Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan sent a “Letter to the Syriac People” from his prison cell last week, calling on Syriacs and Kurds to join forces in building a joint nation in Mesopotamia. “It is the foremost duty and responsibility of the Kurdish people to help overcome the tragic history of this ancient Mesopotamian people and to enable its resurrection,” Ocalan wrote of the Christian minority that has been largely driven out of its homeland in southeastern Anatolia over the last century. The PKK leader was underscoring a minority policy adopted by the Kurdish nationalist movement in recent years, in which it has sought to embrace the Syriacs and present itself as a multiethnic democratic force.
At the political level, this policy has worked to some extent, with several Syriacs elected to public office on the ticket of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Turkey’s largest Kurdish party, which has links with the PKK. But at the grass-roots level, it is a different story. The alliance has led to bitter divisions within the Syriac community, where distrust of the Kurds runs deep. The Kurdish movement, on the other hand, has not been able to translate its outreach policy into neighborly relations on the ground, with violent attacks on Christians, land grabs and intimidation still very much the order of the day in the Tur Abdin region, the historic homeland of the Syriacs.
A century ago, Syriacs numbered around 200,000 in Tur Abdin, which straddles the Turkish provinces of Mardin and Sirnak. Of these, around 100,000 were slaughtered in the massacres of Anatolian Christians during World War I by Ottoman troops and Kurdish irregulars. The remaining Syriacs hung on for another few decades, before fleeing persecution, poverty and the war between Kurdish rebels and Turkish forces later in the century. Today, 200,000 to 300,000 Syriacs live in Western Europe, while only 2,000 to 3,000 remain in Tur Abdin.
“The erasure of the Assyrian-Syriac-Chaldean people is a great loss for the culture of the Middle East,” Ocalan wrote in his letter carried by the pro-PKK Firat news agency. “It is of the highest importance that the Assyrian-Syriac-Chaldean people, who have been dispersed all over the world, participate in the process of laying the foundations of a common homeland and democratic nation and that, accordingly, they should come back together.”
At its political top, the Kurdish movement has gone to some lengths to implement this policy in recent years. BDP leaders like Ahmet Turk, the mayor of Mardin, have publicly apologized for the Kurdish part in the 1915 massacres of Christians. Syriac candidates have been sought by the BDP to run on its tickets, and Syriacs have in this way attained public offices for the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic. Syriac councilors now sit on the district councils of both Midyat and Idil, two towns in the heartland of the Tur Abdin, while the nearby city of Mardin has a Syriac woman as a co-mayor alongside Ahmet Turk, the Kurdish tribal chief who holds the office. Thanks to the Kurdish party, Syriacs are even represented in Turkey’s national parliament in Ankara for the first time since the foundation of the republic, with Syriac deputy Erol Dora elected to the Grand National Assembly on the BDP ticket in 2011.
This policy has earned the Kurdish movement the dedicated support of some Syriac activists, such as Jakob Gabriel, who has served in Mardin’s provincial council for the BDP. “The Kurdish freedom struggle is a struggle for all peoples of this land,” Gabriel said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “As Syriacs, we are working with them because they are our only hope.” But the alliance has also led to divisions within the Syriac community, where memories of the role played by Kurds in the 1915 massacres and in squeezing out the Syriacs in recent decades are vivid. “I want nothing to do with those who collaborate with the Kurds,” an elderly Syriac from Enhil village told Al-Monitor in a hushed voice and with a shudder, a comment echoed by other Syriacs who did not want to be named for fear of retribution by Kurds. “We see this policy as a tactical measure” on the part of the Kurds, an official of a Syriac diaspora organization in Germany told Al-Monitor, again on condition of anonymity.
“If a Muslim gives you an apple, put it in a pocket with a hole so that it may fall out,” runs a Syriac proverb describing the deep distrust felt for the Kurds that is frequently quoted by locals. Februniye Akyol, the co-mayor of Mardin, acknowledges Syriac concerns about cooperating with the BDP. “Yes, Kurds persecuted us Christians, and the trauma is deep-rooted, but if we keep looking backward, we can never go forward,” Akyol told Al-Monitor. “The Kurdish party has enabled me to fight for my people and its rights, and that is what I am going to do.”
Neither has the Kurdish leadership been able to persuade its grassroots in the towns and villages of Sirnak and Mardin followers to embrace the Syriacs, especially those returning from the diaspora to reclaim their lands from Kurds who have occupied them during their absence. The courts of the region are overwhelmed with cases of Syriac land being held by armed Kurds, not all of whom are “village guards” outside the PKK’s writ. While the BDP has attempted to mediate disputes where Syriac land is held by its own followers, as in the case of the Syriac monastery Mor Augin, even top-level BDP leaders have been unable to persuade the tribes to back down, as BDP deputy Erol Dora acknowledged in an interview with Al-Monitor.
In the town of Idil, crowds of PKK followers regularly attack the home of a Syriac businessman who has been trying to recover the lands left when his father, the last Christian mayor of the town, was assassinated in 1994. After more than a dozen recent attacks with firebombs and rocks thrown through the windows of the apartment block, which also houses the Syriac Association of Idil, most tenants have moved out, the owner, Robert Tutus, told Al-Monitor. Eyewitnesses interviewed in Idil said the attacks are perpetrated from the midst of PKK demonstrations marching by on the street, with groups of attackers dodging out of the crowd and melting back into it. “If the PKK does not want this, why are they not stopping them?” Tutus asked.
The disconnect between the Kurdish leadership and its followers on this issue is noted by Syriac activists like Yuhanna Aktas, the chairman of the Syriac Unity Association in Midyat. “We believe in the sincerity of Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK,” Aktas told Al-Monitor. “But they encounter resistance in the Kurdish people, whose grassroots have not yet achieved the change of mentality.”