Assyrians in Syria
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Al-Hasakah Governorate (Jazira Canton), in particular cities of Qamishli, Hasakah, Malikiyah, Ras al-Ayn, Qahtaniyah, Tell Tamer
Syriac and Arabic
Mostly adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church with smaller percentages followers of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Catholic Church[2]

Syrian Assyrians or Assyrians in Syria are people of Assyrian descent living in the country of Syria, who make up around 4–5% of its population. They are distinct from the Syrian Christians of western, southern and central Syria, being Eastern Aramaic speakers rather than Arabic (and formerly Western Aramaic) speakers, and being of Mesopotamian/Assyrian rather than Levantine/Aramean origin, and are an ancient pre-Arab indigenous people.

They live primarily in Al-Hasakah Governorate, with a significant presence in the provincial capital and the cities of Qamishli, Malikiyah, Ras al-Ayn, and Qahtaniyah, as well as in Tell Tamer and nearby villages, although some have migrated to Damascus and other western cities.[3][4][5] The Assyrians in the Khabur valley, belong mostly to the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and some to the Chaldean Catholic Church.[2]

Ancient settlement

During the Old Assyrian Empire (2000-1750 BC), Middle Assyrian Empire (1365-1020 BC) and Neo Assyrian Empire (911-599 BC) much of, and often the entirety of the modern country of Syria, was under Assyrian rule, with the north eastern part of the land becoming an integral part of Assyria proper during the 2nd millennium BC. Thus the presence of originally Akkadian-speaking and later Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrians in the northeastern part of the modern country dates back over 4000 years, where they originally lived alongside a diverse set of other peoples such as Hittites, Hurrians and Amorites throughout the ages. Traces of the long era of Assyrian settlement can be seen at numerous archaeological sites across the region. Important Assyrian cities in the region in ancient times included; Til-Barsip, Carchemish, Guzana, Shubat-Enlil and Dur-Katlimmu.

The north east of Syria was a part of Achaemenid Assyria (Athura) between 546 and 332 BC, then to Seleucid Syria (312-150 BC), when the name Syria which was originally a 9th-century BC Indo-European corruption of Assyria and had hitherto referred only to Assyria itself (modern northern Iraq, south east Turkey and north east Syria), also became applied to a region long known as Aramea/Eber Nari - in other words what is today modern Syria. During the Parthian Empire (150 BC-224 AD) and early Sassanid Empire (224 -650 AD) (when the land was renamed Assuristan) a number of Neo-Assyrian kingdoms arose, and parts of north east Syria became a part of the Neo-Assyrian state of Osroene until the mid 3rd century AD. Christianity became established amongst the Assyrians as early as the 1st century AD, and the region of Athura became the birthplace of Eastern Rite Christianity and Syriac literature, with the Assyrian Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox Church being founded in the region.

After the Arab Islamic Conquest of the mid 7th century AD, Assyria/Athura/Assuristan was dissolved as a geo-political entity, and the region gradually saw an influx of Muslim Arabic, Turkic and Iranic peoples. However, settlement in the northeastern areas often proved unsustainable in the long-term, leading to numerous episodes of population exodus. In addition to experiencing such destabilising factors such as climate shifts and over-cultivation of land, the area was also vulnerable to attack from nomadic peoples. Following the Mongol and Timurid invasions and subsequent massacre of Assyrians, it was left with only a scant permanent population. In the centuries that followed, a number of nomadic and semi-nomadic Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking tribes wandered the area with their livestock into the 20th century, when most of them were forced to settle by governmental policies.

Modern settlement

Assyrian priest with manuscript, Khabur river area, 1939

Most of the current population of Assyrians in Hasakah dates back to the French Mandate of Syria, when refugees from the now-Turkish areas north of present-day Syria (such as Tur Abdin) were settled together with displaced Armenians who had survived the Assyrian Genocide and Armenian Genocide in the area by the authorities as part of an effort to promote economic development. Given preferential treatment on the basis of their Christian religion by the French, they soon formed most of the new urban elite in the region. An additional influx of Eastern Assyrians began to resettle along the Khabur River in 1933 after the massacres of Assyrians in newly-independent Iraq (see Simele massacre) forced the flight. These were refugees twice over—originally from the highlands of Hakkari, they had initially sought refuge amongst other Assyrians in Iraq in the face of the Assyrian genocide before the attacks.[6]

In 1936, religious and political leaders—mainly from the Assyrian and Armenian Christian and Kurdish communities, with a few Arab groups as well—pressured the French authorities to give autonomous status to the Syrian Al-Jazira province (nowadays the Al Hasakah) for its mixed-ethnic population, like in the Sanjak of Alexandretta, the Alawite State, or Jabal al-Druze. The push for autonomy was marked by civil strife and inter-communal violence in the province, and angry hostility on the part of the mainly Arab nationalists pushing for outright independence for Syria. Long having viewed the settlement of Assyrians and Armenians in the country as the product of French colonialism, they were further incensed by the arrival of additional Assyrian refugees on the Khabur, and mobilized support from many Arab tribes and some Kurdish groups to counter the autonomists. The French forcibly cracked down on both sides as they grew increasingly violent, and the movement for autonomy soon failed. Later on, in 1957, the Assyrian Democratic Organization was set up in Syria by center-left intellectuals.[7]

Though officially and incorrectly designated as Arabs by the Syrian Arab Nationalist Baathist government, the Assyrians are a distinct pre-Arab ethnic group with a history in the region dating perhaps as far back as the 25th century BC. They are a Syriac speaking community that traditionally belong to the Ancient Church of the East, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church.[2] The modern Assyrians are native to "northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria".[8]

First settled by Assyrians fleeing the Assyrian Genocide and then the Simele Massacre, there are over 30 Assyrian villages on the Khabur river in Syria. According to a 1994 report they are: Tell Tawil, Tell Um Rafa, Tell Um Keff, Tell Kefdji, Tell Djemaa, Tell Tamer, Tell Nasri, Upper Tell Chamran, Lower Tell Chamran, Tell Chamran, Tell Hafian, Tell Talaa, Tell Maghas, Tell Massas, Abu Tine, Tel Goran, Fouedate, Dimchij, Kabar Chamie, Tell Balouet, Tell Baz, Upper Tell Rouman, Lower Tell Rouman, El-Kharita, Tell Chame, Tell Wardiat, El-Makhada, Taal, Tell Sakra, El-Breij, Arbouche, and Tell Hormiz.[9] About 9,000 ethnic Assyrians moved from northern Iraq to join already extant Assyrian populations in northeastern Syria following the Simele massacre of 1933. They settled in the Jazirah near Tall Tamir on the upper Khabur River. The French established this Assyrian settlement with the assistance of the League of Nations, and in 1942 it became an integral part of Syria. The Assyrian settlement on the Khabur valley consists of about 20 villages, primarily agricultural. They have faced severe economic pressures over the years, despite owning their own irrigated lands, and some of them emigrated to the USA where there exists a large community.[2]

Persecution by ISIL

The Syrian Civil War initially put much strain on Assyrians in Syria. As of November 2014, due to occupation by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), only 23 Assyrian and Armenian families remain in the city of Ar-Raqqah. Christian bibles and holy books reportedly been burned by ISIS militants.[10][11] On 23 February 2015, ISIL abducted 150 Assyrians from villages near Tell Tamer in the Khabur valley.[12][13] According to US diplomat Alberto M. Fernandez, of the 232 of the Assyrians kidnapped in the ISIL attack on the Assyrian Christian farming villages on the banks of the Khabur River in Northeast Syria, 51 were children and 84 women. "Most of them remain in captivity with one account claiming that ISIS is demanding $22 million (or roughly $100,000 per person) for their release."[14] On 8 October, ISIL released a video showing three of the Assyrian men kidnapped in Khabur being executed. It was reported that 202 of the 253 kidnapped Assyrians were still in captivity, each one with a demanded ransom of $100,000.[15]

Eventually militias of the Syriac Military Council as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces succeeded to expel ISIL presence from the Assyrian settlement areas in northern Syria.

Assyrians in Rojava

The polyethnic character and agenda of society and politics in Jazira Canton in the de facto autonomous Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava led to a blossom in Assyrian life. The secular Assyrian Syriac Union Party (SUP), committed to the "Dawronoye" modernization ideology,[16] is the second largest group in the governing Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) coalition. The Sutoro is an Assyrian police force, working in concert with the general Asayish police force with the mission to police ethnic Assyrian areas and neighbourhoods.

While Syriac-Aramaic was an official language of Jazira Canton from the outset, in August 2016, the Ourhi Centre in the city of Qamishli was started by the Assyrian community, to educate teachers in order to make Syriac-Aramaic an additional language to be taught in public schools,[17][18] which then started with the 2016/17 academic year.[19] With that academic year, states the Rojava Education Committee, "three curriculums have replaced the old one, to include teaching in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian."[20]

See also


  1. "Syria's Assyrians threatened by extremists - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East". Al-Monitor. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Syria - Christians, Armenians and Assyrians". Minority Rights Group International. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
  3. Lam, Aron (8 March 2012). "Minorities Fear Persecution in a Post-Assad Syria". Epoch Times. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
  4. "IS entführt mindestens 90 Christen in Syrien". Die Welt (in German). 24 February 2015. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
  5. "ISIS Attacks Assyrian Villages in Syria, 4 Killed, Dozens Captured, Churches Burned Posted". Assyrian International News Agency. 23 February 2015. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
  6. [(]
  7. [(]
  8. "Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century". Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  10. "23 Christian Families Trapped in ISIS Stronghold Raqqa Facing Violence, Forced Taxes". Christian Post. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  11. "Agenzia Fides News". Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  12. Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Oliver Holmes (23 February 2015). Tom Heneghan, ed. "Islamic State in Syria abducts at least 150 Christians". Reuters. Retrieved 23 February 2015.
  13. "Islamic State 'abducts dozens of Christians in Syria'". BBC. 23 February 2015. Retrieved 23 February 2015.
  14. Fernandez, Alberto M. (June 16, 2015). "The "Sayfo" Continues Responding to Global Christian Persecution". Berkeley Center Cornerstone. Georgetown University Religious Freedom Project. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  15. "'Isis appears to have killed three Christian hostages in Syria'". The Guardian. 8 October 2015. Retrieved 13 November 2015.
  16. Carl Drott (25 May 2015). "The Revolutionaries of Bethnahrin". Warscapes. Retrieved 18 September 2016.
  17. "Syriac Christians revive ancient language despite war". ARA News. 2016-08-19. Retrieved 2016-08-19.
  18. "The Syriacs are taught their language for the first time". ANHA. 2016-09-24. Retrieved 2016-09-24.
  19. "Hassakeh: Syriac Language to Be Taught in PYD-controlled Schools". The Syrian Observer. 3 October 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-05.
  20. "Rojava administration launches new curriculum in Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian". ARA News. 7 October 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-07.
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