anti-imperialism. He was a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney until early 2019 and is currently the Director of the Sydney-based Centre for Counter Hegemonic Studies.