This story was updated to include reaction from Turkey.
WASHINGTON - Syrian Christian leaders are expressing concerns over escalating Turkish attacks in northeast Syria, saying the recent military activity has driven many Christians and members of other minority groups from their homes.
Military officials in the region said last week that Turkey carried out attacks against the Christian-majority town of Tel Tamer and surrounding villages.
“The Turkish shelling recently destroyed two schools, a municipal building, a bakery and a power line in the area,” said Matai Hanna, a spokesman for the Syriac Military Council, a major Christian militia in northeast Syria.
“This is against international law, which prohibits the targeting of civilian infrastructure,” he told VOA.
The Syriac Military Council is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led military alliance that has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against the Islamic State terror group, also known as IS or ISIS.
Turkey views SDF as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant group designated as terrorist by Washington and Ankara.
Hanna said his group is ready to defend the region against any major offensive carried out by Turkey and its Syrian partners.
The Turkish military and allied Syrian militias have been in control of parts of northeast Syria since October 2019, following a major military campaign against SDF fighters.
Since then, occasional clashes have erupted between local forces and Turkish-backed armed groups, despite multiple cease-fire agreements brokered by the U.S. and Russia.
Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council, one of the largest Christian political groups in Syria, said the Turkish bombing of areas on the Syria-Turkey border has led to the displacement of a large number of residents, including many Assyrian Christians.
“The recent Turkish bombardment on the city of Tel Tamer caused a sense of instability and anxiety among the residents of the city, prompting many Assyrian Christian residents to flee,” he told VOA.
Ishak, who also is a Washington representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of SDF, added that “a significant number of residents fleeing areas bombed by the Turkish military have settled in other Assyrian villages far from the Turkish bombing, which also increases uncertainty among local residents.”
A source at Turkey’s Foreign Ministry told VOA that, “The allegations are baseless.”
“Turkey has always had a clean record in protecting civilians and civilian infrastructure during its counter-terrorism operations in Syria. The international community should rather focus on atrocities, oppression and war crimes committed by PKK/YPG dominated so-called ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ [SDF], targeting all Syrians irrespective of ethnic and religious background,” the source said, adding that, “Turkey will resolutely continue its counter-terrorism activities against PKK/YPG wherever it operates.”
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria has accused Turkish-backed Syrian groups of committing war crimes against Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities in northern Syria. Rights groups also have accused these groups of carrying out demographic change by pushing out indigenous residents of the area.
Nadine Maenza, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told VOA, “It is stunning that Turkey continues to attack civilians in northeast Syria, even targeting Syriac-Assyrian villages in the Khabur River Valley, forcing some of the last remaining residents who survived genocide from ISIS to flee.
“USCIRF continues to recommend that the U.S. government pressure Turkey to provide a timeline to withdrawal from northeast Syria and to cease all activities negatively impacting religious and ethnic minorities in the area,” she said.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, said the Turkish government attempts to justify its attacks targeting predominantly Christian settlements in northeast Syria as a counterterrorism measure against alleged affiliates of the PKK.
“Ongoing attacks by Turkish troops and Ankara’s Islamist proxies have not only led to civilian casualties in Tel Tamer and beyond but also displaced the region’s vulnerable minorities,” he told VOA.
Erdemir said “the lack of a vocal opposition within Turkey, besides the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, to the Turkish government’s role and complicity in human rights abuses in northern Syria also exacerbates the problem.”
VOA’s Zana Omer contributed to this story from Tel Tamer, Syria.