“ISIS doesn’t want us to be together, yet we have been living all of these years together, Muslim and Christian, and nothing happened, everything was fine, but now ISIS – they don’t want that,” one member of the militia fighting for an inclusive democracy tells MintPress.
AL-HASAKAH PROVINCE, Syria — Saed Jabar sits cross-legged on the floor of a small dark room. Above him hangs a wall-sized portrait depicting the famous biblical scene of the Last Supper in delicate detail. The electricity just went out again, a common occurrence in Syria over the past three and a half years of civil war. Jabar, seemingly so accustomed to the lights flickering out, doesn’t even acknowledge that the room has suddenly plunged into darkness.
The small barracks lie on the southern frontline against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in al-Hasakah, Syria. The building, an abandoned house, is now the home of the 30 men in The Martyr Obdar Company – named after a fallen soldier – of the Assyrian Military Council, a militia representing the ethnic Assyrian Christian population of Syria. Yet Jabar is neither Assyrian nor Christian — he is a Syrian Arab Muslim, who has picked up arms with the Christians of al-Hasakah, to fight with them against ISIS.
MintPress News moves the interview outside into the afternoon light, where young Assyrian Christians are sitting on the ground, cleaning the barrels of M-6 machine guns, and standing guard from rooftops and outlying trenches. Jabar nods his head to graffiti etched in red on the wall of one of their barracks.
“That’s our acronym, MFS [Assyrian Military Council], who we fight under,” he says, tightening the black scarf knotted in fighter-fashion around his head.
Jabar’s youthful looks make it clear that he is one of the younger members of the company, but his awareness of the political and cultural history of his homeland belies his years.
“My goal and our goal is to finish the religious problems here, and not let ISIS take over here and occupy our land. We want to protect our people here like the Kurds, Arabs and Christians.”
A peaceful coexistence
A Dwekh Nawsha militia member sits on top of a tombstone inside a 200-year-old monastery in the Christian village of Bakufa, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. Dwekh Naswha, or “self sacrifice” in Assyrian, is a Christian militia recently formed by volunteers to protect Christian territories in the Nineveh Province in Iraq. (Photo: Bram Janssen/AP)
The coexistence of Muslims and Christians in Syria and Iraq has been a staple for hundreds of years. Why then, Jabar asks, should he have to choose to join the Kurdish YPG (and majority Muslim force) fighters in battle, rather than the Christian fighters?
“We want to finish sectarianism. ISIS doesn’t want us to be together, yet we have been living all of these years together, Muslim and Christian, and nothing happened, everything was fine, but now ISIS – they don’t want that.”
As far as Jabar is concerned, the fight against ISIS is not along religious lines – the fight is about allowing people of all walks of life to live in his country under an inclusive democracy.
In the northern half of al-Hasakah province (termed Rojava by the majority Kurdish population), the defense of the region from the extremists of ISIS and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), an al-Qaida-linked group fighting in Syria, has taken an inter-faith path. Although Jabar is mainly an anomaly at the grassroots level, his anti-sectarian vision is being echoed at the top of the political and military arenas.
The Kurdish YPG forces, made up almost exclusively of Muslim Kurds – although some Muslim Arabs are also fighters – now coordinate and fight against ISIS alongside the Assyrian Military Council. Where extremist militant organizations like ISIS and the Nusra Front have attempted to divide Syria and Iraq along sectarian lines, in Rojava their attempts have not just been nullified, but have seemingly spurred on the formation of new partnerships, as well as a new inclusive vision for the region – a vision that is in essence the opposite of what ISIS has pushed for.
“And now we fight for all the kinds of people here,” Mahmoud Hussein, a Muslim YPG fighter who is based a few kilometers north of the MFS compound, tells MintPress. “Christian, Muslim, Arab, Kurdish, from all the people who live here, we don’t have any religious lines, we are together, we fight together to protect all of our land, so that anyone can have a life here, whoever you are.”
Building an inclusive democracy
Back at the Assyrian Military Council’s barracks, the leader of the company, Johan Coser, tells MintPress that while he is firmly committed to the right of Assyrians to be represented as an ethnic populace and the protection of their religion, Christianity, he stressed he doesn’t believe the struggle of the Assyrians has anything to do with religion. He admits that he is not religious, just a man who wants to help protect the Assyrians of Syria and build a democracy in the Rojava region for all who wish for it.
Matai Nashro, who hails from the Syrian border town of Qamishli, around 40 kilometers to the north, nods in agreement as he listens in from above. Manning the roof of the barracks, he looks southward, the mist and fog obscuring the horizon – ISIS militants lay in wait about a mile away.
Despite being embroiled in the long and deadly Syrian civil war, Nashro continues to appear determined, relishing the fight against ISIS — a group that has pledged to banish his religion from Iraq and Syria and kill anyone, whether Muslim, Christian, Kurd, Arab or Assyrian, who does not abide by the group’s draconian laws.
“We have been to the frontlines, the very last line of defense, and we do this often,” Nashro says as clouds gathered overhead, rain slightly falling as winter begins to descend on Syria and its battlefields. “Everytime we come back, we know more than ever how strong we can fight. We have killed them [ISIS] in this war and we will continue to do this, so that this place can be safe.”
Directly below Nashro, the wall is etched with the words “Beth Nahrain” in Arabic – the historical term Assyrians use for Mesopotamia, which means “house of two rivers.”
Nashro’s barracks are located in a previously ransacked Christian village in the province. The village church, around 100 meters away, has the words “Islamic State” scratched into its walls. The roof and interior have been completely destroyed, blown up by the militants when they came under attack from the advancing — and cooperating — Assyrian and Kurdish fighting forces. ISIS fled as the joint force took over the village, but has now regrouped just about a mile away – their snipers a constant threat in the no-man’s land that begins in front of Nashro’s barracks.
Redur Xelil, the spokesperson for the Kurdish YPG, told MintPress that it is the sort of joint force that reclaimed the village that the Martyr Obdar Company of the Assyrian Military Council are now based in, which is helping to stabilize the Rojava region in contrast to other areas of Syria, militarily and politically.
“There are other people who live on this land, who have the right to share this land and to fight with us,” Xelil says. “These people [Assyrian Military Council] are doing the same as what we are doing, they are a strong army, fighting for our land, our country and our people.”
The cooperation between the YPG and the Assyrian Military Council will continue, Xelil stressed – and not just through the armed fight against ISIS. Cooperation between all groups in the region is a prerequisite for the creation of a fair and democratic region, Xelil asserts, and it is a belief that is being strengthened – not weakened – by the presence of ISIS.