Yesterday forces loyal to al Qaeda took the small town of Azaz on Syria’s border with Turkey from the Free Syrian Army. All residents have apparently been ‘detained’ whatever that means, and strict Sharia law has been instituted.
While I don’t know Azaz, which is on the Syrian side of the border, I do know the Turkish part of what is known as the Mesopotamian Plain. Called al Jazeera, or ‘the Island’ by Arabic speakers and the ‘Tur Abdin’ or ‘Servants of God’ by Aramaic speaking Syriani Christians, I went to the area a few years ago with my son and some friends. My mission was mainly to gather material for my Cetin Ikmen book ‘River of the Dead’ which I based in the regional capital of Mardin. Because of the continuing strife between the Turkish State and Kurdish Separatists (PKK) in the area, Mardin isn’t always open to visitors. But we were lucky even if the first thing we saw as we entered the city was an empty hotel riddled with bullet holes. Of course now things are much worse with Syrian refugee camps on the border and tensions in the entire area rising.
Thinking about that area and what may be happening in the town of Azaz made me consider, not for the first time, just how insanely complicated the issue of Syria really is. I know a lot of people think about it in terms of religion versus secular with a complication thrown into the mix via the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. But it involves much more than that. People live very different and extremely diverse lives on both sides of the Turco-Syrian border. Below is my account of those groups I came into contact with which is far from comprehensive.
In Turkey you have the ethnic split between Turks and Kurds. In Syria it is between Arabs and Kurds. For centuries the Kurds, who mainly speak a language allied to Farsi (except for the tribes who speak a dialect called Zaza which is entirely distinct), have wanted their own homeland. But because their population is scattered across many countries including Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, they find themselves at odds with very diverse nation states. Kurdish separatist organisations may be religious or secular, depending upon the leadership.
Bashar al Assad, President of Syria, runs a nominally secular state under the auspices of his Baa’thist Party, but he is an Alawite which is a type of Shi’a Muslim. The largest group in his country is made up of Sunni Muslims whose cause has been co-opted by extremist groups like al Qaeda. Extremism from the other, Shi’a side, is provided by Hezbollah who are largely funded by co-religionist Iran. When I was in Mardin I was told about a murder that had been committed in the nearby town of Batman by Hezbollah who had decapitated a local man. I didn’t tell my son about this at the time but, although he was an adult by then, I never let him leave my sight from then on.
Syrian Christians (the Syriani) live in Turkey and Syria and the reason why they call the Mesopotamian Plain the ‘Tur Abdin’ in their native Aramaic is because it is an area that is covered with hundreds of their monasteries. In that area a 10th century church is a relative newcomer and I celebrated Easter with them in a building that dated from the 5th century. Ethnically they are Arabs who speak Aramaic and their faith comes under the auspices of the Orthodox Church. The local, if small, Armenian population are also mostly Orthodox (a few are Catholics) although they are not Semites, but ethnic Caucasians.
A group I wanted to meet but didn’t was the Yezidi. These are Kurds who worship a deity called the Peacock Angel which those who don’t understand them perceive as Satan. So they are known as the ‘Devil Worshippers’. In fact their faith is a form of Zoroastrianism and they are a very peaceful and, I am told, hospitable people. But they have been persecuted at one time or another by almost every group that lives in the area. Ditto the gypsies who travel across the Plain and sometimes across the border.
Folk beliefs in entities like the Sharmeran, a snake goddess who lives in the mountains, often run alongside more traditional religious beliefs. People are proud of ‘their’ Sharmeran and wouldn’t take kindly to the type of religious exclusivity demanded by groups like al Qaeda. The Sharmeran particularly is a very ancient deity and if she ‘disappeared’ it would be a tragedy for the cultural integrity of the whole Tur Abdin.
You’ll notice that we haven’t even got to any possible involvement by Israel or the ‘Middle East Situation’ in its larger context. That’s because we’re only looking at the ethnic and religious groups and the complications and challenges that they bring in relation to the Turco-Syrian border. But of course Israel is in there. Bashar al Assad is supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran which has declared itself a sworn enemy of Israel. Syria can’t do anything but be at odds with the Jewish State.
Add into this arabesque of Turco-Syrian ethnicity and belief the appearance of al Qaeda fighters from places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UK and you can see just how very complex and frightening this situation is. If we’re not careful entire ethnic groups could be at risk of extinction, not just from one opposing group, but from several. And if you think the world won’t be poorer for not having Yezidis in it, then think again.
My point in writing this piece was to share some of my experience of a relatively unknown area and also to point out that the Syrian issue is far more complex than most people realise. If you get the chance, once the bullets have stopped flying, go to the Tur Abdin and see for yourself. Hopefully all the wonderful human diversity I’ve listed above will still be there. Hopefully…