“We are the indigenous people of the Orient”

In the media, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is often seen as a purely Kurdish-dominated project. However, North and East Syria is characterised by the fact that it is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. We spoke with two Syriac Christians, Sanharib Barsom and Tony Vergili about the history and role of the Syriac people in AANES.
Interview for MeydaNews 29.12.2022

The Rojava Revolution is now ten years old. Can you still remember how you experienced the events of 2012?

Sanharib Barsom: We as Suryoye and as Syriac Union Party were involved in the revolution in Syria since 2011. Before the revolution under the Assad regime, the Suryoye had no rights at all and were not recognized. For the regime, we mostly did not exist. And if we exist, than only as a religious minority. When the regime withdrew from North and East Syria (NES) in 2012 we directly helped to prepare and establish the administration. Most of us lived in the region, mainly in Qamishlo or al-Hasakah. In January 2014, we were then present at the official founding of the AANES in Qamishlo. Early on, we realized that this revolution could also go wrong. We saw the danger of a clashes between ethnic groups and religions. In order to prevent this, we talked to our neighbors – Kurds, Arabs and Yazidis – from the very beginning and built up the administration together.

Were you exposed to particular dangers as Christians at that time?

Tony Vergili: As Suryoye, we are exposed to multiple dangers. We are not Arabs, not Kurds – and not Muslims either. Therefore, we face multiple discrimination as a people and as a religious minority. That is why the establishment of the AANES was so essential for us. We knew, it would be our only chance. As Suryoye we already experienced genocide and displacement.

Sanharib Barsom: The Syriac Union Party already existed at that time. It already had its structure. We were few, but it existed. In 2013, we then founded the Syriac Military Council. With this, we were able to defend ourselves militarily as Christians. And we faced a lot of domestic and foreign enemies like al-Nusra or ISIS. Dozens of martyrs have given their lives to defend us. In doing so, we have united our forces and together we have formed the Syrian Democratic Forces – again together with Kurds and Arabs. We built the administration together and also defended it together.

The AANES has quickly created its own structures such as communes and committees. What do you think are the crucial structures that have developed?

Sanharib Barsom: At the beginning, all this only existed on paper. Only with time, through the work on the ground we could show that the system works. Thus, the participation of the people also grew. Looking back, after ten years, against a lot of scepticism, we have managed to make the administration work well. Compared to the regime or the occupied areas, we have created a good society and a comfortable life. Scepticism is turning into hope. The political system and self-defence are functioning very well. This is because, together with the Arabs and Kurds, we had visionaries in our ranks who dared to do what no one had tried before: Namely, to build a common, multi-ethnic and federal system.

You have talked a lot about the coexistence of different ethnic groups. Do these groups all support the self-administration in the same way?

Sanharib Barsom: Our social contract stipulates a multi-ethnic society. All ethnic groups have their rights and all people are equally represented. On the ground, of course, this is structured differently: For example in the Kurdish city of Kobane you have Kurdish representatives. In Deir ez-Zor, where mainly Arabs live, they are the majority in the local administration. But in principle, every people is represented. We often hear in the media that the administration is a Kurdish project. But this is not true. It is a project of and by the people. We know what great suffering the Kurds experienced in Kobane in 2014/15. They are the people with the most martyrs. But we built the AANES together as different ethnicities and we all support it.

What problems do face now?

Sanharib Barsom: If we wanted to survive here as a people and as Christians, it quickly became clear to us that a new society must be neither dictatorial nor chauvinistic. There is no way around federalist thinking – also for the whole of Syria. In NES we have established a well-functioning system. Everybody knows his or her rights. Therefore, we as Christians can stay in Syria. We are no longer second or third class people. But there is still a lot to do. If you look at a map, you will see, that NES is enclosed: by Turkey, Iraq and the Syrian regime. The borders are closed and it is difficult for us to develop economically. This affects our daily life and also makes it difficult for our people to live together peacefully. Around five million people live here and many are affected by poverty, hunger and economic hardship.

Tony Vergili: In addition, all ethnic groups are internally divided. Even within the Kurdish community there are people who do not participate in AANES. At the same time, there are also people among us or among the Arabs who still believe that administration is a Kurdish project. This is also fueled by Turkey: they say that it is only a PKK-project and that we are ultimately all terrorists.

But still you are involved in the AANES?

Tony Vergili: I want to remind you that it was not an easy step for us as Christians to enter the AANES. We were reminded of the Sayfo, the genocide of the Syriac Christians, which was carried out by the Ottomans together with the Kurdish collaborators between 1915 and 1917. We have not forgotten what happened then. Our fear that our neighbors want to kill us is still present. However, it was therefore all the more important for us to participate so that history does not repeat itself. That is why today we are working together. We have put aside our fear and come together. This has enabled us to survive in our ancestral homeland. We are the indigenous people of the Orient, the Arameans, Assyrians and Chaldeans are our ancestors. We know about this unique chance to build something together now. We want to and must use it.

However, many Suryoye are still afraid to participate in the AANES.

Tony Vergili: They fear the return and the revenge of the Syrian regime. But the participation rate is increasing. Meanwhile, the majority of the Suryoye are convinced that one has to participate. If you look closely at the AANES, you can see how it differs from other governments in the region. Christians are nowhere allowed to be active, in any other country. Only in NES we have guaranteed rights and can participate in the administration in leadership positions. We don’t want to give that up again. This is also important for Europe. If there are no more Christians in the region, it will be an exclusively Muslim area. Confrontations between West and East will rise. As Christians in the Orient, we can create a balance. We are a shield for the region against Turkey’s attacks. We are not PKK-supporters, but part of the society. Without us, there would be even more conflict.

Where do you see NES in five or ten years?

Sanharib Barsom: This is not an easy question. Even in the present we face many problems: Firstly, people, including some Suryoye, still look back to the regime. We may have defeated ISIS militarily, but not yet the mindset. This is the second problem. The third problem is the greatest danger for us: Turkey’s attack in NES. The Suryoye live mainly in the border area with Turkey. This is a danger for us – but also for the whole world, as the attacks will also make ISIS strong again. But if we manage to convince the people even more of the progress of the administration, it can be a great success – and will still exist in ten years. We are working on this every day. Countless martyrs have fallen and there will certainly be more. But all this will be in vain if we fail. There is no other way than a decentralized and democratic system for Syria.