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“The sky is against us” – Syrian Christian fighters struggle to hold their lines in Tel Tamer

TEL TAMER, Syria – Many of the the Christians of the Khabur river region in northeast Syria took up arms in 2015 when ISIS invaded their homelands, driving most of their people abroad or massacring those who were left. The Syriac Military Council, trained by the U.S.-led Coalition for the fight against ISIS, has returned to protect the few dozen families in those villages against the incursion of rebels they see as no different than the jihadist group that oppressed and traumatized their people.

This time the sky is against them, Aram Hanna, a member of the general command of the Syriac Military Council (MFS), said in an interview at their base outside Tel Tamer on Thursday, November 14.

The few thousand Assyrian and Syriac fighters, who are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, deployed earlier this month after Turkey-backed rebels fighting under the banner of the Syrian National Army began to move the frontline closer to the remaining villages along the border.

SMoke in the sky near Tel Tamer, Syria
Smoke fills the sky near Tel Tamer in northeastern Syria, November 14, 2019. Image: © Joanne Stocker/The Defense Post

They struggle to hold the line or even reach civilians as Turkish warplanes and drones pick off their vehicles systemically. It’s a problem that has also kept humanitarian organizations in the area from reaching wounded and dead civilians.

Hanna is a veteran of battles against ISIS including in Manbij, Qamishli, and Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye) in 2014.

“You can’t do anything against an airstrike,” he said.

The sky darkens as Hanna talks, but it’s not clear what’s from SDF fighters lightning fires to block out the sky, and what’s from Turkish airstrikes. The frontline was quieter early in the day while two Apache helicopters circled Tel Tamer as a U.S. convoy moved outside.

Now the Americans are gone and shooting has started again.

Hanna won’t say on the record how many fighters they’ve lost since the incursion, but earlier in the day one of their cars was hit, presumably by artillery, while trying to deliver food and supplies to the villages at the front line. Everyone survived.

“It’s impossible to resist without heavy weapons. It’s different combat now,” he said.

They’re fighting with AK-47 rifles and other small arms while Turkey has heavy weapons and the rebel fighters “move freely.”

“The sky is against us. Every time before the sky was with us, especially with the Coalition. We worked together but now everything stands against us.”

There’s supposed to be a ceasefire in the area – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced one after meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on October 17.

The first Hanna heard that the U.S. was leaving was through media reports. Everyone in northeast Syria watches the news closely these days.

“He doesn’t know where Syria is,” Hanna said of US President Donald Trump, who insisted again on Wednesday after meeting Erdogan that the ceasefire was holding.

“No one is respecting that [the ceasefire],” he said.

Aram Hanna of the Syriac Military Council
Aram Hanna, a member of the general command of the Syriac Military Council (MFS), at their base outside Tel Tamer in northeastern Syria, November 14, 2019. Image: © Joanne Stocker/The Defense Post

Hanna was supposed to be a teacher. He’s an only child, so he was exempt from compulsory military service for President Bashar al-Assad’s army, and he studied English literature until ISIS invaded.

On Thursday the Syriac Military Council fighters were preparing to evacuate civilian families still living in their villages. They worry that, as Christians, they’ll be killed if the rebels come in.

“They are not different from ISIS,” Hanna said “We know what will happen if they take our village. It’s the same ideology and the same thoughts.”

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