Among supporters of the region’s religious minorities, Mr Trump’s announcement on December 19th that American troops would be withdrawn from Syria drew immediate cries of alarm. Father Emmanuel Youkhana, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East, said that for Christians in the area an abrupt American pullout could “open up the gates of hell” and reverse any benefit from the new American law. The Free Yazidi Foundation, based in the Netherlands, also voiced fears that minorities could again find themselves highly vulnerable. “In the event of a future Daesh storm gathering pace in Syria, Yazidi forces cannot be left again as sitting targets, to be attacked, slaughtered and raped,” it said.
Among the minorities and their friends, there are several specific fears. They worry that Turkey, with or without the agreement of other local parties, may overrun the area of north-eastern Syria that has been under Kurdish control, and pave the way for Sunni Jihadists to sweep into the territory. Life has not always been easy for long-established Christian denominations, along with a handful of Kurdish converts to Christianity, under Kurdish administration. Some Kurds were said to be chasing Syria’s Christians away and seizing their lands. But what has survived could be destroyed if hard-line Sunni factions march forward. “Leaving the fate of Syrian religious minorities to the tender mercies of Turkey would risk religious cleansing and likely negate the measures…of the new [American] law to help them,” says Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, one of America’s leading religious-freedom watchers.
There are other scenarios. The Assad regime has close ties with Christian communities, and minority groups would probably cheer its return. But in the event of confrontation between Turkish-backed groups and Syrian and Iranian forces supporting Mr Assad, small religious minorities could be caught in the middle, says Johannes de Jong, of Sallux, a Dutch-based lobby group. In such a general flare-up, any success achieved in stabilising nearby northern Iraq, and making it safer for minorities, could rapidly be reversed, says Mr de Jong.
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