THE SOOTORO FORCES IN SYRIA

The Syrian regime, within a policy it has followed since the beginning of the revolution, pushed its people to take up arms until the Syrian society came to resemble a big military barracks, housing tens of armed groups, some of whom are loyal to it and some of whom oppose it. These groups are comprised of all of the political, sectarian, and social components of the Syrian society, and all have their own motivations and reasons for taking up arms.

Considering the regime’s recession from the city of Qamishli and its inability to sufficiently protect it outside of its own security centers, a number of the city residents were pushed to take up arms and organize patrols. It came to be an organized power which took the name of Sootoro and this power consists of Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean Christians.

General Introduction 

Christians in Syria are spread all throughout the country and number approximately one million people, ie. about 8% of the population. At the turn of the twentieth century, they made up towards 30% of the population. They belong to 12 churches from the Orthodox and Catholic sects, and to a number of ethnicities and cultures, such as the Syriacs, Greeks, Assyrians, and Chaldeans. The Assyrians and Chaldeans are centered in the northeast of the country, whereas the Syriacs, the Greek Catholic, and Greek Orthodox are spread throughout the rest of the country’s regions. Considering the diversity of the Syrian Christian community and the lack of political or intellectual homogeneity, it is not possible to speak of one Christian view of the Syrian revolution.

The Syriac, Assyrian, and Chaldean christians are spread throughout the Al-Hasakah governorate and its cities, such as Al-Malikiyah, Al-Qahtiniyah, Ras al-Ayn, Al-Darbasiyah, Tel Tamer, and Qamishli. The Assyrian Christians form the majority of the residents of the region of Wadi Al-Khabour to the northwest of the city of Hasakah, as well as the towns of Tel Ruman and Tel Shamiram. The total number of Christians in Al-Hasakah was possibly towards half a million a couple of years ago, whereas the number of Syriac Assyrians residing in it was towards 30 thousand, according to the Assyrian Democratic Organization. The number in the diaspora is about 80 thousand from an origin of a quarter million that were living in Syria before 2011.

One: Political Vision

The Assyrian Democratic Organization, that was established on July 15, 1957, is considered to be the first political ethnic organization for the Syriac Assyrians. It relies on a nonviolent methodology to get to a pluralistic civil state and democratic system. It participated in the “Damascus Spring” political movement of 2000, joined “The Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change” in 2006, and its cadres were in the early ranks of the revolution. It is also a founding member of the Syrian National Congress and in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

Its members were subjected to arrests in the years of 1986, 1987, 1992, 1997, and 1998. In May 2011, security services raided the organization’s headquarters in Qamishli and arrested thirteen of its members for participating in protests. In 2013 and 2014, three of its leaders were arrested (Gabriel Gawrieh, Head of the Political Bureau, and Samir Ibrahim, a member of the Central Committee).

Political Goals:

The organization builds its goals on national (its connections to the nation and its issues as well as to its diaspora), ethnic (its adoption of the cause of its Syriac Assyrian people and its struggle for a constitutional acknowledgement of their national rights as an authentic people who have their own Syriac culture and language as a national culture and language, including its constitutional political, cultural, and administrative rights within the framework of the Syrian state and unity), and democratic (because of its belief in a secular democratic system established on the principle of equal citizenship and the foundations of justice, equality and the legality of human rights, implying an inclusion of freedom, rights of the individual citizen and the rights of all the national minorities within a framework of the unity of state and society) foundations.

It demands that the Turkish government recognizes the crime of genocide committed by the Turkish unity government against the Assyrian-Syriac-Chaldean people in the First World War.

Its Policy Towards the Syrian Crisis:

-It bets on political solutions and a following of nonviolent struggle

-The lack of popular or political consensus of the three national groups in the Jazira Canton taints the PYD’s (Democratic Union Party) declaration of self-administration that includes the regions of Hasakah, Ifreen, and Ain al-Arab.  The Arabs especially provide it with popular general support guaranteeing its success, in preference to the regime’s sovereignty over two essential cities. This creates an unnatural situation, however there has been positive interaction.

-Defending the region and its components is the responsibility of all, for example the People’s Protection Units (YPG) fought to repel ISIS attacks, however this defense must be according to a political agreement between all the parties representing their effective power and participating in the managing and leading of this defense operation.

Two: Its Functions and Motivations for Formation

With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March, 2011, new movements appeared in the arenas of politics, military, and society. Every region came to search for who could protect it and manage its affairs. Weapons spread in all of the regions where the regime’s influence had declined. The reason for taking up arms differed from one person to another. So some took up weapons to protect their region, and others took them up to use power to force their rule on a region, whether with the coordination of the Syrian regime or without.

As for the city of Qamishli, the role of the regime in protecting the city receded to only protecting its own security and party centers, resulting in an increase in crimes and robberies with the lack of other services, such as electricity, municipal services, etc. This pushed a number of the city’s residents to take up arms and, soon, for groups armed with light weapons and private cars to organize security patrols, and these groups came to be given the name of “Sootoro”.

 “Sootoro” is a Syriac word meaning security or protection, and the elements of this militia presented their mission as being the protection of the Christian regions in the Jazira region, as it declared its establishment on the date of 1/3/2013.

The majority of weapons existing with Sootoro elements were personal light weapons that had been collected from houses, in addition to arms that had been donated by Christian businessmen to support the operation of security and safety in the city.

At the establishment of the Civil Peace Authority/Group in Qamishli, all of the political parties and civilian societies from all of the political and civilian components in the city joined it. An Executive Bureau was established that had wide representation, including personalities from Sootoro and city nobles, and Sootoro entered it as a part of the Civil Peace Authority in the framework of organizing civil and armed action in the city and coordination between the two. In the Executive Bureau, there was established a headquarters for each political party or society in it, as well as an administrative body whose members were selected from city notables and the heads of neighborhood sectors and councils, and a joint working agreement was signed.

The Civil Peace Authority declared in its founding document its lack of engagement with politics and its intent to protect the structure of its internal bodies, its intention to focus on working on the city’s services and protection, and strengthening its relations with the rest of the city’s components from the Kurds, Arabs, and Yazidis. The Bureau of Syriac Protection acted together with the authorities in order to supervise the collection and organizing of arms to be found with Syriac youth and neighborhood protection units. With that, for the first time, the Christians of Syria had a military arm like that of the other powers and ethnicities of Syria, that own their own private militias. Its primary supporter was the Lebanese International Syriac Union Party of Ibrahim Murad, who has a strong relationship with the Armed Forces party in Lebanon.

Its Training and Armament

Sootoro began its work in Christian neighborhoods in complete separation from political movements, thus a number of youth from different political movements joined its ranks. Their training was confined to shooting practice and gun assembly/disassembly. Their training was done in some houses located outside of residential areas, and in farms located in the Qamishli countryside. Their work was organized in a military fashion that divided the city into sectors, and the sectors into neighborhoods. There were patrols in addition to a permanent security presence in main areas.

Some of the houses in Christian neighborhoods were turned into centers for Sootoro members to stay overnight and during night patrols. The youth began to wear military uniforms with Christian and Syriac national slogans on them, the most prominent of which were the cross and the Syriac flag which was raised in headquarters and on top of cars.

At first, the weapons of the Sootoro forces were limited to individuals’ light weaponry (like Kalashnikovs, pump-action shotguns, and combat pistols). These weapons were overall from houses or businessmen who supported the idea of self-protection. As for the other equipment, these were personal possessions used to ease security and movement such as cars, electricity generators, and empty houses to be used as headquarters.

At this stage, Sootoro’s work focused more on security and on being present than armed work, as it was not necessary for all of the youth to carry arms in the patrols or in headquarters, so weapons were not distributed to everyone.

Its Relation to the Syrian Regime and the PKK

Its Dissolution:

Sootoro was not able to protect its independence for long. Its leaders also were not enthusiastic to turn away the offers of conditional support being presented to it. The fact that Sootoro forces are non-homogenous, any bias towards one side would cause the people loyal to the other side to split off.

Actually, this is what happened after the visit of a delegation from the National Defense militias to Sootoro’s main headquarters in Qamishli with the coordination of the leadership of the Youth Society of Mother Syria, Ahaikar Issa (a well-known businessman in Qamishli) and Yakup Yusuf (owner of Rafideen Tourism and Travel). The delegation visited the headquarters of the youth society and gave them a picture of Bashar Al-Assad and a regime flag to be raised in the headquarters, which is precisely what they did. As a result, there was a big split with the “Dawronoye” Syriac Union Party,  the Assyrian Democratic Organization, and some other formations in the Sootoro leaving. Both groups continued carrying the name سوتورو in Arabic, with the difference being in English spelling, both with the same meaning of safety or security.

After the dissolution, both groups developed their very own orientation.

The first group close to National Defense raised the regime’s flag and Bashar Al-Assad’s picture, and began to coordinate with the security branches. It soon completely transformed into a branch of the National Defense. Consequently, it found military and logistical support from the regime’s army and began using heavy weapons and military pickups loaded with heavy machine guns and advanced devices of communication. Its forces began to receive academic military training at the hands of Syrian military officers from regiment 54 in the village of Tartab in the Qamishli countryside, to where a group of its members were sent to receive special training and take over leadership functions. It also came to receive high-level training in light and mid-weapons as well as heavy machine guns that were granted to it by the National Defense Forces to participate in battles in the Qamishli countryside against ISIS. Its training was most likely conducted in the military areas surrounding Qamishli. This is in addition to occasional training for small numbers of their members in Damascus or Mashta al-Helu, provided by the groups of Besher Yazji in Marmarita. Its numbers reached 2,000 fighters under the leadership of Sargon Shimon and his deputy Khaldun Hino, and it is believed that most of its battles were against ISIS.

As for the second group, it aligned with the PYD, the PKK’s Syrian branch. The one who brought them close together was the Syriac Union Party that had strong historical ties with the PYD from the beginning. However, they were able to maintain raising the Syriac flag and Christian slogans without raising the Kurdish flag, and began to spread more into the Christian villages in the Qamishli countryside, where the major power to begin with was the PYD. It began to obtain heavy weaponry and logistical equipment like cars and communication devices from the PYD, and shared military functions with them such as patrols and raids.

It began to send its members to receive military training in the Kurdish military camps in the ِAmuda and the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan at the hands of the PKK, in addition to receiving special training from European trainers who had military experience in an army. It became known that Johan Kouser, one of the trainers of Sootoro who was previously a corporal in the Swiss army, came to Qamishli with approximately 20 Europeans with the mission of training Christians, and that his entering and exiting through the region of northern Iraq was facilitated.

Their numbers reached close to 4,000 fighters under the leadership of Malki Rabo, who has the title of Leader of the Sootoro Branch for the Security Apparatus of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with their essential mission being the defense of Christian neighborhoods and regions in the case of an armed attack.

Both of the two groups continued their presence inside the city of Qamishli without any mentionable problems occurring, and the PYD played a role in organizing relations between the two through its good relations with the security branches of the Syrian regime. The most prominent of the military actions that both groups participated in was their resistance against ISIS fighters, specifically in the neighborhoods of Geweran and Wusta and the villages of Khabur, and both took great financial and human losses because of the inghemasi operations[1] carried out by ISIS.

They also took losses in ISIS’s blowing up of churches, such as the “Virgin Mary” church in the Tel Nasri village in the countryside of Northwestern Hasaka to the south of Tel Tamer, the historical church of Tel Hurmuz, that is considered to be one of the oldest churches in Syria, and the churches of Qabr Shamiya and Tel Jazira. ISIS also targeted the church of St.Thomas in the village of Umm Al-Keyf in the town of Tel Tamer.

Currently, the mission of both sides is limited to the Christian areas and the areas in which they have a presence. Both sides are set back by the mission of holding onto the areas that recently came under their control, but they quickly exchange them, except of some cases where the Assad regime tries to drag them onto its battlefields by scaring them of the possibility of ISIS returning to their regions, and the necessity that their regions not to become battlefields against the regime as it recently happened in Deir ez-Zor.

Post-Dissolution:

With the passing of time the respective relationships between the two wings of Sootoro with their supporters developed, and they began to enter their military battles and political alliances with the employment of religion with the representation of Christians in Jazira region of North Syria.

The Sootoro that had aligned with the National Defense began direct security cooperations with the regime, and several times the regime’s cars were seen entering and exiting the Qamishli International Airport. It is likely that was for security meetings with high-level officials to coordinate security in the city of Qamishli, and to move the weapons that had come specially for them from Damascus and the coast.

As for the Sootoro that had aligned with the PYD, it became an irreplaceable part of that organization, as it also remained in direct communication with the leadership of the PKK in Iraq and the Qandil Mountains.

Its Actions, Sources of Funding, and Most Prominent Human Rights Violations:

The Sootoro aligned with the regime started entering military battles outside of Qamishli and its countryside. Some of its groups were called to battles in the Christian regions of the eastern countryside of Homs, such as Sadad and Zaidal, against ISIS in 2015, alongside fighters from “The Eagles of the Whirlwind” milita. It also played a small role in battles in the countryside of Damascus. It received an alliance and support from Besher Yazji, leader of the Christian militias in the village of Marmarita of Mashta al-Helu in the countryside of Tartous, which increased its military support and security power.

As for the Sootoro that allied with the PYD, it signed the latter’s declaration of self-administration and considered itself a part of that project, in addition to a number of Arab tribes to give it a form of legitimacy with the representation of all the components of the region. It participated in the battles that the PYD units in the countryside of Hasaka entered against ISIS in Arab villages, and in the battles in the neighborhoods of Aziziyah, al-Ghazal, and Dolab Aweeis in the city of Hasakah.

Considering its role in protecting the Christians of the Jazira region: with its consideration as the sole Christian military wing in it, it started to receive, in addition to the support given to it, donations from Christian businessmen and business-owners, the biggest group of whom were from the Christian diaspora in Europe. All of its internal parties own clubs and societies in European countries, especially in Sweden, Holland, and Belgium, and some of these societies collected and sent donations to Syria to support the military and service operations that Sootoro presents. One of the Syrian Christians in Sweden mentioned that Mor Julius Abdelahad Shabo, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Sweden and Scandinavia, asked the members of his church several times to donate to the Syriac Sootoro units affiliated with the Syrian regime, in Syrian Kurdistan, according to the Archbishop’s own description.

However, this situation differs from church to church, as the Assyrian church released a declaration disowning such groups, calling them looting and mugging militias, and did not encourage the Assyrian youth to join them, in contradistinction to the Syriac church.

Human Rights Violations Committed by Sootoro:

1- With Sootoro’s participation in the battles that the PYD units in the Hasakah countryside entered against ISIS in Arab villages, there has been documentation of them not allowing the residents of these villages to return to their homes after forcing ISIS out of the region.

2- The recruitment of women and under-age girls in the governorate of Hasakah, and preparing them to fight alongside their forces after drawing them to training camps with financial incentives and not “by force” as the PYD does.

Three: Results and Recommendations

1- The Sootoro affiliated with the regime is spread in Hasakah and Qamishli. As for the Sootoro affiliated with the Kurdish self-administration, it is spread in regions of Christian presence like Al-Qahtaniyah, Qubor Al-Bayad, Al-Malikiyah, Derik, the city of Al-Hasakah, the city of Qamishli (the neighborhoods of Al-Wasta), Al-Arbiwiya, and Al-Gharbiyah.

2- The Christian youth belonging to the Sootoro of the regime don’t do their military service outside of their region. They’re not to be called to the reserves, nor be pursued by the law of enforced military conscription in the Kurdish self-administration.

3- Their numbers were not more than 100 people in every city that had a Christian presence. Their number have increased since mid-2015 until today because of the Arab element joining the group, which can be split into two categories:

  1. Some of them fled from other areas because of their need for a residence voucher. Those are few in number.
  2. Arabs who are from the region. They are the largest number because of the relative comfort of serving in Sootoro, as they have only a slight presence in battlefields, given their role in protecting security and setting up barriers with the command of Kurdish units (through the Security Official to be found with them in every region).

4- Sootoro established the first Assyrian “military academy,” the Martyr Agha Petros Academy in the ِAl-Kournesh region of Hasakah with the goal of preparing and training Syriac fighters according to principles more in line with the protection of their region and defending their Christian presence in the region. In it, the fighters are trained in both “practical and theoretical military training” and Christian religious centers supply them with sermons and theological lectures.

5- All of the Assyrian organizations and factions in the city of Qamishli (The Youth Society of Mother Syria, Christian Civil Society, and the Assyrian Democratic Party) are unanimous in certain constant national beliefs, including “Total faith in the unity of Syria, as a country and people, belief in the necessity of democratic change and the eradication of violence and extremism in all of its forms, then a reliance on dialogue as the foundation for the solution of all issues.”

6- The Assyrians of Syria are surrounded by dangers in their keeping away from their fellow Arab citizens. For their wager with the Kurds is a losing one in the light of the declaration made by the Armenian Assyrian and Syriac societies, churches, organizations, and parties in the Jazira, that condemned and denounced the laws issued by the Kurdish administration of “obligatory conscription of Christian youth in Kurdish forces and the forcing of Kurdish language in private schools.” Their wager on the regime is also a failed experience, except if perhaps their fear of extremists coming to power pushed them to stand on the side of the regime or the Kurds.

7- Cautious engagement with the Kurdish element has started to appear in the Assyrian Democratic Organization’s discourse in the necessity of agreement between the three components on different issues to ensure the protection of the rights of all, far from the rule of the majority over the minority.

Note:

The information in this study on the views and behavior of Sootoro was built through contact between the researchers conducting this study and Arab residents of the city of Qamishli, and ex-fighters in Sootoro who left and took refuge in Europe as well as those who still reside in the region. Their names have been hidden in the interest of their safety.

All other sources used are avail at the bottom of the Arabic original (LINK)

[1] Inghemasi operations are operations in which the possibility for the attacking force (its individuals) to get killed in action is close to 100%. Those operations are not considered suicidal like blasting a bomb belt or driving a VBIED (“car bomb”) into an enemy position.

Head of the Military Track in Toran Center for Strategic Studies, he is a military officer and graduate of the Syrian Military Academy and a specialist in psychology.

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Head of the Military Track in Toran Center for Strategic Studies, he is a military officer and graduate of the Syrian Military Academy and a specialist in psychology.

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