Christianity grows in Syrian town once besieged by Islamic State

Children stand together inside a damaged house in Kobani, Syria April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By John Davison

KOBANI, Syria (Reuters) – A community of Syrians who converted to Christianity from Islam is growing in Kobani, a town besieged by Islamic State for months, and where the tide turned against the militants four years ago.

The converts say the experience of war and the onslaught of a group claiming to fight for Islam pushed them towards their new faith. After a number of families converted, the Syrian-Turkish border town’s first evangelical church opened last year.

Islamic State militants were beaten back by U.S. air strikes and Kurdish fighters at Kobani in early 2015, in a reversal of fortune after taking over swaths of Iraq and Syria. After years of fighting, U.S.-backed forces fully ended the group’s control over populated territory last month.

Though Islamic State’s ultra radical interpretation of Sunni Islam has been repudiated by the Islamic mainstream, the legacy of its violence has affected perceptions of faith.

Many in the mostly Kurdish areas of northern Syria, whose urban centers are often secular, say agnosticism has strengthened and in the case of Kobani, Christianity.

Christianity is one of the region’s minority faiths that was persecuted by Islamic State.

Critics view the new converts with suspicion, accusing them of seeking personal gain such as financial help from Christian organizations working in the region, jobs and enhanced prospects of emigration to European countries.

The newly-converted Christians of Kobani deny those accusations. They say their conversion was a matter of faith.

“After the war with Islamic State people were looking for the right path, and distancing themselves from Islam,” said Omar Firas, the founder of Kobani’s evangelical church. “People were scared and felt lost.”

Firas works for a Christian aid group at a nearby camp for displaced people that helped set up the church.

He said around 20 families, or around 80 to 100 people, in Kobani now worship there. They have not changed their names.

“We meet on Tuesdays and hold a service on Fridays. It is open to anyone who wants to join,” he said.

The church’s current pastor, Zani Bakr, 34, arrived last year from Afrin, a town in northern Syria. He converted in 2007.

“This was painted by IS as a religious conflict, using religious slogans. Because of this a lot of Kurds lost trust in religion generally, not just Islam,” he said.

Many became atheist or agnostic. “But many others became Christian. Scores here and more in Afrin.”

A woman reacts at a grave of her daughter, an SDF fighter killed during fightings with Islamic State militants, at a cemetery in Kobani, Syria April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

A woman reacts at a grave of her daughter, an SDF fighter killed during fightings with Islamic State militants, at a cemetery in Kobani, Syria April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

MISSIONARIES AND CRITICS

One man, who lost an arm in an explosion in Kobani and fled to Turkey for medical treatment, said he met Kurdish and Turkish converts there and eventually decided to join them.

“They seemed happy and all talked about love. That’s when I decided to follow Jesus’s teachings,” Maxim Ahmed, 22, said, adding that several friends and family were now interested in coming to the new church.

Some in Kobani reject the growing Christian presence. They say Western Christian aid groups and missionaries have exploited the chaos and trauma of war to convert people and that local newcomers to the religion see an opportunity for personal gain.

“Many people think that they are somehow benefitting from this, maybe for material gain or because of the perception that Christians who seek asylum abroad get preferential treatment,” said Salih Naasan, a real estate worker and former Arabic teacher.

Thousands of Christians have fled the region over decades of sectarian strife. From Syria they have often headed for Lebanon and European countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to help minorities fleeing the region when he imposed a travel ban on Muslims in 2016, but many Christians were denied asylum.

“It might be a reaction to Daesh (Islamic State) but I don’t see the positives. It just adds another religious and sectarian dimension which in a community like this will lead to tension,” said Naasan, a practicing Muslim.

Naasan like the vast majority of Muslims rejects Islamic State’s narrow and brutal interpretation of Islam. The group enslaved and killed thousands of people from all faiths, reserving particular brutality for minorities such as the Yazidis of northern Iraq.

Most Christians preferred not to give their names or be interviewed, saying they fear reaction from conservative sectors of society.

The population of Kobani and its surroundings has neared its original 200,000 after people returned, although only 40,000 live in the town itself, much of which lies in ruins.

(Editing by Tom Perry and Alexandra Hudson)

Amid U.S. withdrawal plans, U.S.-backed forces still fighting in Syria

FILE PHOTO: U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S.-backed forces are still retaking territory from Islamic State in Syria, U.S. officials said on Friday, even as President Donald Trump’s administration plans for the withdrawal of American troops from the country on the grounds the militant group has been defeated there.

Washington announced last month it would withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, with Trump saying they had succeeded in their mission and were no longer needed there.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Kurdish fighters, captured the Syrian town of Kashmah on Jan. 2 after retaking the town of Hajin on Dec. 25, Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Sean Robertson told Reuters.

The day the SDF took Kashmah was the same day that Trump stated during a cabinet meeting his strong desire to gradually withdraw from Syria, calling it a place of “sand and death.”

Trump also said it was up to other countries to fight Islamic State, including Russia and Iran, and said that Islamic State was down to its last remaining bits of territory in Syria.

“We’re hitting the hell out of them, the ISIS people,” Trump said, using an acronym to refer to Islamic State, adding “we’re down to final blows.”

In a separate statement on Friday, the U.S.-led coalition said it carried out 469 strikes in Syria between Dec. 16 and Dec. 29, which destroyed nearly 300 fighting positions, more than 150 staging areas, and a number of supply routes, oil lubricant storage facilities and equipment.

Experts say the U.S. withdrawal could allow Islamic State to stage a comeback. Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw contributed to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month.

Aaron Stein, the Middle East program director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Islamic State retained control of just a “sprinkle of villages” near the Euphrates river.

“(ISIS) will simply revert to a diffused rural insurgency where it could use just the tyranny of space, the desert is very big, to sort of hideout and be able to launch raiding attacks,” Stein said.

It is unclear how quickly Trump’s withdrawal will take place. U.S. officials have told Reuters that it could take several more months to carry out, potentially giving time for U.S.-backed forces to deal parting blows to the militant group that once held broad swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Trump said on Wednesday the United States would get out of Syria slowly “over a period of time” and would protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the country as Washington draws down troops.

The Pentagon spokesman said coalition forces, which Washington coordinates, were continuing to assist the SDF with close air support and artillery strikes in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

“We will continue to work with the coalition and regional partners toward an enduring defeat of ISIS,” Robertson said.

He called the capture of Hajin significant.

“This was a milestone since it was among the largest of the last remaining ISIS strongholds in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” he said.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the U.S. military was assisting with the operations.

Islamic State declared its “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline Islamist group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

Much of the U.S. campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish)

Turkey says its forces won’t stay in Syria’s Afrin region

Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army are deployed in Afrin, Syria March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil As

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish forces will withdraw from the Syrian border region of Afrin, leaving it to its “real owners”, once it has been cleared of “terrorists”, Turkey said on Monday.

Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies swept into the regional capital, also called Afrin, on Sunday, raising their flags in the town center and declaring full control after an eight-week campaign against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“We are not permanent there (in Afrin) and we are certainly not invaders. Our goal is to hand the region back to its real owners after clearing it of terrorists,” Bekir Bozdag, a deputy prime minister, told reporters.

The fight for Afrin, a once-stable pocket of northwest Syria, has opened a new front in the country’s multi-sided civil war and highlighted the ever-greater role of foreign powers such as Turkey. More than 150,000 people have fled Afrin in recent days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.

Bozdag said the capture of the town of Afrin as part of Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ had significantly reduced threats to its borders.

It is Turkey’s second cross-border operation into Syria during that country’s seven-year civil war.

The first operation, dubbed “Euphrates Shield”, targeted what Ankara called a “terror corridor” made up of Islamic State and Kurdish fighters further east from Afrin along its southern frontier with Syria.

After the completion of the Euphrates Shield operation in early 2017, Turkey set up local systems of governance in the swathe of land captured, stretching from the area around Azaz – located to the northeast of Afrin – to the Euphrates River and protected by Turkish forces present there.

Bozdag said Turkey now aimed to form similar governance systems in the Afrin region, without elaborating.

Turkey’s campaign in Afrin has drawn criticism in the West, including the United States and France, which have provided arms and training to the YPG and fear that the incursion could weaken international action against Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the militant PKK group that has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades. Turkey has been infuriated by the Western support given to the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Bozdag said Turkey had collected “most” of the weapons given to Kurdish fighters by the United States, after the YPG left the arms behind as they fled the town.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones)

Turkey to U.S.: End support for Syrian Kurd YPG or risk confrontation

Turkish soldiers are pictured in a village near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 24, 2018.

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dahlia Nehme

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey urged the United States on Thursday to halt its support for Kurdish YPG fighters or risk confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria, some of Ankara’s strongest comments yet about a potential clash with its NATO ally.

The remarks, from the spokesman for President Tayyip Erdogan’s government, underscored the growing bilateral tensions, six days after Turkey launched its air and ground operation, “Olive Branch”, in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region.

In Washington, the Pentagon said that it carefully tracked weapons provided to the YPG and would continue discussions with Turkey.

“We carefully track those weapons that are provided to them, we ensure that they, to the maximum extent possible, don’t fall into the wrong hands and we’re continuing discussions with the Turks on this issue,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, joint staff director, told reporters.

McKenzie said Turkey’s operation into Afrin was not helpful and was taking focus away from fighting Islamic State.

Turkey’s targeting of the YPG, which it views as a security threat, has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war. The Syrian Kurdish group is a main part of a U.S.-backed rebel alliance that has inflicted recent defeats on Islamic State militants.

Any push by Turkish forces towards Manbij, part of a Kurdish-held territory some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, could threaten U.S. efforts in northeast Syria and bring them into direct confrontation with U.S. troops deployed there.

“Those who support the terrorist organization will become a target in this battle,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said.

“The United States needs to review its solders and elements giving support to terrorists on the ground in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with Turkey,” Bozdag, who also acts as the government’s spokesman, told broadcaster A Haber.

The United States has around 2,000 troops in Syria, officially as part of an international, U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. Washington has angered Ankara by providing arms, training and air support to Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey views as terrorists.

The Kurdish-led autonomous administration that runs Afrin on Thursday called on the Syrian government to defend its border with Turkey in Afrin despite Damascus’ stance against Kurdish autonomy.

“We call on the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign obligations towards Afrin and protect its borders with Turkey from attacks of the Turkish occupier,” it said in a statement on its website.

The Syrian government has said it is ready to target Turkish jets in its airspace, but has not intervened so far. It suspects the Kurds of wanting independence in the long-run and does not recognize the autonomous cantons they have set up in northern Syria.

U.S. forces were deployed in and around Manbij to deter Turkish and U.S.-backed rebels from attacking each other and have also carried out training missions in the area.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Erdogan on Wednesday to curtail the military operation in Syria, the White House said.

However Turkey has disputed that characterization of the conversation.

Turkey’s foreign minister said Erdogan told Trump that U.S. troops should withdraw from Manbij.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said she had seen media reports about the comments, but was not aware of any change in U.S. posture.

McKenzie added the United States and Turkey closely coordinated in the region but the United States would also ensure the safety of its troops.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed by Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag and Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli upon his arrival at the border city of Hatay, Turkey January 25, 2018.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed by Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag and Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli upon his arrival at the border city of Hatay, Turkey January 25, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.

LIMITED GAINS

Six days into the campaign, Turkish soldiers and their Free Syrian Army rebel fighter allies have been battling to gain footholds on the western, northern and eastern flanks of Afrin.

They appear to have made only limited gains, hampered by rain and clouds, which have limited the air support.

Turkish warplanes struck the northern borders of Afrin, in tandem with heavy artillery shelling, and one civilian was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

Dozens of combatants and more than two dozen civilians have been killed so far in the offensive, the Observatory has said.

The Turkish military said in a statement it had killed 303 militants in northern Syria since the operation started.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-dominated umbrella group backed by the United States in the fight against Islamic State, has previously said that Turkey was exaggerating the number of the dead.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have neared breaking point recently over U.S. support for the YPG and other issues.

Ankara considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. Washington sees the YPG as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey said the United States had proposed a 30 km (19 mile) “safe zone” along the border.

“(But) in order for us to discuss the security zone or any other issue with the U.S., we have to reestablish trust,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.

In Washington, McKenzie said the U.S. and Turkey were continuing talks about a “secure zone” but there had been no final decision.

McKenzie said that he had not yet seen a movement of SDF fighters moving from the Euphrates River Valley to reinforce Afrin or Manbij, but was watching closely.

The Afrin operation has also triggered concern in Germany, another NATO ally, where the caretaker government said it would put on hold any decision on upgrading Turkey’s German-made tanks.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Tom Perry in Beirut; Michael Nienaber Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alistair Bell)

Spirits high among Kurds in Syria as coalition battles for Raqqa

A Kurdish fighter from the People's Protection Units (YPG) fires a 120 mm mortar round in Raqqa, Syria, June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Michael Georgy

RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – Kurdish fighter Habun Kamishli proudly recalled the cat and mouse game she played with an Islamic State suicide bomber in the Syrian town of Raqqa, where the militant group is likely to make its last stand.

“I was standing on a rooftop yesterday as our forces advanced. I noticed he was trying to sneak from one street to another to get into the building and kill us,” she said.

“Then I took a picture of his body with my phone. We are avenging the deaths of our fellow Kurds.”

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, made up predominantly of Kurdish fighters, has seized territory to the north, east and west of Raqqa. The city of about 200,000 has been the base of operations for Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks on civilians across the globe.

The assault on Raqqa is likely to be a defining moment in the U.S.-led war on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Along with the Iraqi army’s campaign to drive out Islamic State in Mosul, the other center of its self-proclaimed caliphate, it threatens to deal a major blow to the militants.

Spirits were high among Kurds on Thursday, as they identified Islamic State targets on an iPad and fired mortar rounds toward them.

Nearby, a Kurdish fighter listened to communications on a radio. Coalition aircraft had spotted militants in a car and were about to attack.

The mood along a Raqqa street was a far cry from the fear that took hold when the extremist Sunni militants group declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and moved towards building a self-sufficient state.

Kurdish YPG militia flags hang on the walls of buildings beside names of fighters and women sang patriotic songs.

Shops taken over by the militants were abandoned, with just a few empty chocolate boxes left. Large billboards with the group’s original name Islamic State in Iraq and Syria felt like part of a bygone era.

Kurdish women commanders seemed confident of victory in the next few months.

“We have them surrounded on three sides and many can’t escape anymore,” said Samaa Sarya. “Some manage to escape on wooden boats along the river at night.”

The number of car bombs, a favorite Islamic State weapon, has fallen from about 20 to 7 a day. Coalition air strikes are exerting heavy pressure on Islamic State.

Still, dangers persist.  Minutes later, Sarya received word that a drone operated by Islamic State dropped a bomb on Raqqa, wounding 12 of her comrades.

Some Kurdish fighters estimate there could be as many as 3,000 militants left in Raqqa, where buildings are pockmarked from fighting.

The Syrians left, but foreign fighters stayed and were busy planting landmines and booby trapping houses, Kurdish fighters said. Islamic State snipers were highly effective, they said.

“Today our movements were delayed by snipers,” said Kurdish fighter Mostafa Sirikanu.

Gunfire could be heard as Kurdish militiaman Orkash Saldan pointed to a wall about 500 meters away.

“Daesh are just beyond that point,” he said, walking past a rocket Islamic State fired two days ago.

In a nearby building, where Islamic State had left behind mattresses and clothes, he pointed to a small teapot.

“You never know they could have put a bomb in that teapot or that television,” he said.

(Editing by Anna Willard)

Revenge for Sinjar: Syrian Kurds free Islamic State slaves

Noura Khodr Khalaf, 24, a Yazidi woman who was recently freed from Islamic State, stands with her children in a centre belonging to the Kurdish-led administration in Qamishli, Syria June 10, 2017. Picture taken June 10, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said and Ellen Francis

QAMISHLI, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants enslaved Noura Khalaf for three years, dragging her from her small Iraqi village across their territory in Syria. They bought and sold her five times before she was finally freed with her children last week.

Khalaf is one of many Yazidi women that Kurdish fighters in northern Syria have set out to free from Islamic State in covert operations, a female Kurdish militia commander told Reuters.

They have dubbed the operation “revenge for the women of Sinjar”, the homeland of Iraq’s ancient Yazidi minority which Islamic State overran in the summer of 2014.

The militants slaughtered, enslaved and raped thousands of people when they rampaged through northern Iraq, purging its Yazidi community. They abducted Yazidi women as sex slaves and gunned down male relatives, witnesses and Iraqi officials say. Nearly 3,000 women are believed to be still in captivity.

Nisreen Abdallah, a commander in the YPJ militia, said around 200 women and children from northern Iraq have been freed in various parts of Syria so far.

The Kurdish YPG militia and its all-female YPJ brigade rescued them in what she described as covert operations into IS territory that began last year. Abdallah declined to divulge more details for security reasons.

The Syrian militias launched this mission as part of their U.S.-backed offensive on Raqqa, Islamic State’s base of operations in Syria, she said.

With the YPG at its forefront, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias began pushing into Raqqa last week, after advancing on the city since November.

“Since then, we have been working to liberate the Yazidi women held captive by Daesh,” Abdallah said. In the case of Khalaf, she said Kurdish fighters made contact with her and drew up “an appropriate plan” to free her unharmed.

CODE WORD

Noura Khalaf said she had been living with her children as the slave of an Islamic State militant in Syria’s Hama province for a year, when an unidentified man smuggled them out in the YPG-coordinated operation.

The plan took shape thanks to IS rules forbidding fighters from taking mobile phones to the frontlines, she said. The jihadist holding Khalaf left his at home, allowing her to call her brother who in turn asked the YPG for help.

“Abu Amir used to leave his phone at home when he went to the frontline,” said 24-year-old Khalaf. “I had memorized my brother’s number.”

Khalaf was eventually told to await contact from a man who would come to rescue her. He uttered a pre-agreed code word, so she would know it was safe to leave with him.

“I’m happy to be staying here,” she said, speaking to Reuters in the Syrian city of Qamishli in the Kurdish-controlled northeast. She will soon return to the Sinjar mountain region. “After I rest here, I will go meet my brother,” she said.

After Islamic State kidnapped Khalaf with her four children in 2014, they bussed her around northern Iraq, including Mosul, along with dozens of women from her hometown of Kojo in Sinjar. “I still don’t know what happened to my husband,” she said.

At one point in her captivity, militants kept her in an underground jail in Raqqa, she said, and at another, they held her in a prison in Palmyra.

“They took us to an underground market for selling women, where they displayed us for Islamic State members and each one picks the girl he likes,” she said. Fighters forced her to serve and cook for them, some beating and raping her repeatedly.

Now, Khalaf and her children are staying at a shelter run by the women’s council of the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria.

Abdallah, the YPJ commander, said they deliver the women to their relatives in northern Iraq by coordinating with a Yazidi committee around Sinjar.

Two months earlier, Kurdish fighters also rescued Khalaf’s seven-year-old daughter, who had been sold off near Raqqa, and sent her to relatives in Sinjar, she said.

“We will also send Noura, through the women’s council. So she will see her daughter again,” Abdallah said.

“Those who are freed have been away from their relatives, living among Daesh for years…in alienation and degradation,” Abdallah said. “They have psychological complexes and they need care.”

The beliefs of the Yazidi community, which Islamic State regards as devil-worship, combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Mass Yazidi graves have been found since U.S.-backed Iraqi forces seized Sinjar in 2015.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Syria, Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff)