With little of no military experience, Syrians from the oldest Christian community in the world are taking up arms against ISIS — with training from a former club owner in Switzerland.
MALIKIYA, Syria – Commander Johan Cosar stands on the rooftop of an abandoned home in the Syriac Christian village of Gharduka, about 60 kilometers southwest of Malikiya in Syria’s northeastern corner. He points toward a vast field: “That’s where Islamic State is, one and half kilometers from here,” he says, referring to the organization that is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The rundown building serves as a military base for the Syriac Military Council (also known as MFS), the Syrian-based military branch of the Mesopotamian National Council, an international organization founded to aid Syriac communities around the world. The soldiers, members of the oldest Christian community in the world, are fighting a battle to keep their identity alive and their homeland from falling into the hands of what they call foreign invaders. They work hand-in-hand with the community’s security force, Sutoro.
Cosar, an Italian-Swiss of Syriac origin, helped found MFS. In June 2012 the 32-year-old former club owner left Switzerland for Syria in order to better understand the civil war.
“At the time the north of Syria had not been touched by the violence of the war, but it was moving this way, so I said ‘We need to do something,” he explains.
Cosar took it upon himself to train young Syriac men who had taken up arms but had very little or no military experience: “The idea was to create an internal military force that could defend the territory and towns of our people and other civilians, there was a primary need to organize ourselves militarily,” Cosar says. The formation of the MFS combat units was officially announced on January 8, 2013.
The training is akin to what Cosar received in the Swiss Armed Forces. The men are trained in both light and heavy weaponry, including hand grenades, sniper rifles, Kalashnikov assault rifles and Russian-made “Dushka” heavy machine guns. Hundreds of youths have gone through it and while the majority of them are over 18, some appear to be younger.
“We’ve trained them on how to use arms safely, the weapon needs to be a part of you. You should have control of the weapon, not vice versa,” explains Cosar. He says there have not yet been any fatalities, but a few of his men have been injured in battle.
“As Christians we are not only fighting against the Islamic state, we are fighting against a state that hates us. Our situation is a bit more dangerous,” he adds, as plumes of black smoke from the Islamic State’s improvised oil refineries mushroom into the sky.
In a war that has created deep cleavages between religious and ethnic communities in Syria and given rise to an infinite number of splinter groups, MFS has chosen to maintain close ties with the Kurds, under whose local administration it operates. There is close coordination, and incursions are often carried out jointly with the main Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, also known as YPG. “We’re one body with two heads. Each does their own thing, but at the end we have the same goal,” says Cosar.
The “marriage” of the region’s different groups is mirrored in the local administration of Jazira, the self-proclaimed autonomous canton that includes Malikiya. Jazira’s president, Akram Hesso, who is sometimes referred to as prime minister, is Kurdish, while his deputies, Elizabeth Gawrie and Hussein Taza Al Azam, are Syriac and Arab, respectively.
“There are no eyes in Syria that have not cried. Our people have suffered a lot and have been pushed from their lands. To get back what we had we need democracy,” Gawrie says, adding that diplomacy alone will not accomplish this: “We need the military too, and they have given hope to the Syriac community.”
While Cosar is adamant that the protection provided by MFS is not limited to the Syriac people, he admitted that relations with the Arab community living under their rule were strained.
As he explains this, a car rumbles toward the base from Islamic State territory. Cosar points at the vehicle and recounts that many civilians commute back and forth for work. “They go up and down, but some aren’t ordinary civilians, they come here to report back to Islamic State fighters. We take precautions, especially against suicide bombers.”
Though the front had been relatively calm for a few months, in September there were a number of fierce clashes that resulted in the MFS’ liberation of over 20 villages. The rubble of a church and a desecrated Christian cemetery next to the base are the only physical evidence of the battles.
In the ethnically-mixed town of Tirbesipiye, a 15-minute drive from the front, Sutoro leader Afram Elias relates that relations between the Arab and Syriac peoples have been badly damaged. He sits on a plastic chair outside Sutoro headquarters, quietly sipping tea. He says he was a tailor in Aleppo until the war pushed him to take up his current job.
“The Syriac people are afraid because we are a target for the Islamic State,” he says, relating that 15 days earlier a 24-year-old Syriac man was kidnapped by the Islamic State as he was driving his truck through an Arab village. “They were checking IDs and saw that he was Christian and kidnapped him,” Elias says.
“We take up these weapons because it is necessary for us to protect the region, not because we like weapons,” says Elias, who once delighted in making dresses that brought happiness to women.
He says he has seen many members of his community leave the region in hope of finding safety and stability elsewhere, and he worries that the homeland of the Christian Syriac people will be emptied of what many claim were its original inhabitants. “Day by day the Christian community is disappearing from this region,” he says.
To a people that was once under the oppressive rule of the Assad regime and now lives in fear of ruthless Sunni insurgents, the establishment of the Syriac Christian military and security forces has brought a sense of relative safety and is a step toward reclaiming what they view as their rightful homeland.
“It’s a shame to lose thousands of years of history,” Cosar says. “At war no one gives you anything, if I want my identity I need to do something about it. But the people fighting this war are not only fighting for their own interests, they’re fighting for democracy and to be able to live with a sense of dignity. With the dignity of a human being,” adds the Syriac commander.