Assyrians caught in crossfire between Turkey, PKK fighting

Wars, attacks by the Islamic State, pressure from remaining militia groups and now attacks by Turkey have emptied or destroyed many Assyrian communities in northern Iraq.

ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images.

By Joe Snell

Jul 8, 2020

The sounds of Turkish bombs rattled the Assyrian community of Bersiveh in northern Iraq in the early hours of June 20. Although the village is accustomed to the booms and roars of airstrikes and nearby artillery fire, residents never know when or where to expect the attacks. 

June’s aggression is just the latest in a string of Turkish bombings that have exhausted Assyrian communities in the country for years, said Athra Kado, an Assyrian teacher in Alqosh, and they are slowly contributing to the erasure of the ancient population.

“This is not today’s incident or event, this has been happening for decades,” Kado told Al-Monitor. 

Assyrians are an ethnic group indigenous to parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Northern Iraq was host to many dozens of Assyrian communities, but a string of wars, terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and subsequent pressure from remaining militia groups have either emptied or destroyed many of these villages. Before 2000, more than 1 million Christians — including Chaldeans, Syriacs and Assyrians — considered Iraq home. Today, that number is around 150,000.

Turkey has waged a recurring war against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in Iraq and Syria since 1984. Peace talks between the two sides collapsed in mid-2015. Today, the PKK is a designated terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Tension between Turkey and the PKK escalated on June 14 when Turkey launched Operation Claw-Tiger in retaliation for what the Turkish Defense Ministry said was increased militant attacks on Turkish army bases and police stations near the Iraqi border. 

In a statement 36 hours after the operation began, the ministry said that more than 500 PKK targets were already destroyed. And on Twitter, the ministry shared images of helicopters targeting the PKK in the Haftanin area of the Kurdistan region.

Often during these attacks, marginalized communities such as the Assyrians are left without consideration and little to no protection.

On the evening of June 14, the Assyrian village of Sharanish in Dahuk province was hit by several Turkish airstrikes, destroying the village’s electric and water distributors as well as a meeting hall. Fears of future attacks forced the more than 200 villagers to flee.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned Operation Claw-Tiger and called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to end the assault. “Once again, Turkey is showing their disregard for vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities who live in, or have been displaced to, those same areas,” the commission wrote in June

But a spokesperson for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the commission and other such organizations ignore the fact that the PKK oppresses marginalized groups such as the Assyrians and Yazidis.

Turkish bombs hit near Assyrian communities because that is where they believe many PKK members are hiding. But Assyrian communities are not in a position to kick out PKK members who demand food and shelter near these villages, Kado said, because when towns say no to PKK fighters, they are often attacked.

Dozens of Assyrian communities in northern Iraq have been emptied or destroyed by attacks like the one last month, Kado said. Since June’s airstrikes, nine of the 11 Christian villages in the Zakho district have been evacuated, according to the International Christian Concern.

“All of these geographic areas, that [include part of] Iraq, part of Turkey, part of Iran, part of Syria, was Assyrian land. Today, it’s completely emptied of Assyrians,” Kado said. “We are barely surviving. We want to survive in our land. We want to stay in our land. If the situation continues as it is, maybe not by leaving but in other ways, we won’t survive for more than decades.”