ISIS, who last week released a video of the group beheading 21 Coptic Egyptian migrant workers in Libya, struck near the town of Tall Tamer on Tuesday, a predominantly Assyrian Christian area, North of the Khabur River.
The group burned downed ancient churches and houses during the raid, seizing hostages along the way.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Lamassu, who has relatives in the area and has regular phone contact with those who escaped the onslaught to nearby Qamishli and Hasakah city, said the entire southern strip of villages along the Khabur River, from Tal Hurmiz to Tal Shamiran, have now been emptied of their inhabitants and occupied by ISIS.
274 Assyrians were captured by the militants, according to a recent assessment from Assyrian sources on the ground. There were unconfirmed reports about the release of 23 hostages from the village of Tal Goran on Wednesday although there has been no news of their whereabouts.
The hostages are reportedly being questioned by ISIS about affiliations to local militias. Some members of the villages had been acting as “guardians” (lightly armed guards) to protect their areas from mounting threats from the radical group. Christians under the banner of the Syrian Military Defense Council have also recently joined up with Kurdish forces in the fight to push back ISIS advances.
Lamassu has made repeated attempts to make contact with the captured villagers “We are trying to call their mobiles. The replies we get say ‘We are the Islamic State’,” Lamassu said. “The information we got from [ISIS] is that these people are all fine for now, they are awaiting a trial. Those that held arms against them (guardians) will be killed, while those who didn’t (women and children) will be released.’”
“The general feeling among Assyrians is that those who carried arms will be held as ransom and the women and children will be enslaved regardless,” Lamassu said.
Under Islamic Shari’a law, Christians are categorized as Ahl Al-Kitab (People of the Book) and granted special “protected” status as non-Muslim citizens within an Islamic state. This historical status, known as dhimmi in Arabic, meant that non-Muslim citizens within an Islamic state enjoyed certain rights, in addition to restrictions including paying the jizya tax. Although the extremist version of Islam that ISIS purports to follow does allow for Christians to be enslaved, it does not allow for the enforced slavery of an entire Christian community. ISIS was only able to carry out this practice against the Yazidi community in Iraq because it does not recognize the Yazidis as monotheists or Ahl Al-Kitab.
According to Lamassu, 54 families in the village of Tal Shamiran were cornered by the group during the raids when they took refuge inside a church. Among those captured were also 34 families from Tal Jazeera, north of the Khabur River, and 13 men and 3 women from Tal Hurmiz. Some of the hostages have reportedly been moved by the militants from Al-Shaddadeh to Um El-Masameer, another ISIS controlled village on the other side of Mount Abdulaziz.
The Syriac Military Council said three of its fighters were killed in clashes with the group in Tal Hurmiz on Tuesday. Among those confirmed dead are 16-year-old Milad Bazi, a 60-year-old village guard named Shemun Somo and two female fighters, one of whom was 50 years old, named Welad.
Initially, ISIS had called for a prisoner swap with Kurdish militias in return for the captured Assyrians. Unconfirmed reports now say that ISIS is demanding an end to the US-led airstrikes in return for the release of hostages.
According to A Demand for Action, an international organization calling for the protection of Syria and Iraq’s indigenous religious minorities, 3,000 villagers were able to escape to nearby Qamishli and Hasakah city.
Despite difficulty making contact with the villagers in these areas, Lamassu was able to interview a resident named Admon Gabriel, broadcast in Assyrian dialect on the Assyria TV channel. “In Hasakah there is nothing; our villages are gone from Ben Roomta to Tkhoma (Assyrian names of the villages). They are all gone,” Gabriel lamented in the interview.
The attack is yet another blow to the already embattled ancient community. Founder of A Demand for Action, Nuri Kino, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the group are in Washington today to meet with congressmen, senators and the State Department. “We are devastated, frightened and horrified,” he said, “but we will not rest until we have the help of the world leaders. We are persecuted, experiencing yet another genocide not for what we have done, but because we are of another ethnicity, another faith and speak another language.”
Speaking to Reuters from Qamishli, a Kurdish official in the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Nasir Haj Majmoud described the villages as “peaceful” and added that although some Christians had been fighting under the umbrella of the YPG in the Hasakah province, the villages attacked by ISIS “had nothing to do with the battles.”
In an official statement for A Demand for Action, London-based representative Mardean Isaac called for further US-led airstrikes. “After the Iraq war of 2003, and since the Syrian crisis began, the persecution unleashed on [the Assyrians]—including extortion, kidnappings, murder, the ethnic cleansing of entire swathes of Baghdad, the Nineveh Plains, and now much of north-east Syria—has been so vast that their very existence in their ancestral homelands is in grave peril. This persecution has also been unleashed with equal fervor on the other Christian inhabitants of Syria, including Armenians,” he wrote.
The raid on the villages comes a month after the liberation of Kobani by Kurdish militia backed by US-led airstrikes. The Khabur River in Hasakah province is strategic for the warring factions, as it borders Turkey and areas controlled by ISIS in Iraq.