Turkish-backed extremists in Syria pose threat to religious freedom

A new annual report for 2021 by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom documents some of Ankara’s concerning actions, Turkey’s role and how Ankara fans the flames.

SMOKE RISES from artillery strikes near Afrin. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SMOKE RISES from artillery strikes near Afrin.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Religious minorities in the Middle East have been under siege for decades. In recent years Turkey has emerged as one of the backers of extremists who now threaten minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis.
Turkey’s invasions of Syria, beginning in 2016, have led to ethnic cleansing and attacks by Turkish-backed extremists on religious groups. Yazidi shrines in Afrin, which Turkey illegally occupies, have been destroyed. A new annual report for 2021, by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, documents some of Ankara’s concerning actions, Turkey’s role and how Ankara fans the flames of extremism.
While the Assad regime continues to suppress people in parts of Syria, in Idlib province, where Turkey has forces, a radical Islamist al-Qaeda affiliate named Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is present. The US Department of State designated it an “entity of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act in December, the new report notes.
While the report slams Turkey and its allied militias, it praises the Syrian Democratic Council in eastern Syria. It notes that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has fostered positive conditions through its multiethnic and multi-confessional Syrian Democratic Council, and military support from the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.
The SDF was formed in 2015 and the US-led Coalition against ISIS has backed it. It helped defeat ISIS and keep extremism in check.
In recent days elements linked to the AANES have clashed with Syrian regime forces. This is because eastern Syria is a complex mix containing some Syrian regime elements, Russian posts near US forces, SDF posts and Turkish-backed extremists who threaten to cut off water for civilians.
The report recommends exerting pressure on Turkey and providing a timeline for its withdrawal from areas it occupies since its attack there in October 2019. Turkey threatened US forces and demanded that then-US president Donald Trump withdraw from Syria.
The report argues that Turkey should compel militias to “cease all activities negatively impacting religious and ethnic minorities.”
It also argues that the US should recognize the AANES as the legitimate local government and expand US engagement. This would bolster pluralism and nurture the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
In a part of the report that includes the individual views of USCIRF commissioners Gary L. Bauer, Anurima Bhargava, James W. Carr, Frederick A. Davie, Nadine Maenza, Gayle Manchin, Tony Perkins and Nury Turkel, recommendations to the US government on Syria have strong bipartisan support among USCIRF’s commissioners.
It notes that “many independent organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the United Nations, have produced reports documenting the atrocities that the Turkish military and its Islamist militias are committing against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities in the areas Turkey has invaded and occupies in northeast Syria.
Those atrocities include killings, kidnappings, rape, extortion and forced conversion. By contrast, the areas governed by the AANES have encouraged the free practice of religious faith, even for Muslim converts to Christianity, that is otherwise unheard of in the region.”
Turkey in general is on a troubling trajectory, the report points out. There are also concerns about the repression of religious minorities in Iran, poor treatment of minorities in Iraq, and a problematic situation in Saudi Arabia despite improvements. Sudan has seen some remarkable improvements, but in Syria religious minorities are under serious threat.