Christian militia in Syria defends ancient settlements against Isis

by Martin Chulov & Kareem Shaheen  |  published on March 5, 2015

A few hundred Christian militants are at the vanguard of a fight in far north-eastern Syria to preserve some of the last major Christian pockets within the swath of central Arabia conquered by Islamic State.

For the past week, about 450 militiamen have tried to defend four Assyrian Christian villages among a cluster of 30 ancient settlements in Hassakeh province that had survived more than two millennia of war, invasion and insurrection.

Isis has shelled the area from its outskirts, ransacked its ancient core, and chased men, women and children into exile, capturing at least 300 hostages and killing dozens more. In doing so, the jihadi group has all but fulfilled its pledge to rid the area it controls – from Raqqa in Syria to Mosul in Iraq – of anyone who does not submit to its draconian ways.

The purge has led to the plains of Iraq’s Nineveh province being emptied of its entire Christian population, as well as of Yazidis, Shabaks and Turkmen. Until Isis stormed through the area last August, roughly 80,000 Chaldean Christians had continued to live there even after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – which saw the number of Iraqi Christians fall by more than 70%.

In Syria though, the upheaval across the border, its own civil war and then the rise of the jihadis had not had the same existential effect on the Assyrians. Until now. Last Monday, an estimated 8,000 Assyians remained in the heartland area near Hassakeh province. That number could now be as low as 2,000 and is falling fast.